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Have you ever wondered about the beautiful textiles that India has to offer? India was the largest exporter of textiles in the 17th and 18th Centuries, before the Industrial revolution. One such beautiful textile craft is Ajrakh Printing. Of course a lot of these crafts are being revived now, thanks to the enthusiasm of individuals, NGOs and government. Here is some information on Ajrakh printing.

Sindh is the actual birthplace of Ajrak cloth. Ajrak has been in Sindh since the era of Mohenjodaro, one of the oldest civilizations in the world, or even before that. However, the true origin of the word "Ajrak" is unknown. In Arabic, Ajrak means blue or indigo. Blue color is dominantly used in Ajrak printing and hence the word. Also, Sindh was traditionally a large producer of indigo and cotton cloth and both of these products used to be exported to the Middle East. It is unknown whether the word Ajrak came from Arabic to Sindhi or added from Sindhi to Arabic. Traditionally, the fabric would be about 2.5 to 3 meters long. Men used it as a turban, a cummerbund, and wrapped it around the shoulders. Women used it as a dupatta and chaddar or as a shawl. There are some people who still use it, though it has become more commercial now.

It is patterned in intense jewel like colors. The dominant colors are rich crimson and a deep indigo. A little bit of white and black is also used to give definition to the geometric patterns. The geometrical designs in the fabric seem to echo principles of Sufism or Islamic spiritualism that has several great proponents in the ancient land of Sindh. The symbolism of geometric patterns is generated from the concept of symmetry these repeated patterns representing cosmic processes that extend in all directions.
Ajrak colors come out the best on cotton fabric. Earlier only cotton fabric was being used for Ajrak printing. These days silk is also used but the colors on silk do not come out very rich. As wood absorbs the color better and more uniformly, only wooden blocks are used in Ajrak printing. First block (used in printing of mud resist) is made of sesham and the blocks used in third and fourth stages of printing are made of teak. Wooden blocks are soaked in mustard oil when not in use so they do not expand in the rainy season.

Dyes Used: In olden days only natural vegetable dyes were used for Ajrak. Now they have been substituted by chemical dyes. Blue Indigo Red color: Alum, molasses, wheat flour, and fennel. The areas to be dyed red are printed and while still wet are dusted with ground cow dung or rice husk to protect against the indigo dye to be printed later. Black color: Ferrous sulphates, molasses, millet flour, and tamarind seed powder is used to make it thicker. Traditional Ajrak colors are red, black, and indigo. These days yellow, orange and rust are also being used for a more contemporary look.


Process of dyeing: The authentic Ajrak is printed on both sides by a method of printing called resist printing. The printing is done by hand with hand carved wooden blocks. When worn and washed the colors of the Ajrak become more brilliant and luminous. There are 22 processes in Ajrak printing and is very tedious and time consuming. Very few printers go through all the stages. There are variations on the basic theme (teli ajrak) that make for different types of ajrak (including sabuni ajrak, do rangi ajrak and kori ajrak). Ornamentation or Meenakari is done later on taking another 3-4 processes in order to decorate the fabric further.

The steps involved: The basic material is gray or unbleached cotton fabric. To prepare it for printing and dyeing the cloth must undergo various processes: soaking, washing, and treatment with sodium bi carbonate, castor oil, eruca sativa oil, camel dung, and tamarind or myrobalam. Camel dung is soaked in water and the fabric is soaked in it to make the fabric soft. It also acts as a bleaching agent (alkaline) that helps in printing of the fabric. The first printing is of mud resist consisting of natural gum, lime, and fullers earth that produces a white outline in the finished fabric. A navy blue outline is printed next with mordant made from iron scraps, ferrous sulphates, and millet flour. When developed in alizarin it produces black. The same mordant as in step 5 is now used to print the filler. A second resist treatment is printed on to protect the white fabric from the subsequent indigo dyeing. A third resist of gum and fullers earth mixed along with alum mordant is now applied. The resist will block penetration by indigo while the alum when treated with alizarin will produce the Ajrak red. The printed fabric is dipped in the indigo vat to dye the unresisted areas. Copper vessel is used for this as copper does not leave its own color. A thorough washing removes the excess indigo and degums the fabric. Boiling in alizarin solution develops the red and black mordant. The last washing removes any excess dye and the resist from the fabric surface. This is how for so many years Ajrakh printing has been going on. Of course now imitations of these are available as screen prints and so on, but the traditional print has a 3d quality, a charm of its own.

Image Courtesy:

  • gaatha.com