One of the most complex and fine forms of block-printing in the world, Ajrakh textiles have existed for centuries, examples of which have been discovered in medieval Egyptian tombs at Fostat dating back to around the 15th Century. The quality, colours and designs shown in those ancient fragments are still to be found in the Ajrakh textiles produced with equally great skill today by the Khatri community that settled in Kutch, Gujarat, over 400 years ago.
Geometric and floral motifs were traditionally inspired by design elements of traditional Islamic architecture. Indigo, azrakh in Arabic, the predominant blue colour used in this style, is said to be a possible origin for the term Ajrakh. Another interpretation is that the term derives from “aaj ke din rakh” – ‘keep it for today’, an allusion to the rest period required between the many different preparation stages of this complex technique. The contrasting red derived from the madder root symbolizes twilight, juxtaposed with the blue of the ‘universe’ and the white of ‘stars’.
The complex patterns and multiple overlays of colour and design elements are achieved through one of the most demanding hand block-print techniques in the world. The process involves up to 23 stages; from soaking and preparing the fabric to take the dye, dyeing, fixing, block-printing and washing; many of these actions being repeated several times over and even including the sun’s action in the development of some of the colours over the span of natural drying time out in the open.
Today’s skilled and talented Ajrakh block-printers have been able to expand their horizons through experiences like attending craft specialized design schools like the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, and are experimenting with innovating in new colour combinations, in abstract designs that break from the traditional imposition of symmetry, or in their source of inspiration which today can be the endless ripples on the surface of a river or the electronic patterns flashing across digital equipment.
Today’s Ajrakh craftsperson is steeped in the traditions of his ancestral craft techniques and practices and he retains a profound respect for this heritage. This however does not prevent him from innovating and experimenting with his idiom in a way that ensures the freshness, contemporary appeal and exciting future for this ancient craft.