Ajrak, The rusting craft of Sindh
Syed Affan Ahmed
Ajrak has been a part of Sindh culture from prehistoric period. Making of an Ajrak is really a complex process consisting of almost 21 sub-processes. The fabric went through different treatments before achieving its final form. The designs are inspired from nature and culture. Ajrak has became a part of Sindh culture on one hand and on other hand it’s facing problems because of less profit to the craftsman.
Ajrak is a textile with dominant hues of rich crimson and deep indigo. The name ajrak is a derived from “Azrak”, which means blue in Arabic and Persian. (Bilgrami). These shawls display unique designs and patterns made by block printing. Over the years, Ajraks have become a symbol of the Sindhi culture and traditions.
Excavations at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa (2500BC-1500BC) have revealed that cotton was cultivated by the early inhabitants of the Indus valley. According to M.S.Watts, “at Harappa, there are quite a lot of noticeable traces of the woven material and threads, seemingly of cotton” (Bilgrami). An archaeologist John Marshall states “of cotton a few minute scraps found stick to to the side of a silver vase”. (Bilgrami).
It is believed by Ajrak makers that Ajrak is originated from Indus valley civilization where a sculpture of king priest was discovered with a shawl draped over his shoulder. There are also some interesting facts about the use of sindh cloth including the Egyptians. They used to clothe their mummies with that fabric, imported from Sindh which they called “Sindhin”. (Bilgrami)
The spirit of Ajrak printing is a celebration of nature, the way ajrak is made, craftsmanship, nature inspired designs and all the natural process and material is a witness to it. This can be seen in not only the production process but also in the final form by the complex merging of Ajrak’s motifs and colors and complicated designs. Traditional colors found in Ajrak printing are deep, intense and symbolic of nature: crimson red for the earth and indigo blue for the twilight (khatri). Black and white is carefully used to outline motifs and give definition to the symmetrical designs.
Ajrak today is traditionally used in Sindh from birth to death. It is used as a dock for newborn, covering head for girls, bridal ornaments, a shawl, a turban, a gift, bed sheet and token of respect to welcome the guests, it is also used to protect oneself from hot and cold and lastly, it is immensely used as a farewell wrap. Most of the politicians of Sindh had worn Ajrak in public meetings to show their respect, love and solidarity for their province.
However making of Ajrak is a long and complex process which takes a lot of time and craftsmanship. Craftsmen work from dawn to dusk. It goes through tearing of cotton pale into length of cloth and then soaked in water, allowed to pass steam through it, treated with different pastes, printed with blocks, sprinkled with camel and cow dunk, dye several times. These sub process also takes a lot of time, like making of these pastes and dyes require a lot of material, most of which are natural. Block making itself is a long process, wood from keekar tree is cut into small required size and designs are carved into these blocks with the help of sharp tools. Pattern designs are based on a geometrical grid, they stem from the common designed pattern that are found in all traditional crafts such as tiles, stone work, wood carvings, embroidery and other textiles.
This research aims to study and document the journey of traditional craft “Ajrak”; from how and where it originated from, how it is made and how this craft tradition is declining.
During the early Aryan period the rig-veda samitha – Hindu sacred text, composed in the second millennium B.C. refers to Sindh as ‘suvasa’ – the maker of good cloth, and in the first century A.D. the cloth imported by the romans from the east was known as ‘cendatus’ or cloth from Sindh. (Bilgrami).
The Usto – master craftsman, of Ajrak printing firmly believe that the shawl draped on the figure of the king priest is Ajrak and the trefoil motif is actually kakar (cloud) pattern. It is also thought to be composed of three sun discs merged together to represent the inseparable unity of the gods of sun, water and earth.
It’s been always believed that Sindh is good at making cloth. And Ajrak is still believed to be most durable cloth. Its durability is because of the natural processing and all the material used in its manufacturing and printing is natural.
The fabric went through different processes before coming into its form. Making of an Ajrak takes a lot of effort and time. The craftsmen work in total harmony with environment. The process is highly complex and comprising 21 stages. It takes the craftsmen almost a month to complete one traditional Ajrak. Art of this Ajrak is handed down from father to son and time has perfected this craft in long and complex process.
Making of Ajrak starts with tearing crisp white pale of cotton into length of cloth. It is then soaked in khaar – carbonated soda which helps to remove starch and impurity after which cloth is allowed to permeate steam, which opens the pores within the woven surface and soften interlocking, this process is called khumbh.
