Our fascination with Indian hand block printed fabric led us to the western desert of Rajasthan, in search of ajrakh, a fabric we had read about but not seen genuine examples of.
Rural and urban scenes from Western Rajasthan.
Characteristics of Ajrakh
Ajrakh cloth is typically characterized by complex geometrical designs, hand-printed on cotton fabric, using natural dyes, traditionally in shades of red, indigo, black, and cream. The finest ajrakh is identically printed on both sides of the fabric, making it fully reversible. In our experience, it is easily the most difficult and time-consuming of India's block printing processes.
Ajrakh fabric, showing printing on both front and reverse sides.
Ajrakh artisan at work.
Ajrakh printer stands next to a vat of indigo dye.
Printing & Dying Process
Although modern, screen-printed versions of traditional ajrakh designs may now be found, true ajrakh is printed by hand, using wooden blocks. This art is practiced by the Khatri community of dyers and printers in western parts of the Indian states of Gujarat and Rajasthan and in the Sindh region of Pakistan.
Formulas for the dyes, resist pastes, cleaning and softening solutions, and mordants are secret and thus vary from family to family. Even the steps in the dying process will vary between workshops. One author has documented 14 steps required for producing a typical ajrakh cloth. Some of these steps must be repeated several times. The process includes cleaning and softening the cloth prior to printing, followed by multiple applications of mordants, resists, and dyes using wooden blocks, and immersion of the fabric into vats of dye.
Unlike all other block printed fabrics that we have seen, traditional ajrakh is reversible, because the design has been printed on both sides of the cloth. The symmetrical nature of the traditional designs makes this possible, but it requires a high degree of craftsmanship to ensure that the design lines up precisely on both sides of the cloth.
An artisan begins the printing process by stamping a resist onto prepared cloth. These areas of the cloth will remain light-colored after dying. When he has completed one side of the fabric, the printer will turn it over and do the same stamping on the reverse side, carefully lining up the pattern so that the design is precisely back-to-back.
Some of the resists and mordants, as well as the black outlines have been stamped onto this cloth, prior to immersion in a dye vat.
A craftsman applies a resist to areas of the fabric that will eventually be dyed red. This will protect them when the fabric is immersed in the indigo dye. He has already sprinkled dust onto the fabric in the left side of the photo. Dust prevents the resist paste from smearing.
This fabric, which has already been dyed in both indigo and red, is receiving another application of resist paste and will be dyed again. Multiple immersions in the dye vats will darken the colors. By applying resist to previously dyed areas, multiple shades of a color can be produced.
A vat of indigo dye.
Completed ajrakh fabric and some of the wooden blocks used to produce it.
Revival: Tradition and Innovation
As with many of India's handcrafted textiles, the twentieth century saw a decline in the production of ajrakh, as traditional fabrics faced competition from cheaper, machine-printed cloth made with chemical dyes. However, some families persisted in their work. Along with textile enthusiasts, they have, in recent years, promoted this handicraft to buyers beyond the fabric's traditional caste and community boundaries.
While retaining the historic red/blue color palette and geometric designs for many of their products, today's ajrakh printers have also introduced some floral patterns and a wider range of colors into their work. Some printers who had switched to chemical dyes have returned to the more authentic natural dyes.
Traditional ajrakh designs and colors.
Innovations: A floral pattern on the left. A non-traditional color combination on the right.
Availability Of Ajrakh Fabrics
Genuine ajrakh textiles and other hand-crafted fabrics may be found in our eBay store.
Resources For Information On AjrakhTextiles
Gillow, John, and Nicholas Barnard. Traditional Indian Textiles. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1991.
Ronald, Emma. Ajrakh: Patterns & Borders. New Delhi: AMHP Publications, 2007.