Ajrakh consists of a central design panel contained by a series of borders with a border across. the width of the fabric at each end. Mohammad Siddik's sons - Abdul Razzak, Ismail and Abdul Jabbar - have a working vocabulary of fifteen to twenty-two different ajrakh designs. 'In old times there were more' (Ismail Mohammad Khatri, 10.1.01). The process of printing and dyeing ajrakh has between fourteen and sixteen different stages, uses twenty or so different wooden printing blocks, and takes up to three weeks to complete, depending on the season.
Prior to dyeing and printing, the cotton cloth is torn by hand into lengths suitable for use either as a garment or as a bed-spread. This is known as vetaranu. The cloth is then desized by washing it in a mixture of camel dung, soda ash, castor oil and water, after which it is left overnight folded in a sack (saj), weighted down with stones. The following day it is washed in a solution of soda ash, followed by vigorous rinsing in water (atpani). After calendering, the cloth is washed in myrobalan solution which is a pre-mordant, 'It opens the cloth to the colour' (Abdul Jabbar Khatri, 10.12.03). This stage is known as kasanu, Following kasanu, the cloth is laid flat to dry in the sun. Once the cloth is dry, the myrobalan powder is rubbed away. The cloth is then ready for the first stage of printing which is the resist of lime and gum (rekh). These areas will be white or pale in the final design. Both sides of the cloth are printed. The next stage is printing the fine black outlines (cut). This involves the use of a mordant or metallic salt that enables the colour to bond with the cotton fibers in this case the mordant is iron acetate. Iron paste is made by mixing pieces of rusting iron with water, chickpea flour and jaggery (raw cane sugar). The mixture is covered and stored, often in a recycled oil drum - and is left to ferment for a week or ten days. The resulting iron acetate solution is strained through a cloth and then boiled to reduce it to a consistency suitable for printing.
Cut is followed by the first stage of printing the red areas of the design for which alum is used as the mordant. The areas of fine patterning are printed with a mixture made from alum and tamarind seed powder (kan). Larger areas of red are then printed with a mixture of alum, red clay and millet flour (gachh) and sprinkled with saw-dust for protection while the paste dries. As alum is virtually colorless, the Khatris add a little fugitive colour to the paste so that the printers can see where to align the blocks. The full red colour will only be evident once the cloth has under-gone boiling in the red dye bath. After gachh, the cloth is dried flat in the sun and should, ideally, be left for seven days to allow a good colour to develop. Following this, the cloth is dyed in indigo for the first time (bordav), after which it is washed in plain water (vichharna). The next stage is boiling in either alizarin (synthetic) or madder root powder (rang), both of which are red dyes. Again the cloth is laid flat to dry in the sun and it is at this stage that the full ajrakh design becomes evident.
Traditionally, the whole process would then be repeated to produce the depth of colour expected by maldhari customers. These cloths are known as minakari, meaning 'double work', referring perhaps to the repeated process of printing and dyeing, and the fact that the cloths are printed on both sides. The origins of the term are Persian, and it is also applied to enameled gold jewellery in Gujarat.
The widespread availability of synthetic fabrics, fruits of the drive to industrialize that followed Indian independence, seriously threatened the continuance of ajrakh printing and the use of natural dyes. Mercifully, there is growing interest around the world in this most complex of fabrics and the international market for ajrakh and other block-prints is buoyant. 'My father once said that ajrakh looked like stars shining in a night sky' (Ismail Khatri, 18.10.03). Long may it shine.
My thanks to Abdul Jabbar Khatri for his contribution during the preparation of this article.