Against the dull canvas of the Kachchh desert the rich and bold colours of the textiles are strikingly displayed. The millennia old tradition of weaving and dyeing textiles originated in this Indus Valley region in the North West of India, and is still in abundance today.
For a typical Kachchhi man or woman, their cloth is an essential everyday commodity and decoration as well as a symbol of their identity. Whether woven, embroidered, printed or tie-dyed, the textiles worn by a person in this area can reveal a multitude of details about their caste, gender, age, religious affiliation, marital status and economic standing.
The highly skilled and patterned ajrakh block-printing (read more about the process here) came to Kachchh from Sind 400 years ago when the Muslim Khatris (artisans who ‘apply colour to cloth’) settled in the village of Dhamadka. In 2001 a devastating earthquake severely damaged Bhuj, Dhamadka and other villages and towns all over the Kachchh region. In the wake of this tragedy, the Khatris were brought closer together and a new village was created to rebuild their lives and their craft production, aptly named Ajrakhpur (‘place of Ajrakh’). Today there are Khatris living and working in both villages.
Almost the whole village takes part in the block printing, and on entering, this is immediately obvious, with bright indigo, green and mustard yellow cloths drying out in one area and men whacking wet cloths at the washing ghats at another.
The constant sound of the wooden block being stamped with force onto the table echoes in the workshop and sounds almost like a heart beating. It is the sound that the craft is still going strong. Despite environmental disasters, the widespread industrialisation of the twentieth century and the changing political regimes, the traditional craft of ajrakh, its long and skilled process and complex geometric designs has survived.
A key figure in this preservation of ajrakh is the late Khatri Mohammed Siddique, who realised the new emerging markets for hand-crafted textiles. He revitalised the traditional use of natural dyes when realising its appeal amongst Western markets, and passed the knowledge onto his three sons Ismail, Razzaq and Jabba.
This survival and revitalisation of block printing along with embroidery, bandhani and other crafts of this region has also been stimulated by the various government initiatives, NGOs, textile companies and individual designers. Local school Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya (KRV) is one of the first of its kind, teaching rural artisans design and marketing skills. Many of the young generation of block printers have studied here and have gone on to be very successful.
The boys in Ajrakhpur and Dhamadka learn block printing from their fathers at the age of between ten and fifteen when they finish school. Often they are also natural entrepreneurs. With the marketing and contemporary design skills added, their opportunities are vast.
Visiting Ajrakhpur today, one can experience the buzz of new ideas happening amongst the young block-printers as they experiment with new designs but while also being sensitive to their own families’ traditions. This has made them into designers in their own right, as well as skilled artisans.
Khatri Junaid, grandson of Mohammed Siddique, created a successful final contemporary collection for his course at Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya – so successful that the whole collection sold during the graduation exhibition. He experimented with different combinations of blocks and placement of colour. Using traditional designs he added new colours to give a more contemporary look. His final collection was based on the theme of Kudrat – life and creation. Another collection was based on a sea theme and inspired by an observation he’d made that ‘patterns in the shell look like the sea’.
Khatri Irfan Anwar won an award for his collection for ‘most marketable’ at KRV. He had pushed the boundaries of traditional ajrakh by randomly printing the blocks onto a stole of mashroo fabric to create an elegant, unique piece. This could be controversial to many of the older ajrakh artisans as it rejects the use of symmetry, a practice traditionally synonymous with ajrakh art.
Khatri Sale Mohammed is experimenting with colour and instead of using the traditional shades of indigo, green, red, black and white, he has mixed alum and iron together to create a new grey/green colour. He has also used a traditional composition layout but incorporated his own contemporary designs into this.
Many of the artisans sell internationally and have shown their work in renowned exhibitions. The project ‘Resurgence’ which was also an exhibition gave them a chance to tell their stories of the earthquake and help them deal with the tragedy. More recently some took part in ‘New Voices New Futures, stories of sustainability’ to illustrate their ideas for creating a more sustainable craft practice.
In the face of climate change and globalisation, there is a rising trend for all things hand-made, eco-friendly and an awareness of a product’s origin and culture. Such trends and awareness are sustaining the Khatris’ livelihoods and helping to preserve their long standing heritage. Let’s hope these are not just fleeting fashions and that the Khatris will continue to provide the world with a fascination for highly skilled, hand-crafted textiles for many generations to come.
Places of Interest:
Dr. Ismail Mohammed Khatri (son of Mohammed Siddique) in Ajrakhpur invites tourists to come and stay with his family and learn the craft of ajrakh
Address: Ajrakhpur. Post: Kukma, Bhuj, Kachchh 370105, Gujarat, India.
KALA RAKSHA– headquarters, shop and museum
Address: Parkar Vas, Sumrasar Sheikh: Ta Bhuj, Kutch 370 001, India