Ajrakh Tales – Re-Contextualizing an Age Old Textile on the Contemporary Scene

Indigo Dyed Ajrakh Drying in the Sun

The elegant symmetry of geometric patterns, the waltz of Indigo & madder dyes, and the minor imperfections that add to its allure… this is what forms the syntax of an ancient craft like Ajrakh. Like a skilled raconteur, the standard 3 meter length of an Ajrakh print tells tales of its invigorating history, the many geographies it has travelled to and the cultures it has been influenced by. If you were to take it apart and analyze it, you would find the 14 layers of processing it has gone through to look unmistakably Ajrakh.

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The popular meaning of the word ‘Ajrakh’ is “Aaj ke din rakh” in Hindi, roughly translated to ‘ keep it for a day’. It could also have come from “Azraq” the Arabic word for ‘blue’, the predominant color in Ajrakh and examples of Ajrakh have been found as far away as Egypt and Babylon, both of which had thriving trading ties with the subcontinent.

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Once an inextricable part of the Sindhi society, Ajrakh was used for everything from cradles for babies and everyday wear like the saafa or turbans and ghaggro or skirts to being part of a bride’s trousseau or tokens of respect for honored guests. Using organic dyes like Madder and Indigo, the Ajrakh cloth stood apart in a crowd of block prints till it started feeling the sting from faster, cheaper and more easily available chemical dyes. Did that signal the end of this vibrant textile?

National Award winning Ajrakh artisan and a 9th generation printer, Khatri Abdul Jabbar, a regular contributor to Jaypore’s Ajrakh based apparel repertoire, tells us, “With the advent of chemical dyes in the mid-1940s a lot of artisans, including my father, switched over from natural dyes. But when he saw that customers still wanted the same designs and motifs in the same colors, he realized the deep connections of Ajrakh with our culture and taught me this wonderful art so that it may live on”.

And it is living on. Not just as turbans and shawls for the Maldharis, the traditional customers of the craft, but also for a large and increasingly faithful domestic and global audience. Ajrakh apparel and accessories find a rapt audience on pioneering online e-tailers like Jaypore that carry collections by leading designers working Ajrakh into contemporary silhouettes and using it creatively for new product categories.

Ajrakh has made appearances on runways for fashion houses like DKNY and garments created by the renowned designer Edric Ong from Malaysia. Maiwa Foundation– a Vancouver based private trust aimed at funding the revival of traditional crafts, actively supports Ajrakh artisans in Kutch, India, by incorporating a large amount of these radiant textiles in their home linens and clothing collections.

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While Ajrakh may still be staking a foothold on the global scene, the textile and fashion industry in India is experimenting with Ajrakh prints in innovative ways; fashioning it into footwear, bags and contemporary outer-wear silhouettes. Bhoomi Dani, an Ahmedabad based designer who works extensively with Ajrakh speaks of her experiences in giving this centuries old textile a new twist, “The primary focus of the label is to revive the age old art of Ajrakh by bringing it to a larger audience in a way which is suited to urban sensibilities, is chic and comfortable as everyday fashion. The Design process at our label, ‘Vraj: Bhoomi’, is a shared effort between the craftsmen and the designer so that the resulting garment reflects the culture from which it originates.”

Innovation is also sprouting at the grass root level with new ideas coming from young Ajrakh printers belonging to traditional printing families. Khalid Amin Khatri, a 10th generation Ajrakh printer and another contributor to Jaypore, creates wall hangings and other home décor pieces using Ajrakh. He explains his reasons for wanting to go beyond making just yardage with this brilliant blue and red print, “I started making new things with Ajrakh because I wanted to make things that are simple and higher in value than the regular 3 meter yardage and shawls. Nowadays, the customer also wants something unique and I think we can do that by putting our minds to it”.

Khalid Amin Khatri of Ajrakpur_Infusing New Designs into an Age Old Craft

Ajrakh may have suffered in the past because of lack of resources and natural disasters like the 2001 earthquake in the Bhuj area which forced Ajrakh printers to move home and work to the specially created craft village – Ajrakhpur – on a nearby location. It may have borne the brunt of disastrous chemical intervention and machine printing, but Ajrakh will go on living. Because it connects the people to the earth, is moored in a rich cultural context and is versatile and adaptable. It is forever, an heirloom in the making and a living, breathing art.

As an online brand dedicated to creating a unique interpretation of age-old hand loom crafts, we travel across India curating unique and exclusive collections that represent the country’s finest craft-based designs. We present collections online by partnering with artisanal communities, textile designers, and independent artists to showcase a new contemporary design language that comes from India and is understood globally.

Image Credits: Shilpa Sharma, Founder, www.jaypore.com & www.break-away.in. Abdul Jabbar Khatri & Khalid Amin Khatri, Ajrakh Artisans. Bhoomi Dani, Founder, Vraj:Bhoomi.

This article was first published in Hand/Eye Magazine.

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