Ajrakh is a practice of traditional block-printing done entirely using natural dyes, mordants and hand carved wooden blocks. It can be traced back almost 4500 years ago to the Indus Valley civilization. This art has been practiced for generations by the Khatri’s – a community residing in the Kutch desert of Gujarat, India.
It involves an elaborate process of selective dyeing that transforms plain fabric into exquisite designs. The sixteen-twenty step process of washing, dyeing, printing, and drying requires a high level of skill and concentration in order to keep colors fast and even.
The first step involves washing the cloth with water to remove any starch or remaining impurities (like oils, dirt etc). This is important in order for the dyes to fix to the cloth later.
Soaking & Drying
Then the cloth is soaked overnight in a mixture of camel dung, natural caustic soda, castor oil, and water to further remove the impurities. The cloth is then left to dry in the sun, and when it is partly dried, the entire soaking and drying process is repeated 7 to 9 times. It is then rinsed in plain water.
Adding the Mordant
The cloth is then dyed in a cold solution of myrobalan (powered nut of the harde tree) which turns the cloth yellow and acts as a mordant, binding the fabric to the dyes.
Defining the Design
Once the fabric is dry, a mixture of lime and gum arabic is printed on the cloth to define the outline of the design. This outline is created by wooden blocks which are hand carved with unique designs. This acts as the “resist” which will help define the white parts of the design.
Dyeing and Printing
Colors seen in Ajrakh designs are all made from fermenting and boiling natural pastes, like tamarind seed powder, alum, indigo, madder root, and jaggery.
Each round of dying and printing requires the cloth to be washed and left to dry, producing deep colors of black, red, and indigo. This process takes several days to repeatedly dye and dry the fabric.
Towards the end of the process, the fabric is dried in the sun and sprayed with a liquid made from pomegranate skins, and then a turmeric and lime spray.
In this way, through several gradual and complex steps, a beautiful and intricate Ajrakh design is produced. The creation of a single piece of fabric can take up to two weeks, since the longer an artisan waits before continuing on to the next step, the more vivid the final print becomes.