The essence of ajrak printing is a celebration of nature. This can be seen in not only the production process but also in the aesthetics of the intricate unification of ajrak’s motifs and colours. Traditional colours found in ajrak printing are deep, intense and symbolic of nature: crimson red for the earth and indigo blue for the twilight. Black and white are sparingly used to outline motifs and give definition to the symmetrical designs. Though the use of eco-friendly synthetic dyes is the norm in these modern-times, the use of traditional natural dyes is resurgent.
Indigo is extracted from the plant of the same name. Historically, artisans made use of the abundance of true indigo plants that grew along the Indus River. Red is obtained from alizarin found in the roots of madder plants. Black is acquired from iron shavings, molasses and millet flour, with the addition of tamarind seeds to thicken the dye. Contemporary ajrak prints incorporate contrasting vibrant colours such as orange, yellow and rust.
Some of the ingredients craftsmen use in ajrak dyes
Traditional elaborate motifs are still used in ajrak printing today, having been passed down for generations. They are symmetrically geometric, symbolising elements in nature such as flowers, leaves and stars.
L: Traditional ajrak print from Kutch, Gujarat, featuring floral and celestial motifs in ajrak's signature colours, crimson red and indigo blue
R: Modern-day symmetrically geometric ajrak print from Barmer, Rajasthan with vibrant contemporary colours, orange, yellow and rust
Another common motif in ajrak printing is the trefoil, a three-leaved graphic that has been hallmarked for centuries in architecture, religion and heraldic emblems, and even modernised as in the universal recycling symbol. In ajrak printing the trefoil represents the unification of Indian sun, water and earth Gods. All motifs are built around a central point and repeated across the fabric in a grid-like manner, the result of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines that occasionally feature as part of the design.
Ajrak print from the Khatri community in Kutch, Gujarat, featuring the trefoil motif alongside motifs of flowers and leaves
Contemporary Indian fashion designers such as Rajesh Pratap Singh have effortlessly fused traditional ajrak with modern tastes. The skull motif, popularised in both high-end and high-street fashion by Alexander McQueen, features in Singh’s creations of ajrak printed jackets. Traditionally and continually skull imagery is associated with death. Nevertheless, Singh’s jackets are the epitome of the fusion of tradition and modern innovation, expressing artisans’ ability to perpetuate the art of ajrak printing in contemporary times.
L: Contemporary ajrak printed jacket featuring skull motifs by Rajesh Pratap Singh
R: Close-up of ajrak print details on the jacket
Sean Penn wears a shawl with traditional ajrak prints. These colours and prints have stood the test of time, loved by both the east and the west
Images: The Express Tribune, D'Source, My Learning, Glorious Past of Indian Textiles, Victoria and Albert Museum