I have discussed the ajrakh block printing of Kutch, India in a few of my blog posts but have not yet written a post containing the details of the process (for details on the general background, read this post). In traditional ajrakh cloths, local artisans and clients could recognise the maker through the appearance of the cloth and process he had used. Each ajrakh artisan uses his own variation on the process. I learnt the process below from the renowned Ismailbhai of Ajrakhpur, who along with his sons Sufiyanbhai and Junaibhai, I am indebted to for their continuing help with my MA research.
1. The cloth is washed in water to remove any finish applied in the mill or workshop. It is crucial to remove these finishes for the dye to fix to the cloth. This is followed by a process known as saaj which involves soaking the cloth is in a solution of castor oil, soda ash and camel dung overnight, and leaving to dry the following day in the sun. When it is semi-dry, it is returned to the solution and then saaj and the drying stage are repeated (7-9 times) until the cloth foams when rubbed. It is then washed in plain water.
2. The cloth is dyed in a cold solution of myrobalan (powdered nut of the harde tree). This stage is known as kasanu. Myrobalan turns the cloth a yellow colour and works as a mordant, helping to fix the dyes. The cloth is then calendered, after which it is laid flat to dry in the hot sun.
3. Khariyanu stage. A resist of lime and gum arabic is printed on to the cloth to define the outline of the design. This is known as rekh. If the cloth is to be double sided, this stage is repeated on the reverse side of the cloth.
4. A paste is made by fermenting scrap iron (horse shoes, etc), jaggery (raw cane sugar) and besan (gram flour). This mixture is left to ferment which takes about one week in the hot season and two weeks during the cold season; a yellowish scum on the surface of the mixture indicates that it is ready for use. The liquid, or “iron water” is drained off and added to tamarind seed powder. The iron and tamarind solution is thoroughly mixed, and then boiled for one hour. The resulting “iron paste” is printed on to the cloth (kat) the colour is black.
5. Tamarind seed powder is mixed with alum (aluminium sulphate) and then boiled for one hour to produce a printing paste for red areas of the design. Traditionally geru (red clay) was used but chemical dye is now more common. Printing of the alum paste is known as kan.
6. A paste of alum, millet flour, red clay and gum arabic is printed on the cloth where there are large areas of red in the design. A resist of lime and gum arabic is also printed at this time; this combined stage is known as gach. Sawdust is sprinkled on to the printed areas to protect the design from smudging. After gach printing, the cloth is left to dry naturally for several days. The paste used for gach printing is made from local clay which is filtered through muslin, millet flour and alum. The millet flour is boiled and then red clay and alum are added and the paste is filtered to achieve the required consistency for printing.
7. The cloth is dyed in indigo (bodaw). In order to establish an indigo vat, natural indigo, sagikhar (a salt), lime, casiatora (seed from kuwada plant) and water are mixed in a clay vessel, plastic barrel or concrete vat. The dye bath is left to ferment for about one month; sometimes jaggery is added to this to aid fermentation. It is ready to use when the colour of the solution is yellowish (best quality) or greenish (medium quality). With an established indigo vat, indigo, jaggery and water are added as required to maintain the strength of the dye colour. A faster alternative to the above, is to make a solution of natural indigo, caustic soda and hydrosulphate, which is ready to use in one or two days.
8. Cloth is washed in running water and laid flat to dry in the sun. This stage is known as vichharnu.
9. Traditionally, this stage is either madder or al dyeing, depending on the availability of the dye stuffs. The cloth is boiled in a solution of tamarix (from the dhawri tree) and either madder root powder or al root powder and is then washed and sun-dried. But for some ajrakh, alizarin (synthetic madder) may be used, in which case the cloth is boiled in a solution of alizarin and tamarix powder. In all cases, the cloth is washed in plain water after dyeing and dried flat in the sun. At this stage (rang), the red and black areas of the design develop and the resist areas are revealed as white.
Alternative dyes that may be used at this stage in place of madder are rhubarb root and henna, which the Khatris have recently introduced.
10. Gach (alum printing – see 7) is repeated. The cloth is left for several days after this. This stage is known as minakari (from Persian, refers to enamelling but used in Kachchh to mean ‘double work’).
11. Second indigo dyeing (bodaw). Cloth is sun-dried.
12. The cloth is washed in running water and laid flat to dry in the sun (vichharnu).
13. Rang stage is repeated
If producing green ajrakh, the process is different from stage 10.
10. Resist printing (lime and gum) for white areas of the design.
11. Cloth is dried flat in sun. Pomegranate skins are boiled and the resulting liquid is sprayed on to the cloth. It is then dried flat in the sun. This stage is repeated two times.
12. A solution of turmeric and lime is then sprayed on to the cloth.
13. The cloth is dyed in alum solution and then washed in plain water and dried.
In the next post I will outline a simpler block printing process for an amateur that can be done at home (without the need for sun, and using accessible ingredients).
Varadarajan, Lotika, (1983) Ajrakh and related techniques.