Art History/Craft History, Craft, Handloom, Art, Craftspersons/ Artisanal, Cultural, Creative Industries

Ajrakh: Sustaining a traditional craft in Kachchh

Khatri, M. Abduljabbar, Khatri, Adam


Issue #002, Winter, 2019                                                                            ISSN: 2581- 9410

1 Introduction

This essay has been developed by Abduljabbar M. Khatri (“Jabbar”) and his son, Adam,who are hereditary block printers, in conversation with Eiluned Edwards. It focuses on ajrakh, the signature cloth of the Khatri block printers of Dhamadka village in Kachchh, and Jabbar and Adam reveal the social, economic and developmental changes that have affected both the family business and the craft across time. They identify the ways in which a craft with an ancient lineage has survived and is relevant in the digital age. In this respect, they offer a perspective that is rarely heard, or published, that of the artisan as an agent in determining his or her own destiny. It presents a vivid account of the challenges confronted by contemporary block printers and their own quest for viable solutions.

Jabbar has taken an active part in the British Academy By Design project, contributing to the research programme, running a 3-day printing and dyeing workshop for staff and students at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), participating in two symposia: the first held at NTU in March 2016; the second at the India International Centre in January 2017 where he was joined by his eldest son, Adam. Their work featured in the exhibition, Imprints of Culture: Block Printed Textiles of India, held at Bonington Gallery, NTU February-March 2016. They are collaborating with Eiluned on a book about ajrakh.

 2 Traditional ajrakh

Eiluned: As ajrakh is our focus, perhaps you could start by describing what it is and then talk about your family’s involvement with the craft.

AJMK: Ajrakh is a speciality of Kachchh district, Gujarat, Thar region, Rajasthan and Sindh Pakistan where it is made by the Khatris. We print the cloth on both sides using mordants and resists, and dye it in indigo and madder. The process takes two to three weeks to complete. (fig 1)Our traditional customers are animal herders – maldharis. They use ajrakh for dress and wear it as a lunghi, shoulder cloth and turban. (fig 2) It is my hereditary craft and I am the ninth generation of my family to work as a block printer and dyer in Dhamadka. My father, Mohammad Siddik, taught me the craft.Like all dyers in Kachchh from about 1945 on wards he worked with chemical colours which our customers liked. But he had a special interest in natural dyes and thought, “This is our traditional craft but not our traditional colours”, so he started working with natural colours again, indigo, madder, and iron for black, and taught me and my brothers (Abdulrazzak and Ismail) how to use them. (fig 3) Since 1972-73 our family has worked only with natural dyes.

Eiluned: Your father actually led the revival of natural dyes in India and helped to re-establish them on a commercial basis. Can you tell us how that happened? What things helped with that revival?

 3 Gurjari

AJMK:In 1973, the government set up Gurjari – Gujarat State Handicrafts and Handlooms Development Corporation. The Managing Director was Brij Bhasin. He came to Kachchh searching for different crafts and wanted to buy directly from artisans – that’s how he met my father. Mr Bhasin invited my father to make ajrakh for the Gurjari shop in Ahmedabad. My father knew our traditional market was nearly gone. Our local customers had started to wear polyester ajrakh, and by then, many had also changed to wearing shirt-pants, so our local business was finished. Mr Bhasin sent some designers from the National Institute of Design (NID) to help my father develop new products for the ‘city market’; ZulekhaGoolry, Madhurima Patni, and Archana Shah came to our village. I want to say something about those original designers: they came by local bus to find us, they slept outdoors, and our village people didn’t like outsiders staying in Dhamadka so it was not easy for them. (see Archana Shah’s essay in this collection)

Eiluned: So, it was through Mr Bhasin and Gurjari that your father started to produce for a new market in the 1970s. Traditional textiles were adapted for new products – can you tell us what sort of goods your father started to make? How did the change from old customers to new ones affect your family business?

Jabbar: He made ajrakh bed sheets, table cloths, napkins, cushion covers, also in other designs like jimardhi and buti.  Before the Gurjari work, our production was small; sometimes selling was good, sometimes very little. If the rains came then maldharis had money and would buy new ajrakh. When there was drought, they didn’t. With Gurjari, our business grew. Gurjari gave a lifeline to all crafts in Kachchh.

Eiluned: That was good, wasn’t it? Steady orders and regular money.

