Sindh is the land of colors and contrast and known as the culturally and historically rich province of Pakistan. Sindh is the pioneer of richest Indus civilization (3500-1500BC). A king priest figurine that has been unearthed in Mohen-jo-Daro shows him draped in a shawl, which is believed to be Ajrak. Ajrak is the identity of Sindh and Sindhi people.
Etymology of the Word “Ajrak”:
The word Ajrak is derived from an Arabic word “Azrak” which means ‘blue’. It usually measures 2.5 to three meters fabric with special block printed designs and patterns in intense colours, mostly rich crimson and deep indigo with some white and black used to define the geometric symmetry in design. Ajrak is much more than just a piece of fabric for Sindhis, it is symbol of pride for men as turban / shawl; and respect and glory for women as Dupatta / drape. People from Sindh also present this beautiful craft as gesture of hospitality to their guests. Ajrak is proudly used from cradle to grave and one who wrapped and buried in Ajrak is considered honored and his/her coffin perceived as a mark of respect.
Besides traditional use of Ajrak, some entrepreneurs also brought innovation and using this ancient art in contemporary trend by making tops, wall decorative items, bed linen, and conference bags. This product development opened avenues for artisans and products are marketed internationally using the traditional Ajrak pattern and modern use.
Ajrak Making Process:
The process of making an Ajrak is laborious, highly complex and comprises 21 stages. The traditional craftsmen used herbal indigenous colors, locally produced materials for the printing of Ajrak. Since thousands of years 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 the wooden blocks work started. Wooden blocks are carved from the AcaciaArabica 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.
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 alizarin (no longer in madder – Rubbia Cord-folia). 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.
Status of Ajrak Industry in Pakistan:
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. Unfortunately, on the other hand the real local Ajrak industry is declined rapidly, which can be evidently noted from different researches and reports narrated that due to negligence of people, more than 30 Ajrak factories have been demolished and replaced by iron steel and other industries. It occurs may be due to the unfavorable wages to the workers. Wholesalers pay very low prices to the craftsmen to keep their profit margin high, due to which no credit facilities are available to the workers resulted in decline of real Ajrak and weaning of traditional sources of livelihood.
This situation eventually leads to the replacement of original Ajrak to the quicker printing method of the copy and fake Ajrak pattern. But the trends have changed again and young generation is very eager to save its heritage and they value this treasure. This can be seen from the “celebration of Ajrak Day” at individual and institutional level.