This shawl was purchased by Dr. Reem Tariq El Mutwalli on one of her trips to Canada. It is an excellent example of how traditional techniques and practices are continued to be adopted in the textile industry.
This (ochre) yellow (chanderi) silk (shawl) resembling the 19th century European (long_shawl) in dimension is a 21st-century printed piece. Embellished with (ajrakh) printed floral motifs in green and brown it has a cotton canvas lining machine stitched to its underside and rows of a single line (kantha) or quilt-style embroidery running all across it. Both the canvas fabric and the thread used for the kantha embroidery are of the same shade or ochre as the base fabric.
The intricate yet dense design decorating the entire shawl is executed using a very specific (block_printing) technique – ajrakh – that originated and is unique to the Sindh and Gujarat regions of the Indian subcontinent. The piece can be broadly divided into two (phala), a pair of (hashiya), and a (matan); however, it does not follow the traditional style. Instead, its modernity is reflected through the non-traditional distribution of the design elements specially in the phala and the hashiya.
Traditionally a hashiya would run along the entire length of the shawl sometimes even merging with the (tanjir) in the corners if both had similar designs. In this shawl the hashiya runs only the length of the matan thus creating a frame around it. It is composed of a repeat of a four-leaf clover-like floral motif in a line and is encased between two thinner lines with a similar motif but on a smaller scale.
The phala is composed of a total of six layers. The outermost layer is repeated with a floral arrangement of a (palmette) like bloom between stylized columns. The second, fourth, and sixth layers resemble the hashiya. The third layer consists of stylized archways separated by stylized columns. Each archway is in the form of a hexagon and displays an elaborate floral bouquet within it. A floral (jaal) fills the spaces between the archways. The fifth layer has seventeen tree motifs arranged in a single line. Resembling a cypress or pine tree these motifs are composed of green foliage and brown branches and roots.
The matan or body of the shawl is densely packed with alternate repeats of a fully blossomed flower with foliage at its base and top and a palmette. The space between the motifs is filled with intricate and complex floral arrangements. The shawl is finished with a series of fringes created by twisted black threads and small green pompoms attached to the (warp) ends.
Ajrakh is a traditional form of block printing that has been practiced for centuries in the Gujarat and Sind provinces of India and Pakistan respectively. Passed down from generation it involves a meticulous printing process of natural dyes and resists into intricate designs.
The origins of ajrakh printing can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization (c. 8000 BCE – 1300 BCE). Early human settlements in the lower valley of the Indus River and its tributaries had gathered the knowledge of cultivating and using cotton fiber to make clothes similar to ancient Egypt. Several archaeological remains – e.g. the bust of the Priest King at the National Museum of Pakistan – excavated from the ruins of the Indus Valley region proves the existence of resist dyeing and block printing techniques.
Although the tools and equipment used for the procedure is universal to block printers across the subcontinent, the technique is unique, laborious and time-consuming. Beginning with the washing of the fabric – traditionally cotton or silk – to remove any impurities, to soaking in a solution of a natural dye and mordant that would help fix the colours – the traditionally indigo, root of madder, pomegranate rind etc – to the fabric all have a uniqueness in its execution and methods that requires great skill and patience.
Intricately hand-carved wooden blocks are used for dabbing the colour before transferring the ink by stamping it on the fabric – a procedure that is repeated for every stamp. Once the fabric is stamped and printed it is line-dried in a large open space before washing it to remove any excess dye and then treated with alum and tamarind paste to set the colours.
Traditionally a true ajrakh fabric was only worn by men and a true ajrakh block must be a square with four matching sides and corners.
Practiced since ancient times, the tradition grew from the combination of local skills and needs thus generating and developing isolated sub-styles within the craft. However, it was not until the Mughal patronage that a deep influence of strong geometry was seen that is often associated with the craft today. During this time the blocks were designed following the Islamic architectural element of balance and order – Mizan – where repetition of patterns was determined by grids and symmetric representation of the elements were portrayed.
The involvement of the Muslim Khatri community of the region in the craft for over four centuries made them the torch bearers as they developed and passed their skills and knowledge to the younger generations. Each family within the community has their own secret process and techniques or uniqueness in its recipe for colours. No two families will follow the same sequence of procedures or even names of materials and print pastes thus making each piece of ajrakh cloth unique.
Today with worldwide recognition ajrakh print is not just celebrated for its intricate designs and vibrant colours but also its sustainability. From textiles to decorative items, it has become synonymous with the cultural heritage of both Sind and the Kutch region of Gujarat.
- Sethi, Ritu. Handmade for the 21st Century: Safeguarding Traditional Indian Textiles. UNESCO, 2022.
- “Textile Guide: Ajrakh.” House of Wandering, 26 Jul. 2016, www.wanderingsilk.org/post/2016/07/26/textiles-360-ajrakh