Jabbar: Yes. My father also started showing his work at exhibitions in India and in foreign countries. He was invited to Sweden and the USA – then people were interested in our craft and they started coming to Dhamadka to visit our workshop.

Eiluned: I know there was a lot of interest in ajrakh in Japan where they have a long heritage shibori (resist-dyeing). There is such a variety of resist techniques used in Kachchh: printed resists like the lime and gum that you use in ajrakh; the wax resist that block printers use in Mundra; and the tied resist of bandhani. (figs 4-6)They started to come to the attention of many people and not just in India.

Jabbar: Our work reached more people, and more visitors, foreigners and city people, came to our workshop.

Eiluned: Working with Gurjari and combining modern design with a heritage craft created a whole new market for ajrakh that extended beyond India. These initiatives helped to sustain your craft. I know you and your brothers haven’t worked with Gurjari for sometime, but you have continued to work with designers. Could you and Adam give a few examples?

 4 Designers and entrepreneurs

AJMK: We still work with Archana Shah.She uses our block prints mainly for fashion. (see Archana’s essay in this collection)

Eiluned: Archana established one of the first designer stores in India. She was also one of the first designers in India to marry fashion and craft on a commercial basis. Who else have you worked with?

Jabbar: We also worked with Jenny House go in Delhi. In 1991-92, she showed us a photo of one of the Fustat textiles in the museum in Paris and asked if we could print it.

Eiluned: Just to explain what the so-called ‘Fustat textiles’ are for people who haven’t heard of them, they are fragments of Indian painted and block printed cottons produced for the Egyptian market in the medieval period (9th-16th centuries). (fig 7)They were found (although not properly excavated) in the environs of Fustat near Cairo in the early 20th century. There are caches of these fragments in several museums including the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Kelsey Museum, University of Michigan, USA and Musée Guimet in Paris.

Jabbar: Jenny pushed us to use more colours; up to that time, most of our work was with indigo, madder and iron.

Eiluned: So blue, red and black.

Jabbar: Yes. With Jenny we developed yellow and green.

Eiluned: Was it difficult?

Jabbar: We already knew those colours but didn’t use them for ajrakh. Yellow we make with pomegranate and turmeric. For green, first you dye the cloth with indigo then again with yellow. Our traditional products have a lot of patterns so if the dye is patchy, you can’t see it but for plain colours and big areas, it can be a problem.

Eiluned: How did you solve it?

Jabbar: My brother Ismail made a spray pump, so we sprayed the cloth yellow after printing. The results were much better than smearing it on with a rag.

Eiluned: I remember seeing Ismail’s invention in action: one man using a bicycle pump to power the spray, then three or four others to keep it going. Now you have a diesel-powered version that is much easier to use and allows you to dye far more cloth in a short space of time.(fig 8) And I know that you do many more colours now – your range has expanded a lot.(fig 9)

Jabbar: Our fabric range is also bigger; now we work with wool, silk, Chanderi (cotton-silk mix)and Maheshwari(cotton-silk mix) as well as cotton.

Eiluned: I know Fabindia demands a huge variety of fabrics and prints – tell us about them.

Adam: We started working with Fabindia in 1995. Now they are our biggest customer. One order can be as much as 10,000 metres. They take ajrakh and many other designs from us.

Eiluned: John Bissell originally concentrated on using what he called, ‘those fabrics which cannot be easily duplicated on a machine’.[i] But Fabindia has undergone considerable expansion since 1999 when his son, William, took the helm. While generating opportunities for block printers like Jabbar and Adam, it has also imposed tight schedules and price points that some artisans find hard-to-meet. Perhaps you could talk about how you manage working on such large regular orders. It must be quite a challenge. Is labour a problem? The orders from Fabindia provide work for many printers but if the men are not available – what do you do?

Jabbar: Labour is a problem. It takes more than two years before a new man understands this work and can manage good printing. Just now I’m training two new printers.

Eiluned: Does it mean that you have to turn work away?

Adam: No. So far, we have managed. We have our regular customers, including some designers like Rajesh Pratap Singh and Asif Shaikh. After Fabindia, our next biggest customer is Maiwa Handprints.

Eiluned: How long have you been working with Maiwa? How do you organise the work?  Fabindia is based in India but Maiwa is a company based in Vancouver, Canada.

