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Craftsmanship: The making of Ajrak

September 26, 2010

Ajrak is a traditional part of Sindhi culture. It usually measures 2.5 to three metres with special block printed designs and patterns in intense colours, mostly rich crimson and deep indigo with some white and black used to define the geometric symmetry in design. In Sindh, it is given as a token of respect to guests; men use it as a turban or wind it around their shoulders, while women use it as a dupatta or drape it as a shawl in winter. It is also placed on a coffin as a mark of respect.

Innovative people have used it in different ways and now kurtis and bed linen are being marketed internationally using the traditional Ajrak pattern. Its use can be traced to the ancient Indus Valley civilisation (3500-1500BC). A king priest figurine that has been unearthed in Mohenjodaro shows him draped in a shawl, which is believed to be Ajrak.

The process of making an Ajrak is highly complex and comprises 21 stages. The traditional craftsmen used indigenous, locally produced materials for the printing of Ajrak. Though the procedure is technically the same, natural dyes have been replaced, to a certain extent, by commercial dyes.

The fabric is cut and washed and the damp cloth is coiled and placed on a copper vat; the bundle is covered with a quilt to prevent steam from escaping and left through the night. The material is then soaked in Eruca Sativa oil and then knotted in a bundle and kept for two weeks so that the oil can permeate each fibre. This stage is crucial in determining the quality of the Ajrak.

The wet cloth is then dried before the printing process begins. For printing, the design is first outlined using a paste of lime, acacia gum and rice paste. This procedure is called kiryana. Then the areas to be printed black are stamped with a filler block.

The use of natural herbs and raw materials used in the making of the Ajrak is awe inspiring because the next stage of printing uses rice paste, alum, molasses, Fuller's earth, fennel and gum to form the mud resist-paste, called the Kharrh. It is applied on the white, black and the portions that are to be dyed red. This step ensures that the cloth is protected against the indigo dye so that when eventually the cloth is dipped in the alizarin dye, the other areas turn red.

The next step is dipping the cloth in an earthenware vat for the first indigo dye. After that, through a very painstaking procedure, the dyed fabric is taken to the river and thrashed till the gum and excess dye has been washed off and the white areas become clear. Camel dung is used to remove excess tanning and make the white clear.

In a large copper vat the Ajraks are dyed with alizarin. Heated by log fire the craftsman diligently lifts and immerses the cloth repeatedly for a couple of hours till the desired red colour is reached.

Ajraks are spread on river banks and sprinkled with water intermittently as soon as they dry. This drying and drenching bleaches the white areas and deepens the other colours.

Once the craftsmen are satisfied with this step, the Ajrak is printed again with Kharrh mixture i.e. the mud resist-paste and sprinkled with sifted dried cow dung before taking them for the final indigo dye.

The Ajraks are then taken for the final wash. The craftsmen fold the Ajraks whilst slightly damp and stack them. The Ajraks thus gets well pressed and there is no need for ironing. The result is the magnificent piece of art.