Ajrak: The cost of keeping the art alive

By Dr Taneer Ahmed

Upon hearing the words “Bhit Shah craft centre”, my mind’s eye had conjured an image of a bustling bazaar, rife with activity, aplomb with colour. Where tourists and locals alike were strolling along, engaged in equal parts admiration and bargaining, eager to take home their resplendent finds.

Perhaps I had been misled by the bright and busy marketplace winding up to the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. The “craft centre” was less a centre and more a series of nondescript, isolated shops at some distance from the roadside.

I was travelling across Sindh with a group of students much younger than I was, some of whom were already walking out of the stores holding their noses, seemingly baffled. The majority, however, had thronged to a small shop and was haggling with urgent determination.

“Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai Ajrak Centre”, read the fading panaflex serving as a signboard above the storefront.

Drawn by the commotion I stepped into the shop. All was darkness and chaos. Overwhelmed shopkeepers were trying their best to accommodate their rambunctious customers’ demands.

 “We’ve never had so many people at the same time before!” exclaimed the man behind the counter, apologetically.

The interior was dingy and musty with hardly any room to breathe. For something included in all travel itineraries of Bhit Shah, the shop seemed remarkably unremarkable, barring the overly zealous salesmen.

Baji, what would you like to buy? We have all sorts of ajrak here, all genuine!” chimed a salesman standing near the source of the smell that had been driving students away. It seemed to a printing station and washing area of sorts.

“We finish making ajrak here.” he replied, noticing my scrutiny.  

“Really?  Can you tell me how it’s made?”

“I’m not a craftsman, baji. Let me call saiyeen.”

Saiyeen was Abdul Aziz, a portly man with kind eyes who owned the shop. He gestured for me to sit.

“How can I help you?” he asked.

“Are you also a craftsman here?”

“Yes, baji. This is my father’s shop. It’s our family business. We’re all craftsmen here.”

“We?”

“Four of my brothers and me.”

“And all of you make ajrak?”

“Yes, we’ve been working here since we were 13 or 14. My father taught us the craft; he learnt it from his own father.”

“Wow! Can you please tell me how you make ajrak?”

Abdul Aziz laughed. “Baji, it would take me all day to explain! It’s a complicated process with so many steps that it’s completed in 40 days!”

“And you do it all by hand?” I asked, marvelling at my ignorance about our culture. But Aziz was about to remedy that soon.

“You see, the ajrak is more than a cloth to us. It’s sacred. It’s our pride and our livelihood. Do you know this art dates back to the time of the Prophet? He used to wear ajrak and prayed for the craft to survive till the Day of Judgment!”

At this point, he began to rummage around in the pile of ajrak in front of him and I caught a glimpse of his hands. His fingers were heavily callused and stained dark blue. The colour, however, was not coming off on any of the garments. It seemed to have melded with his skin.

“This will probably wash off when they’re performing ghusl on me.” he joked.  

He fished out a beautiful patterned ajrak.

“Look at this closely. It’s so intricate— you’ll only see this level of detail in original work. We print it by hand on both sides. But there are so many machine-made copies in the market now—people don’t care about the art,” he sighed.

Baji, I’ll tell you the process so you know how much work goes into it. But tell me, who will keep this art alive after we’re gone?”

The ajrak starts off as a piece of white cloth which is washed thoroughly to rid it of impurities. It is a sacred cloth after all. The next stage is known as khumbh where the damp cloth is coiled and placed on a copper vat for the night. After that it is soaked in a mixture of camel dung, seed oil and water— a stage known as saaj.

The cloth is then left in firm bundles to dry for around 10 days depending on the weather. Next comes the printing: foremost is the printing of the white pattern—kiryana—with the resist paste of lime and gum. This is followed by kut: printing of the black areas by ferrous. Lastly, a resist paste, kharrh, comprising gum, flour and a mixture of herbs and spices embellishes the garment.

At this stage, it is dyed with indigo—rich and deep enough to leave an everlasting impression. This is followed by viccharch where the craftsmen beat out impurities and excess dye from the ajrak after washing it again. He lamented the lack of fresh water in their area— the water in use had been stored since almost a year.

It goes to the river then for tapai or drying. One of the last few stages is meena: a slathering of the mud-resist mixture over red areas. The cloth is folded and dipped again in the indigo dye. Finally, after drying, bundles of the cloth are carried to the river for their last wash.

Aziz had a good laugh at my dumbfounded expression once he had finished.

“That’s why the ajrak is such a blessed cloth, baji! Whoever stores it becomes a millionaire. But we, the poor craftsmen, suffer. We have to buy the cloth and dyes on our own which causes great losses.”

“What can be done about his, Aziz sahib?”

“We should be called to exhibitions in the big cities. I wish more people would see our work.”

I looked around at his tiny shop; here was his and countless other artisans’ work fading away because of the sheer negligence of authorities. The sacred cloth of Sindh, believed to be a remnant of the great Indus Valley civilisation, at risk of no longer existing in its original form.