Gissi – camel dunk mixed with khaar and oil from eureka sativa plant. Each Ajrak is soaked into this mixture for eight days; it increases the softness of cotton fibers and enables to receive color. Sakuns – galls of tamarisk, helps fabric to get color from dye. Sakun balls are dissolved in water and cloth is soaked – kasai. These sheets are then dried in sun and dusted before taking to printing. (Bilgrami)
From the seasoned wood, a block is cut to the required size and sanded on a stone to get a leveled plane surface, which is then checked out by the edge of a steel rule. (Bilgrami). Pattern is then transferred from paper to block by aching fine lines along the surface of sheet of tracing paper. These carved designs are based on traditional crafts such as tiles, stone, wood carving, embroidery and other textile. Basic element of these patterns is mizan – balance. (Bilgrami)
Ajrak is then printed with kiryana. Kiryana resist paste is made with gum from keekar tree. Gum is pounded and crushed and then dissolved in water. Lime is added to form resist paste for printing. Phuli are small white stars printed with kiryana. Buffalo dunk is scattered between printing tables. Khaar mixture enables the cloth to receive red color at those areas which are printed at same time khaar mixture acts as a resistant and prevent same areas from turning blue. Cloth is then dipped in indigo vat and pulled out to breath in the oxygen from air. A dye, which is made by the roots of plants found in mountains, is used to give Ajrak its red color. Ajrak are then repeatedly dipped and lifted in steaming liquid and this process is repeated for two hours.
Once it is cooled down it is soaked in camel dunk and water, this helps to remove any excess of color that might enter white areas of Ajrak. Cloth is then scooped with water on river bank.
Ajrak are printed with khaar mixture once again, cow dunk is powdered on these wet areas to quickly dry it. Ajrak is then dyed again in indigo color and then taken to river for final wash and its folded while still damp.
Ajrak making is a long and complex process, all the material and processes are totally natural because of which it takes a lot of time. Ajrak is believed to be sacred cloth of Sindh. There are many workshops all over the Sindh where it is made with same old techniques. Ajrak is categorized into two different types, based on its manufacturing process and designs. Ajrak printed from one side ek-passi is an old technique which later developed to bi-puri Ajrak. (Printed on both sides). Ajrak which have same designs but different manufacturing processes are teli Ajrak, sabuni Ajrak, do rangi Ajrak and kori Ajrak. Whereas Ajrak which have same processing but are different because of their designs are hasho taweez, hasho jo asl, hasho selemee and hasho jo bazar. Manufacturing of an Ajrak takes a lot of time and a lot of craftsmanship; also the makers of Ajrak get very less profit from the whole sale buyer because of which it is quite threatening to keep this heritage alive.
Nature of this research is anthropology – the study of human societies and cultures and their evolution and development. An ethnographic study may be regarded as a tool, descriptive in nature, which goes to create a representation of the world as seen and experienced by members of a particular culture or group within that culture.
I have been strongly influenced by the belief that humans possess a deep aesthetic need not merely to decorate, but to give meaning to life through the influence of objects. It is through our involvement with material things and especially those things that have been imbued with special significance –a song, a certain shirt or dress, a drama or dance –that we attempt to give form to those ideas or feelings that are most important in our cognitive worlds. (Dissanayake).
Right from the beginnings of this research, I have been guided in a general sense by the structuralist assumptions that there exists within a culture a deep level of affiliation among even the most seemingly differing events or objects. The data collection is based on secondary sources, such as literature review and documentaries.
Ajrak is a part of Sindh culture since prehistoric times. It is highly adopted in their daily life purpose. It is used as a shawl for men, dupata for women, swing for children, as a token of respect, a pre sent for guests and as a canopy for animal’s cart. It’s a part of their life from birth to death. Production of Ajrak is a long and tough process comprises almost 21 different processes. From the selection of the fabric to the final touch of craft, every process takes place with full strength of mind. Men at workshops and women at houses work in total harmony.
Unfortunately, on the other hand making of Ajrak is highly difficult process. The real local Ajrak industry is declining rapidly, which can be clearly noted from different researches and reports narrated that due to negligence of people, more than 30 Ajrak factories have been demolished and replaced by iron steel and other industries. It occurs may be due to the unfavorable wages to the workers. Wholesalers pay very low prices to the craftsmen to keep their profit margin high, due to which no credit facilities are available to the workers caused decline of real Ajrak and preventing of traditional sources of livelihood. This situation eventually leads to the replacement of original Ajrak to the quicker printing method of the copy and fake Ajrak pattern.
Sun, Fire, River, Ajrak – Cloth from the Soil of Sindh,’ 1998
Bilgrami, Noorjehan. The Craft traditions of Pakistan, 2006
Anjali Karolia and Heli Buch,Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, Ajrakh the resist printed fabric of Gujarat ,2008