An Ancient Art: Ajrak Block Printing

September 18, 2020
An Ancient Art: Ajrak Block Printing

Ajrak is an ancient block printing art that produces uniquely wonderful fabrics. The traditional elements include natural dyes derived from vegetables and minerals, intricately carved wood blocks, and special designs and patterns. The process is very time-consuming and demands a great deal of skill, experience and coordination.

Even preparing the fabric is complicated. Cotton yardage is torn by hand into 10-meter lengths and the raw cotton is scoured with soda ash. It may be soaked overnight or steamed for an entire day. As the cloth is washed it is beaten with wooden paddles.

Finally, it is washed in a myrobalan bath, derived from a native Indian tree. This imparts a light buttery color and prepares the fabric for further dye. Days and even weeks may be spent just in preparing the cloth before printing even begins.

The dyeing process itself is much more complicated than direct dyeing from chemical dyes. It combines three elements in various combinations: tannins, mordants, and vegetable dyes. These work together to produce a range of deep and lasting color. Altering the pH of the dye process or the temperature of a dye-vat will shift colors into cooler or warmer shades.

The design is printed using hand-carved wooden blocks and may be printed several times depending on the design. The first impression may create an outline, and subsequent printings add more pattern and colors.

One piece might use over 30 blocks, with separate blocks for different colors and designs. The fabric is washed after each printing and the water is recycled several times. Each stage alters the color and the change has to be anticipated for the final design to be accurate. Every step in the process demands focus and the results are a testament to the skill and expertise of the artisan.

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