The magic of Ajrakh: the real story





When disasters occur, among the things that anchor people are ties, a sense of belonging and holding on to familiar traditions. When the Gujarat earthquake took place in January 2001 and people lost their homes, family, virtually everything, in the flash of a few seconds, the entire community came forward to help. And interestingly, in Kutch, craft traditions for which the region is celebrated helped people not only to rehabilitate themselves but also to work out their fears and traumas.

Ismail Mohammad Khatri and his brothers are ajrakh printers from Dhamadka, a village near Bhuj, which was at the heart of the quake-hit zone. With their homes collapsed, they began to work towards relocating the whole community of ajrakh dyers and printers in the area to the newly created Ajrakhpur. There is now also a heightened awareness among them that they should live more in harmony with nature, and revert to the use of natural dyes

Four years later, the devastation is still visible in the worst affected areas of the Gujarat quake – Bhuj, Anjar, Dhamadka, Bachchau and surrounding villages. Everywhere there is evidence of houses that had collapsed and rubble that had rolled out on to the streets.

As outsiders, it is difficult to gauge the psychological trauma of a people who lost home, family and friends, all in the space of 90 seconds on that fateful day, 26 January 2001. As I began to speak about it to people, the horrors seemed even worse than anything one could have imagined. They spoke of how the sun became dark that morning and the earth developed gaping fissures, how snakes and scorpions came out of cracks in the ground, a loud exploding sound, children in a school hoisting the national flag with pride only to have the school building collapse on them, a woman praying in a temple who died because a pillar fell on her…

For those not present, it is impossible to visualize what really happens during a natural disaster, but we can certainly admire the resilience of the human spirit, the courage to move on despite tragedy. Tradition and custom, along with family give one the strength to move on with life. That is what we saw in Kutch, which has a long tradition of craft – weaving, embroidery and printing. In an exhibition organized by Carole Douglas of Sydney, Australia, called ‘Resurgence: Stories of Earthquake, Survival, and Art’ at Ahmedabad (earlier exhibited in Australia), I was amazed to see the work that emerged from some of the earthquake victims.

Both from the point of view of the themes that they worked on and from what they were saying, it looked as if they had worked out their shock through their traditional craft, whether tie-and-dye work or the intricate embroidery that women there are so skilled at. A young woman of 19, who worked on an Ahir embroidery piece for the exhibition, is quoted as having said: “Before I made the piece my head could not forget the earthquake. Now it is out of my hands and I can move on with my life.” Then there is Ali Mohammad Isha, creator of three beautiful black bandhini pieces, who said, “The earthquake book is closed. I begin a new chapter. Using my work as my handwriting, I invent a new language for the future.”

There was also the master printer and dyer, Ismailbhai Khatri, with his ajrakh printed piece using natural dyes. He put it philosophically: “The spider is never defeated. When its web breaks, it finds a new place and starts all over again. My family is like a spider. This time we will build a place that will not break.”

This is, in fact, the story of Ismail Mohammad Khatri, his two brothers, Abdul Razzak Mohammad Khatri and Abdul Jabbar Mohammad Khatri, and their sons, of ajrakh printing, and of their life before and after the earthquake. And it is indeed a story of the spider that is never defeated but moves on to weave another web. Giving them the strength to start all over again is ajrakh, which has existed before them, and will continue to do so after them. Ajrakh printing has been a family tradition for nine generations now. They brought it with them from Sindh (now in Pakistan), and it seems set to continue in the family as Ismail’s son and nephews have learnt the technique of printing. One of them even hopes to go to an English medium high school so that he can study at the prestigious National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

Ajrakh, or ajrak-u as it is called in Sindh, is closely associated with Sindhi ceremonies relating to birth, marriage and death. It is believed to be one of the oldest extant textiles in the world, and its history can be traced to the ancient civilization that flourished in the Indus Valley (circa 2500-1500 BC) where Sindh is now located. Ajrakh printing is today practised in parts of Sindh as well as in Dhamadka and Khavda in Gujarat, and in Barmer in Rajasthan.

