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Kutch: New innovations in Ajrakh

As you walk down the dusty path towards the village of Ajrakhpur in Kutch, about 8 km from Bhuj off the main Bhuj Bhachau highway, you begin to hear the sound of the craft that this village is famous for, indeed the name itself was derived from the name of its craft – ‘place of Ajrakh’. You hear the whacking of metres and metres of wet cloth against the sides of the huge stone water tanks, and as you get closer to the workshops you hear the constant ‘thump thump’ sound of the wooden block being stamped with force onto the table echoing through the workshop, the beating heart of the village.  Then you see long pieces of dyed cloth in indigo, madder red, yellow, drying out in the sun stretching across the dry grass land into the distance. These are the sounds and sights that show the craft is still going strong. Despite environmental disasters, the widespread industrialisation of the twentieth century and the changing political regimes, the traditional craft of ajrakh, its long and skilled process and complex geometric designs have survived.

Indigo cloths laid out to dry on the edges of Ajrakhpur village

Indigo cloths drying in the sun on the edge of Ajrakhpur village

Printed cloth being washed

Printed cloth being washed 

A key figure in this preservation of ajrakh is the late Khatri Mohammed Siddique, who realised the new emerging markets for hand-crafted textiles in the 1970s. He revitalised the traditional use of natural dyes when realising their appeal amongst Western markets, and passed the knowledge onto his three sons Ismail, Razzaq and Jabba. Mohammed Siddique was supported by the Gujarat Handicrafts Development Cooperation, a strand of the government’s initiative to revive India’s handicrafts after independence. Subsequently, various NGOs, textile companies and individual designers have supported the revival and continuation of the region’s traditional crafts.

More recently, a new approach has been taken to enable and encourage local artisans to work directly with their markets and become entrepreneurs and designers in their own right. Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya (KRV) opened in 2005 and since has had 136 graduates. Out of these, fifteen have been block printing artisans, and most are successfully innovating for a ready urban and international market.  A new school has recently been founded by KRV founder Judy Frater, Somaiya Kala Vidya (SKV) based in Adipur southern Kutch. SKV aims to continue to focus on design education but also incorporate a strong business and marketing curriculum.

The Khatris in Ajrakhpur and Dhamadka learn block printing from their fathers at the age of between ten and fifteen when they finish school. Often they are also natural entrepreneurs. With the marketing and contemporary design skills added, their opportunities are vast. These villages today are buzzing with new ideas and creativity.

Printer in Irfan Anwar Khatir's workshop

Printer in Irfan Anwar Khatir's workshop

Ismail Mohammed Siddique was a key figure in the relief efforts after the devastating earthquake of 2001 that destroyed much of the village of Dhamadka which has been a centre for ajrakh printing for centuries. He helped to build Ajrakhpur as a new place to rehabilitate the communities and the craft. Ismail’s family’s success has grown and grown over the years and they are continually having to seek out new land to build larger workshop and dying space. Ismail also helped to teach others the craft, and his success has spread to many other Khatri families too.

One of Ismail’s sons, and three of his nephews (living in Dhamadka), have graduated from KRV and are contributing to the family’s success with new innovations. Khatri Junaid Ismail sold his whole KRV collection during the graduate exhibition. He experimented with different combinations of blocks and placement of colour. He added new colours to traditional designs. His final collection was based on the theme of kudrat – life and creation.

A cotton stole in the showroom of Ismail, Sufiyan and Junaid Khatri

A cotton stole in the showroom of Ismail, Junaid and Sufiyan Khatri

Junaid and his brother Sufiyan continue to innovate within their tradition, creating diverse compositions, new combinations of techniques, materials and colour combinations.

Khatri Khalid Amin, returned to work as a block printer with his uncle after trying out sales work in Mumbai and disliking it. He attended KRV at the advice of Ismail, and his final collection included some expressive abstract pieces that combined the tight geometric ajrakh prints with lively brush strokes and different textures. He has become well known throughout the urban and visiting foreign textiles and art community. His dupattas and stoles travelled to Manchester, UK for an exhibition at the Platt Hall costume gallery, and some were also featured in the 2011 edition of Wallpaper magazine.

Khalid Amin Khatri's dupattas hanging in Platt Hall Gallery of Costume, Manchester, UK

Khalid Amin Khatri's dupattas hanging in Platt Hall Gallery of Costume, Manchester, UK

Khatri Irfan Anwar won an award for ‘most marketable’ collection at KRV. He is now an advisor on the new SKV course. His current innovations include large scale geometric designs with the dense detailed traditional ajrakh embedded within. Thus, the traditional designs are still being used but in a very different way.

A current trend among the dyed and printed textiles in Kutch is combining Japanese shibori or local bandhani (tie-dye) techniques with block printing which produces a rich textural effect. It therefore showcases local and imported traditional techniques in a contemporary, innovative way. Each bandhani and block printing artisan employing these techniques has their own approach, so each piece is different and fresh.

Detail of a bandhani and block print silk stole by Irfan Anwar Khatri

Detail of a bandhani and block print silk stole by Irfan Anwar Khatri

In the face of climate change and globalisation, there is a rising trend for all things hand-made, eco-friendly and an awareness of a product’s origin and culture. Such trends and awareness are sustaining the Khatris’ livelihoods and helping to preserve their long standing heritage. Let’s hope these are not just fleeting fashions and that the Khatris will continue to provide the world with a fascination for highly skilled, hand-crafted textiles for many generations to come.

Author: Ruth Clifford.

Image Source: Ruth Clifford