History, Chemistry, and Craft (Still in Gujarat…)

We spent the next day with Ravi, a driver and tour guide who would take us to visit the many textile artisans surrounding Bhuj.  At 11am, Ravi led us to his awaiting and rather dilapidated touring car.  On the way we picked up some dhokla, a yellow spongy vinegary concoction made with fermented gram flour (chick peas) and Gujarati favorite, for breakfast and then hit the road.

Our first stop was Ajarakhpur, a small village specializing in traditional Ajarakh block printed fabric, dyed with natural colors.  After turning off the busy four-lane thoroughfare, we trundled past neatly kept homes that felt more like a new housing development than a hotbed of traditional textile production.  However, we knew we were in the right place as row upon row of cloth drying on the dusty roadside came into view.

We pulled up to the head office of Dr. Ismail Mohammad Khatri’s Ajarakh company.  Dr. Khatri is the Godfather of Ajarakh block printing.  He is world-renowned, exporting fabric internationally and having advised so many art students from abroad that a British university conferred an honorary degree on him.  Hence, Doctor Khatri.

Perhaps as a result of his notoriety, we did not get to meet Dr. Khatri.  When we entered the main office, Dr. Khatri’s son Sufiyan sat in front of a computer, talking on the phone to a client.  While Ravi checked his email, Sufiyan gave us a crash course in the history and process of Ajarakh block printing.

Ajarakh printing originated in the Sind region of Pakistan in the 14th century.   In 1634, the King of the Kutch desert region invited Sind artisans to bring their craft to his kingdom.  Sufiyan was able to trace the block printers in his family back nine generations.  This long history was not without trials.  Most recently in 2001, a massive earthquake struck the Kutch, and the region is still recovering.  (Evidence of this was amply available in Bhuj where the historic royal palace and museum are still undergoing repairs.)  The seismic activity caused the iron content of the river water, used for dyeing, to increase dramatically and thus changed the dye results.  The Khatri family was forced to move their operations to this new location (hence the discordantly new surroundings), which they named Ajarakhpur after their craft.

Sufiyan went on to describe the complex 16-step process required to create a piece of Ajarakh fabric.  Dyes may include indigo, pomegranate, madder root, sapan, logwood, turmeric, and other natural products.  One design may include up to five colors and require four different wood blocks.  Mordants and other fixatives can include camel dung, soda ash, castor oil, gum arabic, lime, clay, alum, and iron.  Adding to the complexity, production halts during the monsoon because it is too wet for the fabric to dry between dye stages.  To successfully dye with natural colors as an Ajarakh block printer, you need to have as much knowledge of chemistry as art!

The many stages of Ajarakh printing

Printing by hand

Washing the finished cloth

Intricate, hand-carved wooden blocks

Sufiyan, me, and my souvenir!

Thank you, Sufiyan!  Next stop…embroiderers.

P.S. For more info on Ajarakh and the Khatris, check out this podcast from Maiwa.

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