The origins of the word ‘ajrakh’ are unclear, but may have come from the Arabic word, ‘azrak’, for blue, referring to the indigo-dyed ajrakh cloth with its red, black and white floral or geometric patterns. Ismailbhai says the word may also have originated from the Hindi ‘aaj rakh’ (meaning ‘keep it for a day ’), for the longer the cloth is subjected to a particular process the faster and richer are the colours. He goes on to relate an amusing story of a king who would have his bed linen changed every day, till his chamber attendants placed an ajrakh sheet on his bed and the king responded with “Aaj rakh”! This story however seems an apocryphal one as there are no references to it anywhere else. “My father once said ajrakh looks like stars shining in the night sky,” muses Ismailbhai, with pride for a tradition that has been with his family for centuries.

To call ajrakh simply a printing tradition would be to overlook the closeness of its link with the life of the Khatris who produce it, or with the local people, both Hindus and Muslims, who wear it everyday. It would be to reduce the textile, much as the British did, to a commodity to be traded and exchanged, rather than see it as the heartbeat of the people who work on it. It would be, above all, to miss the living continuum ajrakh represents, passed on from father to son, down the generations. And it would also be to miss all the sensory experiences of dipping the cloth in a vat of indigo dye where you can see greenish bubbles dance and sparkle and talk to the dyer, or of holding a block and stamping it on a pre-dyed cotton cloth with a gentle thud.

Much of the history of ajrakh is based on oral tradition. Ismailbhai can recall nine generations of ancestors, tracing his origins to a certain Khatri brahmin, Jeeva, an ajrakh printer and dyer who migrated to Kutch on the invitation of the king, Rao Bharmalji I in the early seventeenth century. The king invited not only dyers like him but printers, potters and embroiderers from Sindh. The Khatris came from a village in Sindh called Dhado. They believe their forefathers were kshatriya brahmins, and descendants of Lav and Kush, the sons of Rama. Two generations after they migrated to Kutch, a Sufi saint converted one of them to Islam. Ajrakh is still sacred to the Sufis who present ajrakh cloth as a mark of respect to those they revere. And even today, Hindu and Muslim Khatris in Sindh practice this form of printing.

Ismailbhai’s father, Khatri Mohammad Sidikbhai, is something of a legend in ajrakh printing. He was responsible for reviving the earlier tradition of printing with natural dyes that his forefathers had been familiar with, but which had fallen into disuse with the introduction of chemical dyes. “My father too used chemical dyes, till people from NID and the Gujarat handicrafts board came to him and spoke about the importance of natural dyes,” says Ismailbhai. They had been unaware that what knowledge even a child in their family had about indigo and madder dyeing would be considered significant! “When they asked if we used desi dyes, we did not understand that they meant natural dyes,” says Ismailbhai. “We now know how harmful chemical dyes are for those of us who work with them. They must be more harmful for people who wear clothes that are dyed with them,” he says thoughtfully.

It was around 1975 that Sidikbhai began to work with natural dyes, and then became known not only for his proficiency in printing but also for his knowledge of dyeing with vegetable colours. There are photographs of him demonstrating the dyeing process in Mattiebelle Gittinger’s Master Dyers to the World: Technique and Trade in Early Indian Dyed Cotton Textiles.


“There was a gap of a few decades between the time when everyone in Dhamadka began working on ajrakh with chemical dyes to when my father revived working with natural dyes,” says Ismailbhai. “We don’t know what knowledge was lost in those years.” He himself remembers the wild indigo reeds that used to grow freely around Dhamadka in his younger days and which have now disappeared. That complicated dyeing with lac must have existed is evident from the Rabari house we visited, where an aged Rabari woman displayed a bedspread she was using, quilted with old and torn lac-dyed pieces of cloth. Ismailbhai is sure his father must have dyed this maroonish coloured cloth.

