The art of ajrakh
Sufiyan Khatri shakes out a length of cloth and a sky unfolds in the cramped family office, spilling stars. Blue like a summer twilight and patterned with intricate geometries, the cotton has an almost living warmth. Its red is the red of embers or garnets, its white rich as buffalo milk.
Sufiyan himself wears a crisper white, an immaculate kurta and skullcap, but the fingers holding up the fabric are midnight blue. “This is our true cloth,” he says with pride. “We call this design ajrakh. My father says you can see a universe within it.”
I have been picking through the stacks of hand-printed textiles for some time, inhaling their vegetable musk as I struggle to select from too much beauty. “My brother Juniad designed that,” says Sufiyan of the green and gold stole on the top of my pile. “Dyed with pomegranate, turmeric, iron and rhubarb. Beautiful, but not fully traditional.” He looks at the glowing fabric in his stained hands. “Ajrakh is the true design of the Khatris of Kutch.”
Eiluned Edwards, textile expert at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, describes ajrakh as “one of the most complex and beautiful cloths in the world.” The Khatris, the hereditary caste of dyers and block printers who make it, have worked in the desert region of Kutch in western India for ten generations. Their indigo fingers mark their trade.
Although the Khatris make ajrakh they do not wear it. Ajrakh is the traditional dress of the Maldharis, herders who roam the region’s cracked plains in a ceaseless search for water and grazing. For 400 years, Sufiyan Khatri’s family have been producing cloth for the Maldhari men, who use its lengths as turbans, lunghis and shoulder cloths. Both creators and wearers attribute protective properties to this fabric. Its indigo cools in the heat of the day, they say, while its madder red warms the desert night.
Sufiyan can name nine generations of his forefathers, right back to Jinda Jiva who first crossed the salt desert from Sind in present day Pakistan to settle in Kutch in the 17th century. Today, the family members extract dyes from the same plants and minerals, carve their woodblocks with the same designs, and print their cloth with the same combinations as their ancestors did.
Despite its simple palette (typically blue, white, red, black), ajrakh is immensely complex. From the initial washing of the cotton cloth in a solution of camel dung, soda ash and castor oil to its final boiling in madder or alizarin, the process involves up to 16 stages. In between, the cloth is soaked in myrobalan solution; hand printed in multiple stages with resists, mordants and dye; dipped in indigo; washed; beaten; and repeatedly sun dried. The cloth must rest in sunlight between each stage for the colors to mature, and on average it takes three weeks to complete a turban-length of ajrakh cloth.
Traditionally, the finest ajrakh is bipuri or double-sided, with the whole painstaking process of printing and dyeing repeated on both sides of the cloth. This ensured that Maldhari men, rising early to tend their livestock, could dress in the dark, confident that their lunghis and turbans were always pattern-side out.
However, the old symbiosis between the Maldharis and Khatris has broken. The herders have largely switched to buying polyester ajrakh, screen-printed with chemical dyes.
“Our traditional customers are poor,” says Sufiyan’s father Dr. Ismail. “They prefer to buy machine-made stuff. It’s cheap and hard-wearing. It doesn’t fade like natural dyes.”
The ancient knowledge of the Khatri dyers, with its vocabulary of color from henna, pomegranate, cochineal and turmeric, came close to fading away like old indigo. In the 1950s, when cheap chemical colors first became available, most Khatri families readily adopted them. Dr Ismail’s father Mohammad Siddique Khatri switched to chemical production too. However, unlike his peers, he retained a passion for the natural alchemies of plants and minerals and continued some traditional dyeing, even when the market had slumped.
His sons—Ismail, Abdulrazzak and Abdul Jaabbar—inherited the ancestral knowledge. Today they are renowned master craftsmen with international profiles and a booming business. Urban and foreign buyers have largely replaced the local market, but Dr Ismail is content. His family business prints many designs, but it is ajrakh they treasure.
As we chat, the rhythmic double thump of hand-carved blocks dipped in dye and pressed onto cotton carries from the workshop. Khatri boys grow with this sound always in their ears, familiar as a mother’s heartbeat.
“This pattern is alive,” says Dr Ismail. “So many traditions have broken, but my family has kept this pattern alive for centuries. We are lucky. We are surviving. This is a very sweet job.”
Does he mind that ajrakh has lost its traditional customers?
“They will come back. Your people switched to polyester and chemicals, and now they’re crossing the world to seek out natural fabrics and dyes. Our people will come back.”
And when they do, Sufiyan and his brothers and cousins, or their sons, will be waiting. “Our family has grown with this pattern,” says Sufiyan. “We will never hurt it.”