A for Ajrakh: A Beginner's Guide to Block Printing in India

The picture book on block printing 'A for Ajrakh: The A to Z of Block Printing' by Tulika Publishers was launched on 1st March at the Artisans Gallery by the eminent writer, illustrator and animator Nina Sabnani and  Sarfaraz Khatri, owner of Pracheen.  Nina Sabnani is also Professor, Animation Design at the Industrial Design Centre (IDC), IIT-Bombay and in attendance were her students at IDC.

A section of the students of IDC, IIT Mumbai at the book launch

The room soon filled up  This beautiful new book introduces young readers (10 years and above) to the art and craft of block printing. Sabnani has joyously collected anecdotes and techniques used by block printing craftsmen, and fellow designers from her alma mater NID (National Institute of Design). Her own deep reservoir of knowledge about fabrics is evident and she uses it to spin an alphabet book that is both informative and delightful.

Speaking at the book's launch at Artisan's Gallery, Sabnani recalled her first interaction with Sarfaraz and his father at their block printing unit. She likened the experience of seeing the wide array of blocks to being in a Mesopotamian library full of texts. Sarfaraz then went on to explain the time-heavy and technique heavy method used to handcraft the beautiful fabric of Ajrakh.Through the course of the talk, the audience learnt that indigo leaves, madder, rusted iron were some of the sources of natural colours used to make Ajrakh. We also learnt about the defining roles of the sun in drying and lime in fixing and curing the fabric. The process of making Ajrakh requires patience to allow the elements to do their task. The finished product is clearly worth the wait with the colour of the leaves, sun and earth captured on fabric to be felt and adored.

Sarfaraz Khatri of Pracheen and Nina Sabnani the author of A for Ajrakh, at the Artisan's Gallery

Sabnani's love of block prints started her course in fine arts, which deepened further at NID.

I never knew how to check one fabric from another. It was my life in NID that taught me and made me so passionate about this style. Because we travelled so much, we met so many craftspeople in Kutch. I used to hear these stories, about how Ajrakh came about; I met someone in Bagru and they told me something.

Then we went to Baag in Madhya Pradesh. So I have been collecting these stories in my head so to speak. And I thought it would be nice to share these stories. One way would have been to make a film, because that's what I do. But then something or the other would be left out. There are so many stories.

So the format of A to Z helped because one is you can cover a lot of ground without having to connect them. A doesn't need to talk to B. A speaks to B. So that format worked for us. Tulika was doing this series 'Looking At Art' and I thought it was a wonderful place to situate this. Because it is something we wear and we never really wonder how did this come to be, the process or the stories came to be.

I'll tell you about Ajrakh. I visited Isra Mohammed Khatri in Bhuj and then subsequently Ismail Bhai from Ajrakhpur also told me this story. So there was this Sindhi king who loooved bedsheets and he wanted to have a new bed sheet every day. So every morning the bedsheet had to change, a new bedsheet had to be put. And the new bedsheet was not like five white bedsheets had to be put; they have to be hand crafted. I think he was encouraging them to be more and more innovative. So fed up with all of these demands, a craftsman spent time putting sheets in the sun- boiled and washed and adding colours; he did all of that and he presented it to the king. "Uh-nice", said the king. So they put the bedsheet. So next morning, as usual, they came to change the sheets and he said "Ajrakh" in Sindhi, meaning keep it for today (Aj = aaj or today and rakh=keep).

So it was so shocking that the news travelled all over the town. "My God the king did not change the bedsheet." And what do you think happened the next day. He said, "Ajrakh". So he said it so many days that it came to be called Ajrakh.This is a nice story, but when I met Ismail bhai in Ajrakhpur. he said, "You know what? That's a nice story but it actually  means the universe, it means space. You can see the colours of the dawn and the dusk, of the sunrise and the sunset. All of them are in this. That is why it is called Ajrakh.

So such stories exist in all textbooks - the process, the evolution all of that. So I thought, the stories are missing. It is something that will cheer you up. Every time you put on your Ajrakh stole you would think about this Sindhi king saying "Ajrakh". There are several other stories also.

So the book has bits and pieces of these kind of narratives and so we tried to cover a bit of process, a bit of geography in which it evolved, some historical allusion and also the people, the communities involved in block printing and block making.

Beautiful Ajrakh patterns by Pracheen on display

I asked Sabnani what her expectations were when a child would be done with the book. She said she hoped that they would experiment with block printing by dipping cut vegetables in colour and making prints! She said she also hoped that it would open up a new vocabulary to them and they would start seeing the differences and beauty in the many handcrafted fabrics from different parts of the country. She wants children to see that this is a viable artform that people make to earn a livelihood. She hoped that they would see that they could explore art and design further.

An inner page from Tulika publications A for Ajrakh

The book is written and illustrated by Nina Sabnani. Each page showcases the fabric, place or equipment used in block printing. For example, N is for Neemboli, the seed of the neem tree used to colour fabric. V is for vat, the giant vessels that hold the dye.

A chapter 'Looking at the art of block printing on cloth' can be found at the end of the book.

The book leaves you with a sense of wisdom and wonder, particularly if you have little or no knowledge about block printing. One thing is for sure, you will never look at fabric the same and you will start seeing hand crafted cloth as wearable art.