Whatever the Khatri brothers know about ajrakh comes from their father, and Razzakbhai remembers small benches made by their father on which they used to put cloth and learn the art of ajrakh printing. Like his father, Ismailbhai is now becoming well known in the natural dyeing circles, where many are overawed by his knowledge of bringing colours to a fabric as if by magic. Students from NID and other such institutes come to meet him. Recently, a lady whose PhD was based on what she learnt from Ismailbhai, recommended his name to Montfort University of Leicester in England. Much to his astonishment, the university conferred a doctorate on him.

When Ismailbhai and his siblings were growing up in Dhamadka, there were no schools. Even now there is only one primary school there. “I have not passed even high school, and when I was told I was going to be given a doctorate I didn’t know what it meant till someone said it is the highest degree in any educational institution,” says an awed Dr Ismail Mohammad Khatri!

This acclaimed master dyer is today not only a brand ambassador for ajrakh but a community leader. During the Gujarat earthquake, though he and members of his family were themselves injured, they went out on a limb to help others and transported many from their village in Dhamadka to hospitals in Bhuj for treatment. The family recalls the exact moment the quake occurred. Jabbar, the youngest brother, was printing a bedsheet for a Canadian customer, Razzak was at the school nearby where he was the chief guest at the Republic Day function, and Ismail was at home, on the verge of leaving for the farm where the washing and dyeing takes place.

“I was on the threshold of the house, about to leave, when I heard a loud noise as if the world was going to explode. A part of the house fell on me. It injured my back, but I did not realize it then. Now, however, it needs to be treated because I cannot stand still for a long while without experiencing some pain,” he says. Several members of his family were hurt, and he lost his mother and a daughter (whom he does not like to talk about) in the aftermath of the tragedy.

“My mother was injured, and not realizing that the quake could have occurred in Bhuj too, we took her and many others there, only to find that the hospital itself had collapsed and they were treating people in temporary shelters that had been put up. More than because of her injury, it was when she saw so many dead people in the hospital that she received a severe shock and died of heart failure,” recalls Ismail.

The brothers took their mother and the others to the hospital in Bhuj by stopping buses on the highway and emptying them of passengers. They recall that this was not the first quake in the area – there had been one in 1956 too, when the family shifted from its original village to Dhamadka. Now, even as Dhamadka lies in ruins, with the aid that has come in and with government help, Ismailbhai has been the primary mover in setting up a village exclusively for ajrakh printers and tie-and-dye workers. This township will be more environment friendly, with trees and solar panels, a common tank for washing the dyed fabric, and an improved layout for the houses. They realize that one of the reasons that houses collapsed and led to deaths was that the houses in Dhamadka were in too close a proximity to one another. Appropriately, the town will be called Ajrakhpur, and they hope it will become a centre for excellence for printing and natural dyes, and serve as a model for other communities of craftspeople.

For almost three months after the quake no printing work was done in Dhamadka, and there was so much fear that they used to sleep in tin sheds outside. Razzak and Jabbar continue to live in Dhamadka in their partly restored homes, while Ismailbhai has shifted to Ajrakhpur. The family is split for now, though the two brothers hope to move to Ajrakhpur in course of time.

Unlike other traditional textiles that are available in local markets, to buy ajrakh people have to specially come to the Khatris. Ismailbhai recalls how their father, armed with lengths of ajrakh, would go every four months or so to Maldhari and Rabari villages, where he would exchange cloth for grain or ghee. While travelling around Bhuj, we saw several men from the Rabari and Maldhari communities who wore ajrakh, though most seemed to have switched to the cheaper chemically dyed lungi and safa (turban) cloth. We met Yousuf Dinna, an old Banni, to whom the Khatri brothers had given an ajrakh lungi which he was happy to wear in the traditional way and pose for photographs.

