One of the greatest accomplishments of the subcontinent is the development of the technique of dyeing and patterning of fabric. The Ajrak is the unique, block printed shawl, which is a symbol of Sindhi culture. The mystifying patterns are created using carved wooden blocks using a range of colors including blues, reds, black, yellow and greens. Ajrak has a long history, stretching back centuries. The famous stone statue of the Priest King excavated in Mohenjo daro is draped with a block printed garment over one shoulder. The design of circles and other motifs greatly resembles the ajrak of today. The people of Sindh hold it in great reverence and it is almost treated as if it were sacred. The garment is used by rich and poor alike and only the quality of the base cloth differs. Men, women and children use the ajrak in weddings, festivals, births and deaths. It commemorates all the significant events of the life cycle and is an indispensible part of Sindhi life.
The process of creating ajrak is extremely time consuming and labor intensive. The same process has been continued for centuries and is still in vogue today. The wooden blocks, fabric and dyes are the three essential ingredients. It may take up to three days for five wood carvers to inscribe a design on a single block of teak and thirty blocks may be used to create one garment. Additionally, separate blocks are required for the application of each color. Around twenty craftsmen take about eight hours to make one block printed fabric. Artisans work in harmony with the environment. The cloth is initially torn into strips and washed, usually around the edge of a river or other water body. This damp cloth is then coiled and placed on top of a copper vat to prevent the steam from escaping. Next, the vat is heated. The steam allows the opening of the pores in the cloth in order for the impurities to be cleansed easily. This process is referred to as ‘Khumbh’. A mixture of camel dung, seed oil and water is used to soak the fabric in the procedure called ‘saaj’. The dung enables the cloth to become softer and acts as a bleaching agent. Soon after, the wet cloth is tied into an airtight bundle for five to ten days, depending upon the weather conditions. Afterwards, the fabric is stretched out and dried in the sun. This is only the initial procedure of preparing the cloth for printing.
The rest of the work is carried out in a printing workshop. First, the cloth is soaked in a synthetic indigo dye. The use of natural dyes has been abandoned for quite a long time. The fabric is then washed to let the excess dye run off, and submerged in crimson dye. The finished product is dried off in natural light, after the usage of the wooden blocks. This alternate drying and drenching bleaches the white portions of the ajrak and deepens the colored areas.
This craft is slowly losing its vigor as the younger generation has begun to seek more lucrative work which is less labor intensive and gives short term gains. Artisans are reducing the number of steps in the ajrak making process to increase the number of pieces they can produce. Some have switched to cheap silk screen versions. The continuity and preservation of this craft is of extreme significance as it is an indispensable part of Sindhi culture and tradition.