Ajrak printing is a distinguished form of woodblock printing that originated in the present-day province of Sindh, Pakistan and neighbouring Indian districts of Kutch in Gujarat and Barmer in Rajasthan. Ajrak printing is embedded into the culture of Sindhi people owing to the traditions of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation. Just as block printing, the process of ajrak printing begins with designs expertly hand-carved into wooden blocks before being dipped in dye and printed on fabrics primarily of cotton and silk.
L: Ageless traditional ajrak print from Kutch, Gujarat
R: Traditional ajrak print from Barmer, Rajasthan that is still prominent today
The term ‘ajrak’ derived from the Arabic word ‘azrak’ which can mean ‘indigo’ or ‘blue’. This reflects Sindh’s historic reputation as a dominant producer of indigo dye and illustrates the extensive use of the indigo shade of blue in traditional ajrak print, which is still common to this day. Traditionally, ajrak prints were donned by both men and women. To this day men continue to use ajrak printed turbans and cummerbunds, as well as draping the fabric over their shoulders. Just as before, women continue to wear ajrak printed dupattas, chadors and shawls that exquisitely complement other garments such as sarees. The Khatri community, who continue to be dominant ajrak printers in the Kutch district, have recognised contemporary markets, producing traditional ajrak prints on modern pieces such as yardages and home furnishings.
L: A musician from Bhuj, Kutch district, Gujarat wears an ajrak printed turban
R: Contemporary ajrak printed pillowcase and duvet cover
The essence of ajrak printing is to celebrate nature in terms of the vast use of natural raw materials and resources and the representation of its motifs and colours. For millennia artisans have made use of natural dyes to produce the deep intense colours of ajrak, such as extracts of the madder plant for red and extracts from the true indigo plant for the popular indigo colour. The motifs featured in ajrak print are mainly elaborate geometric jewel-like shapes that incorporate motifs which symbolise nature, such as stars and flowers. Noorjehan Bilgrami, an esteemed artist, textile designer, research and author, has played a major role in the modern-day perpetuation of the art and craft of ajrak printing. Of a common motif found in ajrak print, the trefoil, she writes that it “is thought to be composed of three sun discs fused together to represent the inseparable unity of the Gods of sun, water and earth.”
The trefoil motif on an ajrak printed shawl
Images: Noorani Biswas, Ruth Clifford, Itokri, D'Source