It appears that when the Khatris moved to Kutch they made cloth not only for the royalty, but also served the needs of the farmers and herders of the area. They produced varieties of ajrakh to suit the sartorial needs of different communities, some of whom believed that the blue of ajrakh had healing properties. For the Rabaris and Ahirs, who are herders and farmers, they made tie-dyed cloth for veils, skirts, and turbans. The ghagras, or skirts, had different prints for the different stages of a woman’s life – of which there are 50, according to the Khatri brothers! The jimardhi and dhambura prints were for older women, the haidro badshahpasand for younger girls, while the widows wore limai. The cloth used for everyone was traditionally cotton or wool, though the affluent would usually opt for the much more expensive double-printed ajrakh.

With the advent of synthetic cloth, some with crude ajrakh prints and at one-tenth the price of cotton ajrakh made with natural dyes, the local people today have unfortunately almost stopped wearing ajrakh-printed cotton. The cost of cloth and dyes has also risen sharply, and the Khatris now work only against specific orders. However, given the demand for naturally dyed textiles across the world, the work of the Khatris is being sought by foreigners. Textile aficionados come to Ismailbhai to tap his wealth of knowledge on natural dyes, which he is only too happy to share. What is more, several of his works are now displayed in national and international museums, and by collectors.

Traditional textiles of any region are the warp and weft of its heritage. They speak of its history, as ajrakh does for Kutch and Sindh. So it is that when a Banni like Yousuf dons traditional attire and sits with his grand-niece, he becomes a link in the long chain of events that connects him to his ancestors, regardless of which part of the subcontinent they came from. We should indeed be grateful to the Khatri brothers for carrying on a painstakingly slow and laborious form of textile printing, although it is not really viable in today’s economics-driven society. In Japan, a craftsperson such as Ismailbhai would have been declared a national treasure!

They say the pattern within the pattern that characterizes ajrakh printing is like the Sufi mystic’s search for his beloved God. It symbolizes the oneness he seeks with the Supreme. Just as, perhaps, the repeated washing of the cloth till just the right colour emerges may well reflect the Sufi saint’s search for perfection!


Ajrakh, like the stars twinkling in a blue sky!

Ajrakh printing is considered one among the world’s most sophisticated methods of printing and dyeing. It uses 22 different blocks, involves at least 14 different stages of repeated washing and dyeing, and the entire process takes up to three weeks to complete! The result is a cloth usually dyed in indigo and madder, with complicated floral and geometric patterns that are block-printed using a system of mathematics that only the printer can comprehend!


Accounts of early textile trade confirm the mastery of Indian dyers and printers. This is evident from the dyer’s workshop that was unearthed at Mohenjo-daro. Indigofera tinctoria, or indigo, was known to have grown in abundance along the River Indus.


A statue of a king-priest discovered at Mohenjo-daro (circa 2500 BC) has a trefoil motif on the shawl he is wearing. This pattern of small circles filled with red pigment is similar to a fundamental design of ajrakh. Interestingly, the same pattern has also been found in remnants of ancient Mesopotamian textiles as well as on the covering of the couch used by the great pharaoh Tutankhamen (1341-1323 BC)! The trefoil, composed of three sun discs joined together, may well symbolize the unity of the gods of the sun, the earth and water.


Believed to be the earliest extant Indian textiles, dating to around AD 641-969, the Fustat Textiles were excavated in the nineteenth century. Fustat, once the capital of Egypt, was the principal port for trade between Asia and the Mediterranean till the city itself was destroyed by a fire and abandoned thereafter. The largest collection of these is held at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, typically resist and mordant dyed with madder and indigo. When Ismailbhai went to receive his doctorate in England, he visited Oxford to view these old textiles and was allowed to photograph them. From the photographs we saw that they do indeed resemble the ajrakh prints of today!


Kutch was quite isolated from the rest of India until recently, when communications and roads were greatly improved particularly in view of defence, and those living there have, therefore, been fairly isolated for several generations. It is no wonder then that so many of the Khatri designs have remained unchanged over the centuries and have such a visible link with the past.

