Jun 21

Ajrak – A World of Art Within

EST. Reading time : 6 minutes

Every culture in existence is influenced by past civilizations and their traditions, norms and values. If we observe the concept of culture in retrospect, we can see how every culture evolves. However, certain elements from past civilizations carry on into the new age, remaining intact as part of its culture. This idea reflects the case of Sindhi culture adaptation from the Indus Valley Civilization. An example of a cultural hallmark here is the Ajrak attire, which forms part of the Sindhi cultural lifestyle. Ajrak craft has been passed down to the new Sindhi generation from their ancestors belonging to the ancient Indus valley civilization.

The term “Ajrak”, a block-printed cloth, is driven from an Arabic word “Azrak” which means “Blue”. It even includes rich crimson colours, such as deep indigo with a combination of white and black, painted with wooden blocks in symmetric designs forming different motifs reflecting nature such as the flora and the Sun.

The process involved in ajrak block- printing is quite intricate. Interestingly, ajrak block-printing process adopted by the artisan in the 21st century is more or less the same as it was during the ancient Indus valley civilization. Moreover, this process not only involves a series of different steps but different small towns in the Sindh region coordinate to perfect the final product.

Ajrak block-printing involves hard work, team effort, and special skills. The entire process reflects the harmony between nature and the artisans’ skills, and the final product paints a symbol of pride for the Sindhi artisans. The source of all the necessary raw material for ajrak block- printing is Sindh. The process even makes use of renewable resources. It is no wonder why the art of ajrak block – printing has such affinity with the province.

Let us now jump into the process of Ajrak making. Although there are variations regarding the number of steps involved. It has been recorded that a minimum of 14 steps is involved in the entire process of ajrak block – printing. An increase in the variation of colours printed results in an increase in the number of steps. These 14 steps are divided into four major stages, “Washing”, “Printing (Chappai) “, “Dying” and “Finishing”.

Stage 1: Washing

This stage is composed of three steps, KhumbhSaaj and Qasai. The Khumbh stage begins with craftsmen bringing cloth from the market and cutting it into pieces. The cloth pieces are then soaked in a copper vat filled with soda carbonate and water for 24 hours. The vat is covered with a quilt to prevent steam from escaping. The steam helps soften the cloth and remove the starch chemical.

Once the cloth is softened and dried, the craftsmen move to the next step Saaj. The fabric is soaked in a mixture of mustard oil, soda carbonate and camel dung. This process of soaking is repeated five-time. After the soaking phase, the fabric is wrapped in another cloth and kept in an airtight bundle for five to ten days.

Afterwards, the fabric begins emitting a distinct smell, often described as mango pickle. This indicates that the fabric is ready for the next stage. This stage is crucial in determining the quality of an ajrak. The pungent the smell, the better the quality of the fabric.

The following step is called Qasai. In this step, a mixture is made with galls of Tamarisk, dried lemons, molasses, castor oil and water. This mixture is called Sakun, which is usually prepared by women at home. The fabric receives the required amount of this oil mixture. After soaking in the mixture, it is washed thoroughly in the river and dried in an open field, following which the fabric gets ready for the next stage.

Stage 2: Printing (Chappai)

The next stage of ajrak process is printing. The mordant technique of printing begins with the printing of Chur, which is the white outline. The paste for Chur is made from acacia gum, slaked lime and oil. It is known as kiryana. The block is dipped into the kiryana, allowing the paste to submerge and attach itself to the fabric’s borders. A series of complex block printing processes occur side by side. The colour variation in Ajrak adds or excludes certain steps.

The next layer of block printing is called Kut. It is the process of printing the black areas and creating the mixture of iron sulphate, powdered tamarind seeds, gum and water. This mixture is then stamped on the fabric using filler blocks called datta. Alongside, the printing of floral stars is done as well. The last step of the block printing stage is called Kharrh. At this stage, a coating of block print is done on white and black and areas which would be later dyed red to protect them against indigo dye. The paste comprises Fuller’s earth (Multani mitti), rice paste, alum, molasses, fennel, other herb and gum. Once the printing is done, dried cow dung is spread across the cloth to avoid any spots.

Stage 3: Dying

When the block printing stage is completed, the process of dying begins. In this process, the fabric is soaked in synthetic indigo and cold water. This step is known as Khun. Once the fabric is dried, it is soaked in the river water for 3-4 hours to get rid of resistant pastes and dye. As the fabric dries up, the craftsmen make a solution of alizarin, water and Sakun. The craftsman dips the fabric in the solution then diligently lifts it. This step is repeated for four hours till the desired red colour is attained.

During the Thapai, freshly dyed fabric is washed with soda ash solution, following which the fabric is treated with caustic soda to bleach the white areas so other colours may look vibrant. The fabric is then spread wide on the ground to dry. Water is frequently sprayed to enhance the colours.This is done thrice on one side of the fabric on the other side. The process itself is done twice.

When the fabric gets dried, it is moved to another place. Often the craftsmen say that they take the fabric to their warehouse where the last steps are implemented. In the Meena stage, the fabric is painted with a paste that is made from rice flour. Fuller’s earth is used to cover the area for the red dye and sprinkled with sifted and dried cow dung to avoid any spots.

There are variations in the colour of Ajrak. When the craftsmen make Kashi ajrak, they add a step before moving to the last step known as Khun. Traditionally, craftsmen used to make an indigo colour from carbonated soda, salt and indigo dye. The fabric is soaked and dried, rolled into a bundle and taken for a final stage.

Step 4: Finishing

Tiyari, the last stage of making Ajrak involves washing. The fabric is soaked for 2-3 hours to wash off excess material. Afterwards, dried Ajrak is folded while it is still damp. The fabric is dispatched once it is properly dried. Ajrak reflects the stunning beauty of the scenic panorama, misty twilight, the wide stretches of green and yellow mustard fields in the full bloom of Sindh.