It is the world’s only natural blue dye, claims Indigo expert Jenny-Balfour Paul, research fellow at University of Exeter in the UK, and author of Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans (2011).
Like Balfour-Paul, who has been researching the subject for two decades now, indigo – the plant, the dye, and its politics -- has fascinated many textile enthusiasts, scholars and artists.
Among them is Delhi-based textile artist Shelly Jyoti.
For Jyoti, a graduate in literature and fashion technology, however, the ‘indigo trail’ led to another discovery of sorts. In 2008, while researching the indigo dye, Jyoti landed in Bhuj in Gujarat, where she discovered Ajrakh, one of the oldest block printing techniques in the world. Here, in the village of Ajrakpur, in the house of Ismail Khatri, one of the renowed, ninth-generation Ajrakh printers, Jyoti decided that the complex process of Ajrakh printing would now feature in her works.
“At that time, I was studying Gandhiji’s Champaran movement, and the revolt of the indigo farmers who were being exploited by the British. The Gandhian philosophies of non-violence and swadharma appealed greatly to me. In Bhuj, however, I learnt that Ajrakh is the Arabic word for indigo, and I knew I had to work on this,” Jyoti recalls, as she prepares to set up her upcoming exhibition titled ‘The Khadi March: Just Five Metres’ a collection of 20 Ajrakh works and installations on khadi at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi.
What began with her trip to Bhuj -- “full of foreigners” interested in textile block printing – continued as the history of Ajrakh in the subcontinent unravelled in her research.
For instance, Ajrakh craftsmen -- the Khatris -- migrated to Kutch from Sindh and Balochistan in Pakistan in 16th century CE , when the then king of Kutch invited them to settle in the region. While initially the Khatris settled in the Kutchi village of Dhamadka, in the aftermath of the 2001 earthquake, they had to move from Dhamadka to Ajrakhpur, a recent settlement of artisans.
Going back further, the history of Ajrakh has been traced to the Indus Valley civilization, around 2500 BC to 1500 BC. Textile scholars and historians have also documented the ‘Egypt connection’ — in 1930, fragments of Ajrakh prints were found in Fustat, Cairo’s first Islamic settlement. The largest collection – 1200 scraps of cloth – is now at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
“According to the curators, Ajrakh was a utilitarian garment cloth, and not a luxury item. It was desirable in Egypt because of the high quality of its colour fast dyes and the intricacy of its designs,” she says.
The fast colour is perhaps also one of the forgotten charms of the fabric — a true Ajrakh, never really loses colour, because of the laborious process that involves washing the fabric several times, a step that many modern day printers might skip.
Jyoti explains that unlike simple block printing, where blocks are dipped in colour and stamped on the fabric, Ajrakh is a much more painstaking process that involves 20 stages. The fabric is washed, printed and dried several times, to achieve the intricate patterns in indigo, madder, and other colours as well as the black and white outlines that frame the motifs.
The process is rendered more complex because of the resist printing technique — carved wooden blocks are dipped into a paste made of gum, lime and herbs, and stamped onto the cloth so that it will resist the dye and the patterns show once the paste is washed off.
To document the complex process and its history – ‘clothes don’t have a shelf life, artworks do’ — Jyoti used the Khatris’ wooden blocks that were 200-400 years old. Each block, she says, has a name, and one of them, for instance, is called ‘gurda-kaleji’ (literally meaning kidney and liver, owing to the kidney shaped motifs, possibly.)
The artisans who owned these blocks, were “open and welcoming”, she says. But this was not their usual repetitive pattern making process – ‘these were artworks, around my concept’. “It took me some convincing to get them to work with me, and go through a different process,” says Jyoti, who has combined her engagement with Gandhian philosophies with Ajrakh prints to create a new visual language.
Her works include the charkha, the timeless silhouettes of the angrakha and the blouses on khadi, through which, the artist wants to focus on Gandhi’s idea of swadharma or my duty towards the nation – ‘if everyone just bought five metres of khadi, it would help create livelihood for those in villages’, she says.
Her works are also an “appeal” to the urban Indian to connect with their rural counterparts, who are struggling against the forces of globalization, she says. For instance, Jyoti uses the skills of poor, migrant women from Bengal — many of who work as domestic help — to embellish her works with the kantha stitch, in a bid to pique the viewer’s interest in patterns of migration that point to the shifting economies of local crafts.
With Ajrakh, Jyoti says it is the deepening environmental crisis in the Kutch desert that threatens the survival of Ajrakh. Ajrakh craftsmen, who are battling a water crisis – it takes 13 litres to produce a single metre of fabric –have been demanding a separate pipeline for their village, a demand which is yet to be fulfilled. “It’s time urban Indians are sensitized to the livelihood crisis of rural craftsmen, and understood how they could participate in keep them going,” she says.
(Shelly Jyoti’s works can be viewed at India Habitat Centre in Delhi from October 20-26. The show will also be travelling to Baroda, Bombay and Washington DC.)