Till aniline, a tar derivative, was discovered in 1856, chemical dyes were unknown, and the world looked with disbelief and admiration at the Indian dyers’ knowledge of how to colour cloth with different minerals and vegetables, how they knew what could be a mordant, and how to make indigo yield its greenish tinge.


We watch with utter fascination as Ismailbhai boils pomegranates with tamarind seeds in a huge cauldron and sprays the water on a cloth that has been fixed with mordant, to have a yellow pomegranate-dyed fabric emerge a few days later. We see repeated dyeing of a georgette scarf in natural indigo, and when we lift it to look at it after it has dried, he snatches it back from us to say that the material has yet to get the brilliant indigo hue for which it will have to be re-dyed.


Before the dyeing and printing, the cotton cloth is torn by hand into lengths suitable either for use as a garment or a bedsheet and taken to the river to be washed. It is shrunk by washing it in a mixture of camel dung, soda ash, castor oil and water, and then left overnight folded in a sack weighted with stones. Originally, it used to be left for five to ten days depending on the weather. Camel dung is used to soften the cloth and also acts as a bleaching agent!


The following day, it is washed in a solution of soda ash followed by vigorous rinsing in water. After a process of calendering, the cloth is washed in myrobalan solution, which is a pre-mordant. Jabbar remarks that this opens the cloth to the absorption of colours. It is dried in the sun and the myrobalan powder is then dusted off.


The cloth is now ready for printing. A resist of lime and gum ensures that, in the final product, certain areas will be white or pale because they will not take the dye. Once these white outlines have been marked, it is time for the black outlines. This involves the use of a mordant of metallic salt, iron acetate, which enables the colour to bond with the cotton fabric.


Iron paste is made by mixing pieces of rusted iron with water, chickpea flour or atta, and jaggery, and stored in recycled oil drums for 10 days. The resulting acetate solution is strained through a cloth and boiled for the required consistency.


For the next stage of printing, a mixture made from alum and tamarind seed powder is used. As alum is colourless, the Khatris add a fugitive colour to enable the printers to see where to align the blocks. Alum, molasses, Fuller’s Earth and, in some cases, millet flour, is used on areas that are to be protected against the indigo dye – that is, the white and black areas and those that are to become red. This is sprinkled with sawdust for protection while the paste dries. The redness of the cloth becomes evident only after it has been boiled in the red dye bath.


The cloth is ideally left for seven days in the sun so that the colour metamorphoses into a deep shade. It is only after this that the cloth will be dyed in indigo for the first time, after which it is submerged for at least an hour and washed by the workers in a rhythmic count, this way and that, until almost all the excess dye has been washed off and the white areas emerge.


The next stage is boiling in alzirine or madder root powder, both of which are red

dyes. These are heated over a log fire and the worker lifts and immerses the cloth in the solution several times for many hours till the desired shade of red is achieved. The cloth is then left to dry in the sun, and it is at this stage that the ajrakh colours and design make their full impact. Traditionally, however, the entire process would be repeated one more time to achieve the depth of colour the Maldharis, for example, would expect. Such double-dyed cloth is known as minakari. One can only imagine how much labour it is for Khatris and their workmen to achieve such brilliance of colours!


Perhaps, when ajrakh is called a sacred cloth it is because the craftsmen work in such harmony with their environment – with the trees, water, sun, the whole world around them – harnessing their own energy with that of nature!

From Housecalls archives:

(March- April 2005)


One thought on “The magic of Ajrakh: the real story

  1. Thank you for acknowledging the part I played in the recovery of livelihood and spirit for many artisans in Kutch following the earthquake. I spent many months over the following two years working on this project on a voluntary basis. It forged lifelong relationships that I treasure for ever. If just once in our lifetime we receive the gift of giving then we are truly blessed.

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