Ajrakh, one of the most specialized forms of block printing on fabric, is still practiced in Kutch, Gujarat, once part of Sindh. Late in the afternoon of a balmy January day in Ajrakhpur (the Muslim township is named after the craft), Sufiyan Bhai, 8th-generation block printer, described the technique and its origins to a group of curious travelers.
The first step involves “washing” white cotton with camel dung (!), soda ash and castor oil. The prepped fabric is then colored with myrobalan “nuts” and dyed in a sequence of resist printings using a mixture of gum Arabic and lime, and blocks carved from teak wood, before being folded and mirror-printed.
Mr. Bhai told us that all manner of exotic ingredients go into the process of natural dying: tamarind seed gum, aluminum, clay and colors derived from rhubarb root, pomegranate and turmeric, as well as indigo. Resting the fabric between applications of the various colors, and time for a final boiling to set the dyes, all make for a process that takes at least two weeks to accomplish a single design.
The last rays of sun streaked into the room where lengths of fabric were laid out for inspection and ironing as Mr. Bhai took our questions. With some satisfaction, he also told us of the block-printed designs that have come full circle to a new textile-buying public: originally from ancient Egypt, then on display at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, they are now being re-introduced via Gujarati craftsmen, among other practitioners. Mr. Bhai and his family of artisans are proud to be involved in an effort to raise awareness of their craft’s long heritage and splendid origins.
Alas, by the time we’d finished in the workshop, the sun was low and there was no time to browse among the shelves of folded fabrics. Although I’m pretty sure I would have found something to take away, we had to leave, and the colorful stacks were left for other customers.
I’d highly recommend a stop in Arjarkhpur to anyone traveling through Gujarat on a textile quest—just be sure to go early enough add shopping to your tour!