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Creating Magic, One Block At A Time

A Photo Story on Ajrakhpur

A short drive from Bhuj (15 kms away), our MahindraXUV500 maneuvered narrow gravel roads as we curiously took in our first impressions of Ajrakhpur: A rather featureless view of whitewashed huts was oft interrupted by the peculiar sight of hundreds of stones lying scattered on empty ground, or at other times, covered by long sheets of boldly coloured fabric laid out in rows.

Creating Magic, One Block At A Time

This miniscule, and once-insignificant, village owes both its name and prominence to the ancient craft it is now home to, Ajrakh – and the sheets of fabric spread out in the sun to dry announced our arrival to Ajrakhpur.

A traditional block-printing technique, Ajrakh originated in Sindh (now, Pakistan) practiced by the Muslim Katri community over 3,000 years ago. In the 17th century, many of these craftsmen moved to Dhamadka in Bhuj, on invitation by the royal family in Gujarat and flourished there; until 2001, when the devastating earthquake in Bhuj, made them move yet again and re-settle in the present village, renaming it Akrakhpur.

Getting off the cars, we took in the views around us, exploring the modest setting, with no pretense of its worldwide fame. One of the most complex, and most sought-after, block-printing techniques, Ajrakh gets its name from the words ‘aaj rakh’ meaning ‘leave it for the day’ – symbolizing the laborious 16-step process that goes in its making, with the cloth left to dry after each stage.

Using the cyclical process of block printing, washing, and drying, the end result is a white cloth transformed into a kaleidoscope of colours and patterns, mirrored on both sides. The process takes anywhere between 2-3 weeks for each fabric. The commitment to the craft was rather enviable, thinking of the rushed lives the rest of us lead.

In store for us was a tour of the workshops, and a master class with Abdul Rauf Khatri, one of the doyen’s of the craft. He has been practicing the craft since he was 12. When asked, ‘what would be the most important skills to master the craft of Ajrakh?’, he answered, ‘focus and rhythm; if you leave the craft for one minute, it will leave you for five’.

Watching the craftsmen at work was nearly hypnotic – the block printing, requiring high levels of skill and concentration, was carried out with a mind-boggling ease. ‘Ajrakh is one design you don’t get bored of’, beamed Rauf bhai, ‘you know why? Not just because of its repetition in patterns, but also for its quintessential combination of deep red and indigo that mirrors the time of the day, when flaming red rays of the setting sun streak across the darkening, blue skies.’

Seeing the Ajrakh processes underway, we realised how it has exemplified ‘sustainable fashion’, from far earlier than it became the buzz word! The wooden blocks used are hand-carved, with the most intricate patterns, even as a printing is carried out in layers using a different block for each colour! The colours themselves are prepared from natural dyes – using indigo, pomegranates, henna, turmeric, mud, bark, scrape iron. Some hold that ‘ajrakh’ comes from the Arabic word for ‘indigo’ that once thrived in the region. Further, it uses no machinery – all processes are carried out by hand, providing steady employment to local communities.

As we tried our hand at the craft, we were humbled by the simplicity and diligence of the men at work, creating magic one block at a time.