First published in Textile Forum, 1/2004 March
In two earlier articles readers were introduced to the Khatris of Kachchh district in Gujarat, western India. The first article described the history and development of their traditional vocation -block-printing and dyeing textiles - while the second discussed their experiences following the destruction of the Gujarat earthquake of January 2001. This article describes some of the technical processes of block-printing and the use of natural dyes. It features ajrakh, a resist-dyed cloth, colored predominantly red and blue with madder and indigo that is printed on both sides of the fabric.
The origins of the term ajrakh remain unclear. The explanation favored by many scholars is that it derives from azrak, the Arabic for 'blue', and this would seem likely considering its indigo hue. Ajrakh is the traditional male attire of the maldharis, the Muslim animal herders of Kachchh. Highly prized for its enduring colour, it is attributed with protective properties against the district's harsh climate and is customarily given to a groom at the time of marriage. Traditionally ajrakh was printed on hand-woven cotton (khadi) made on pit looms by the Vankars (weavers). Due to the narrow width of khadi, the practice developed of joining two pieces of fabric together to make: a serviceable garment. The elaborate geometric and floral designs of ajrakh were further embellished by an embroidered centre seam, often worked in an interlacing stitch known as machi kantho (fish-bone stitch) by the women. Nowadays, the use of broad width mill cloth from the industrial belt of Gujarat has negated the need for joining the fabric, and a two-piece ajrakh is increasingly rare. Indeed, the local use of true ajrakh is in steep decline as ersatz versions - industrially printed on polyester - have taken over the home market. At about eighty rupees per piece, polyester ajrakh is a tenth of the price of the traditional cloth and it is this more than anything else that has eroded the Khatris' market.
Previously, ajrakh was made throughout Kachchh, in parts of Rajasthan and Sindh province, Pakistan. The number of families still making it in Kachchh has dwindled to just two: there is a parallel decline in Rajasthan. Of the two families in Kachchh, only that of the late Mohammad Siddik at Dhamadka and Ajrakhpur still adheres to the lengthy procedure of dyeing and printing the cloth with natural colors. There is a healthy interest in block-prints and ajrakh from overseas and eighty percent of their goods are exported.
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