Adam: We get large orders each year from Maiwa Handprints, from Charllotte Kwon. We started working with her in 1997. We do two orders for Maiwa each year: bed sheets, table cloths, cushion covers and yardage. The Maiwa design team comes every year to discuss designs, any new developments, and to check the quality. They give us six months lead time on each order.

Jabbar: Maiwa Foundation gave us good support after the Gujarat earthquake in 2001 when we lost our workshops and homes, and has helped us with water problems. We also received good help from many other organisations such as Dastakari Haat Samiti and the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind.

Eiluned: I know you and your brothers don’t like to dwell on the earthquake, but your community had to re-build the whole village while dealing with loss and grief. It was the hardest time. But some problems continue; can you tell us about some of them?

 5 Problems: water and copying

Jabbar: After the earthquake, there was more iron in the water at Dhamadka which made our colours dull. Our community decided to buy land and build a model village with a central effluent treatment plant, rain water capture and water recycling – all these things. (fig 10) That village is Ajrakhur and sixteen years after the earthquake, our project is not finished.

Eiluned: I know there has been a lot of ‘red tape’, and difficulty with funding for the project despite support from NGOs and others like Maiwa Foundation. I think block printers all over India have the same urgent environmental problem: water shortage.

Jabbar: There is no water management at any level. When my nine times grandfather came from Sindh, why did he come to Dhamadka? Because there was a river: the river Saran. Our work needs running water for washing and dyeing. (fig 11) Kachchh is a desert area and in the past thirty-forty years, so many people have made tube wells and are taking ground water that now you have to drill down over two hundred feet for sweet water. More salty water is coming with iron and other minerals and this is not good for our craft. The water situation is the biggest threat to our craft.

Eiluned: You’ve also mentioned labour but are there any other things that threaten your craft?

AJMK: Copying. People come and take a sample of our work then they copy it on a screen; now they’re doing digital prints as well. Many units in Rajasthan do this, some designers, too; even in Dhamadka there are men who screen print ajrakh and sell it as hand print.(fig 12)

Eiluned: Will G.I. registration (Geographical Indications) of ajrakh help to stop this? It’s what the 2003 Act is for…

Jabbar: Maybe… but any legal case takes time and costs a lot of money; screen prints and digital prints are very quick and easy to do and then they are on the market.

 6 Conclusion

Eiluned: I think from all that you’ve said your craft is economically viable for the time-being, but it’s threatened by large scale environmental issues. In order to sustain it in the environment of Kachchh, effective government support is needed; moreover, a long-term environmental management plan needs to be in place. Similarly, to protect your cultural heritage against copying and misuse, the government must ensure that the Geographical Indications Act (2003) has teeth.

Jabbar: Without some government plan our heritage is at risk.(fig 13)

List of illustrations

Figure number:

1: Printing ajrakh at workshop of AbduljabbarM. Khatri, Dhamadka. 2010.

2: Maldharisfrom Banni area, north Kachchh, wearing ajrakh.2010.

3: Adam dyeing cloth in indigo at Dhamadka. 2010.

4: Jabbar printing lime and gum resist at Dhamadka. 2010.

5: Printing wax resist (batik) at Mundra. 2013.

6: Ali Mohamed Isha at Bhuj: tied resist (bandhani). 2001.

7: Design known as ‘Woven Cargoes’ derived from medieval prints for Egypt and Southeast Asia. Printed by Ismail M. Khatri at Ajrakhpur. 2010.

8: Spray-dyeing yellow with pomegranate and turmeric at Dhamadka. 2013.

9: Sufiyan’s scarves and stoles on the washing line at Ajrakhpur, dyed with a variety of natural dyes. 2012.

10: Central Effluent Treatment Plant at Ajrakhpur. 2015.

11: Ghat system at Dhamadka whereby the cascade is powered by an electric pump drawing water from the aquifer. 2013.

12: Screen-printing unit at Dhamadka. 2010.

13: Ajrakh: detail of hanso border. 2010.

All photographs taken by Eiluned Edwards with permission of the participants ©2017

[i] Singh, R. (2010), The Fabric of Our Lives. The Story of Fabindia. New Delhi: Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, p. 40


[1] Singh, R. (2010), The Fabric of Our Lives. The Story of Fabindia. New Delhi: Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, p. 40


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