In Gujerat and Rajasthan there are still a few craftsmen who use the ancient traditional Ajrakh technique to make patterned cotton cloth. It is an incredibly complicated and time-consuming business. There are fourteen steps in the process, but basically, it is a reverse block print, with areas of cloth being treated to avoid dye. The technique is believed to be over 3,000 years old.
Preparing the khadi cloth is extremely important. It has to be washed, steamed in copper vats and then soaked in a mix of castor oil, ash and camel dung. It is bundled up whilst still wet and left until it starts to ferment. When it smells like mango pickle, it is done. The next stage is soaking in more oil and sodium carbonate for twenty four hours, washing thoroughly, and soaked again in a mixture of lemons, oil and molasses. It is finally washed and dried, then pegged out for printing. This is to open the cotton fibres so they will take up the dyes and the colours will be fast.
The artisans make paste of gum, rice flour, fennel, herbs and Fuller’s earth which is applied to protect the areas of the pattern which will be white, red or black. They immerse the cloth into indigo dye and then it is washed thoroughly to remove paste and dye. The next step is dyeing with madder in a copper, and then the cloth is laid out on a river bank. Before it dries completely, it is moistened again, causing the white areas to bleach out as the other colours intensify.
The cloth is covered with the paste again to cover the red areas. They scatter flakes of dried cow dung over the damp areas. Eventually, the cloth goes back into the indigo before being rolled up and washed in the river. Each of these stages takes 3-4 days.
Wood carvers chisel out incredibly precise patterns on blocks, so that when the pattern is applied, it matches up perfectly. Two blocks are made as mirror images. Traditional dyes are used to build up the entire design.
Shelly Jyoti is a textile artist who is campaigning to keep the Ajrakh tradition alive. I visited her exhibition (“The Khadi March: Just five metres”) currently at the India Habitat Centre last weekend. It was superb. I spoke to her for ten minutes about her work. My account of the process is shamelessly cribbed from her description. She has designed artworks depicting the Tree of Life, flags, clothing and patterns. I quite fancied hanging one on my bedroom wall in the apartment, until I learned that the prices start at over £1,000 each.
See more of her impressive work on her website: http://www.shellyjyoti.com/
Almost a century ago, Mahatma Gandhi objected to cheap, mass-produced, British cotton cloth being imported into India, flooding the market and destroying traditional cottage industries. For four months of the year when there is no agricultural activity, farmers could prepare cotton which they had grown to spin and weave into coarse cloth (khadi). This would reduce their dependence on imported goods and give them a source of income.
At one point, it was compulsory for members of the Congress Party to spin cotton thread for half an hour a day in solidarity with the rural poor. The first Indian national flag had a spinning wheel in the centre (this was later altered to a 27 spoked wheel or dhamma). The “just five metres” in the title of the exhibition refers to the amount of khadi cloth each city dweller needs to buy each year in order to revitalise rural cloth production.