"Ajrak Cloth from the Soil of Sindh"
(by Noorjehan Bilgrami )
Nature plays an important role in the making of Ajrak. The craftsmen work in total harmony with their environment, where the sun, river, animals, trees and mud are all part of its making. Cloth is torn into sheets and taken to the river to be washed. The damp cloth is then coiled and placed on top of a copper vat and the bundle covered with a quilt to prevent the steam from escaping.
This vat is heated by a log fire, through the night and the next day. The steam opens the pores of the cloth and makes it soft so that the impurities can be easily cleansed. This process is called Khumbh.
In the next stage, called the Saaj, the fabric is soaked in a mixture of camel dung, seed oil and water. The dung enables the cloth to become softer and acts as a bleaching agent. This stage is very crucial in determining the quality of an ajrak. The wet cloth is then tied into an airtight bundle and kept for 5 -10 days, depending upon the weather. A distinct smell of mango pickle emanating from the bundle confirms that the fibers have been well soaked with oil.
The cloth is then dried in the sun and it goes through another oil treatment. The oil is curdled with Carbonate of Soda solution and the cloth is soaked in this mixture to ensure that the fibers receive maximum oil. After a thorough wash in the river the next day, they are soaked in a mixture of Sakun made with Galls of Tamarisk, dried lemons, molasses, castor oil and water. The women usually prepare this mixture at home.
Till now the cloth was only given a base preparation. The wet cloth after drying is then brought to the workshop for printing.
At this point I shall digress a little to talk about the wooden blocks. They are carved from the Acacia Arabica trees, indigenous to the Sindh region. The repeat pattern, which gives the design its character, is determined by a grid system. The pattern is first transferred to the block and then carved with great precision by the block-maker, who uses very simple tools. The blocks are carved in pairs that can register an exact inverted image on the other side. Today, there is only one surviving member of a family of block-makers whose forefathers were skilled in this craft.
The cloth goes through the first indigo dye, which unfortunately, is now synthetic indigo, as the usage of natural dyes had been abandoned over 50 years ago. Usually the master-dyer, known as the Usto himself does the dyeing in the vat. The dyed cloth is then taken to the river the next morning before sunrise.
All the sheets are submerged in the water for at least an hour. To a rhythmic count, the craftsmen swish and thrash the ajraks in the water for an hour or more until the gum and the excess dye have been washed off and the white areas become clear.
Printing of the Kiryana, the outline resists to remain white after dyeing.
In a large copper vat the ajraks are dyed with alizarine (no longer in madder – Rubia Cordifolia). Heated by log fire the craftsman diligently lifts and immerses the cloth repeatedly for a couple of hours till the desired red color is reached.
Soaking of ajraks in Sakun solution
On the banks of the river, for tapai, the red ajraks are spread out to partially dry in the sun, the artisan scoops the water to sprinkle on the cloth. The alternate drying and drenching of the cloth bleaches the white areas and deepens and matures the other colors. This continues for a couple of hours before they are washed, dried and then taken to the workshop.
The mud resist mixture is again printed to cover the red areas and immediately sprinkled with the sifted, dried, cow dung to dry the wet areas, called meena.
The thick, mud-encrusted cloth is folded and slowly lowered in the indigo vat for the second time. The ajraks are dried, rolled into a bundle and then taken to the river for the final wash. The craftsmen fold the ajraks while still damp and the weight presses them as they become dry.
Will there be a continuity of this ancient laborious craft tradition? The younger generation is seeking more lucrative work that is less labor-intensive with short-term gains. Some are taking short cuts by reducing the number of essential stages in the making; others simply have switched to printing cheap silk-screen versions.
The continuity of ajrak has persisted over centuries only because it is an integral part of Sindhi culture. Its usage is evident at all levels of society and the cloth is held in high esteem with the utmost respect given to it.
I hope we can together give protection to preserve this amazing process and the ancient craft tradition.