INTRICATE DESIGNS: Floral motifs of Ajrakh printing.
THE piece of cloth he extends to you mirrors the sky in its splendour. Against a backdrop of natural indigo blue, stars seem to twinkle in an organised structure and intricately executed patterns. Ajrakh printing gets it name from the Arabic/ Persian word Azrak meaning "blue", the predominant colour used. Abdulrazzaque Mohammad Khatri, a master of Ajrakh printing, belongs to the ninth generation of a family of traditional craftsmen in the region of Kutch in Gujarat. According to Pankaj Shah of the Khamir Craft Resource Centre in Bhuj-Kutch, which works to revitalise and reinvent traditional skills, an extended family of the Khatris, whose members live in the villages of Ajrakhpur and Dhamadka, is unique in that it practises this ancient craft form following a traditional process of mordant dyeing with natural dyes. Barmer in Rajasthan and Khavdha in Kutch are other centres of Ajrakh printing. The Khatri family's association with Ajrakh goes back to the reign of Rao Bharmalji I(1586-1631).
Small wonder then that Abdulrazzaque Khatri meets you with a pride born of being a custodian of a tradition that some arguably claim dates back to the Indus Valley civilisation.
The bearded patriarch is, however, quite in touch with contemporary times and carefully pulls out a newspaper cutting of The Hindu which shows him seated with a calm dignity in the Vigyan Bhavan to receive the National Award for master craftsman for 1998. He also persists in searching out a suitable photograph for you while his son looks unmoved by all the attention at the Ajrakh stall at the Shilparamam Crafts Village in Hyderabad where the two of them have come to attend the International Symposium on Natural Dyes organised by the UNESCO and the Crafts Council of India.
In its finest form, Ajrakh — where the printing is done through intricately chiselled patterns on wooden blocks — is a craft where the cloth is reversible, the printing on one side exactly identical to the other. The final result is achieved through a time consuming and difficult process where the fabric is subjected to 14 stages of being washed, steamed, dried and dyed. Tamarind seed, alum, jaggery, myrobalam, wood powder and camel dung are some of the materials used in its production while indigo and madder help dye the material.
"There are almost 200 designs in the vocabulary", says Khatri who has managed to collect most of them. He plans to put together a design directory for posterity.
Ajrakh printed cotton is traditionally worn by the Maldhari community, cattle breeders who move around with their herds in search of water in the desert. "They are out with the animals in the sun and the cold. The indigo absorbs the heat and the madder keeps them warm," says the master craftsman. While the women wear printed skirts made out of yards and yards of material, the men don Ajrakh printed lungis and safas (turbans). Ajrakh is a companion and comforter in its many uses, whether serving as bedspreads or cradle cloth for the newborn. "Blue, red, yellow, green and black are the traditional colours," Khatri says. And the hues and patterns tell a tale of life's journey. Newly wed young girls glow in red while grandmothers exhibit their mellow age and experience in golden yellow. The designs too image the status — Badshah Pasand speaks of the joys of a bride while Dhamburas are motifs for elderly women.
"Fifty years ago, only natural dyes were used in the craft. Our father Mohammadbhai taught the two of us — my younger brother Ismail and I — the intricate process of using natural dyes. It is exclusively an Islamic art form. See, no figures are depicted, only floral and geometric motifs are employed. Since the cloth is reversible it was easy for the wearers to wrap it around them in the dim light of their dwellings at dawn."
ABDULRAZZAQUE MOHAMMAD KHATRI
The family of the Khatris hails from Sind. "Some crafts have changed completely over a period of time but the original designs are still going strong in Ajrakh," says Abdulrazzaque.
The defining moment for the family came when anthropologist Jyotindra Jain visited their home in 1980 and took away some of the natural dyed bedspreads printed by the Khatris. Jain entered it for the national award competition and it fetched Mohammadbhai the National award for 1981. Further impetus was provided when Braj Bhasin, Managing Director of the Gujarat Handicrafts Corporation sent designer Sulekha Gulari to Kutch to guide them. The result was the creation of saris, cushion covers, dupattas and stoles — the craft was adapted to new forms and gained a big market. The resist printed cloth dyed with indigo and madder is now a prized possession in the wardrobe of the connoisseur of Indian crafts.
"Keep it today" is what Ajrakh means in the Kutchi dialect. For possessors of Ajrakh, it is a "keep it forever" fabric. And since Abdulrazzaque Khatri affirms it is a tradition that will be carried on by the younger members of his family, it is perhaps possible for generations more to own and wear a piece of the star-studded sky.
'India Beats' in Sunday Magazine section of THe Hindu features stories of the unusual, This article was from The Sunday Hindu dated 14th January 2007