The art of block printing as a whole flourished in India in the 12th century, and motifs were heavily influenced, in the 17th century, by the reign of Mughal emperors. Ajrak printing, however, historically evolved in parallel as an intricate genre of block printing. Though ajrak printing is synonymous with the Sindh culture of Pakistan, its roots stretch to the Indian states of Gujarat and Rajasthan due to the inhabitants of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation who, from 3300 BCE, settled along the basins of the Indus River.
The river served as a vital resource for the washing of fabrics and the sustenance of raw materials. Raw materials for cotton and indigo dye were plentiful, with plants growing alongside the Indus River, thus their use in ajrak printing became an integral part of craft. Ajrak print is so intricate and held in such high esteem across all levels of society that it has been, and continues to be, an auspicious symbol of respect in gift giving, particularly to elders.
L: Ajrak print from Sindh, Pakistan, c.1855-79
R: Modern-day replica of Indus Valley Civilisation ajrak patterns
Bust of a king priest featuring an ajrak printed shawl, excavated from Mohenjo-daro, a famous archaeological site of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation
Apart from the settlers of the ancient civilisation, ajrak printing blossomed in India in the 16th century with the migration of the Khatri community from the Sindh province to the Kutch district. The king of Kutch’s recognition of the intricate textile art spawned invitations for Khatri families practising ajrak printing to populate uninhabited lands in Kutch. Some families eventually migrated to Rajasthan and settled primarily in and around Barmer. Ajrak printed products created by the Khatri community have traditionally been donned by the Maldhari community. The Maldharis are an ethnic community of semi-nomadic herdsmen from Gujarat and Rajasthan who have since settled in the Banni Grasslands Reserve of the Kutch district, Gujarat. This tradition still continues today and exemplifies the customary interactions of India’s myriad ethnic cultures.
L: Khatri noblemen wear ajrak printed clothes while sitting on an ajrak printed carpet in Kitab-i tasrih al-aqvam by Anglo-Indian military adventurer, Col. James Skinner aka Sikandar (b.1778, d.1841)
R: Maldhari men wear ajrak printed turbans while resting in the Banni Grasslands Reserve
During the British Raj, the Khatri community in the Bombay Presidency, a province of British India that included present-day Gujarat, excelled at the art of resist dyeing and ajrak printing. Today, the Khatri community continue to dominate in ajrak printing in the few remaining areas where the art perseveres, Ajrakhpur village in Kutch district, Gujarat and Barmer, Rajasthan. Ajrakhpur is a relatively new village and its name commemorates the textile art of ajrak printing. Dhamadka village was once the hub of ajrak printing but was left devastated following the Gujarat earthquake of 2001. Government and non-government initiatives ‘moved’ the entire village to the newly formed Ajrakhpur village.
L: Ajrak craftsmen wash dyed fabrics in the Saran River in Dhamadka, c.1955
R: Ajrak craftsmen don ajrak prints in Ajrakhpur as they take a break from printing, 2012
Ajrak prints are traditionally done on fabric that measures 2.5 - 3.0 metres in length. Both men and women, in and out of the Maldhari community, respectively wear ajrak printed fabrics as turbans and cummerbunds or dupattas, chadors and shawls, or simply drape it over their shoulders. Today, as a response to the increasing modern-day demand, ajrak prints can be commonly found on contemporary products such as yardages, home furnishings and scarves. The Khatri community continue to produce ajrak printed traditional and contemporary products using techniques that were once used by their Sindhi ancestors.
L: A man of the Maldhari community wears a ajrak printed shoulder cloth
R: Ajrak print on contemporary cushions and curtains
Images: Victoria and Albert Museum, Natural Justice, Wikipedia, Khamir, Crafts Villa, D'Source