In arid Kutchh, a craft popular with designers faces threat from climate change
Craftsmen behind the popular Ajrakh print are fighting a losing battle against falling water tables and erratic monsoons.
The sand is blue in parts of Kutchh, but it’s a blue that’s fading.
Across the arid villages of Dhamadka and Ajrakhpur in Gujarat, the earth has taken on this colour from more than 300 years of dyeing the region’s iconic Ajrakh print.
You probably have a kurta or a stole featuring these geometric patterns in bright natural dyes, usually with at least a little indigo. Or you’ll also have seen them on the mannequins at Fab India, Anokhi, Ritu Kumar and Anju Modi stores.
Ajrakh in Gujarat — and Bagru in neighbouring Rajasthan — were in that tiny minority of highly successful handicrafts. The craftsmen print the patterns by hand, using blocks, and their work became so popular in the 1990s that they were able to swap their mud huts for brick-and-concrete homes (a sure sign of prosperity in rural India) as orders poured in from the US, UK, Canada, Australia and France.
Watch | The A to Z of Ajrakh printing
Now, their profits are literally drying up.
As climate change, urbanisation and increased agricultural activity deplete water tables, some Ajrakh craftsmen are buying land just to dig wells on it. And new generations are abandoning the traditional livelihood as one that has become too unpredictable and increasingly unprofitable.
Because it takes 13 litres of water to produce a single metre of this block-printed cloth. And while that water can be reused to irrigate fields and water plants — because the only things in it are resin, flour, fruit skins, alum and natural indigo — the water itself is becoming increasingly hard to come by.
“We worry for our future. Every year the water level in the wells drops by about 10 feet,” says Ismail Khatri, 56, a ninth-generation craftsman from Ajrakhpur. “If this continues, our craft will die out in 15 years and we’ll all be left doing menial jobs.”
The water crisis has intensified over the past 10 years, says Ghatit Laheru, senior development manager at local NGO Khamir. This is mainly due to inconsistent monsoons. Over the past five years, the average annual rainfall in Kutchh has risen, but the average number of rainy days has dropped.
“Instead of consistent rains through the season, the area now receives heavy rainfall over just a few days. The desert soil isn’t capable of soaking in so much water over such a short period, so much of it flows away and the groundwater levels aren’t recharged,” says Arun Kumar Mahato of the Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology.
Average annual rainfall between 2000 and 2009 averaged 400 mm distributed over two months; from 2010 onwards, it has averaged 850 mm over five to seven days.
“This is partly why groundwater levels have receded to as much as 500 ft, from 250 ft six years ago,” Mahato adds. “It is also why salinity in the water has risen.”
The salinity is bad news for the craftsmen, because it means that even if they dig their own wells and sink borewells, the quality of the water will make it unusable. Salinity and high iron content tarnish the colour and brightness of natural dyes and cause blotches on the cloth.
It’s the same in the Bagru region of Jaipur district, Rajasthan. “The amount of rainfall hasn’t changed. But we get it all in just a few days. Last year, no rain was recorded after first week of August,” says Sunil Sharma of the Central Arid Zone Research Institute in Rajasthan. “Simultaneously, the heat levels are rising. The climate is changing at an alarming rate.”
A village born of tragedy
Ajrakhpur owes its very foundation to the plentiful water this spot offered. It was set up in 2002, after the Bhuj earthquake caused groundwater levels to plummet the year before. When 200 villagers left Dhamadka in search of greener pastures, they picked this stretch of land 37 km away, because groundwater was plentiful. Over the following decade, as the water crisis intensified in Dhamadka, another 500 people moved.
“But now the wells are all drying up because the population and number of industries around the village are growing,” says Ismail Khatri, 56, a ninth-generation craftsman and co-founder of the village.
Two months ago, the village sold a common plot of land and raised Rs 15 lakh to pay for a water recycling unit (it cost Rs 25 lakh and NGO Khamir pitched in with the rest). The system processes 50,000 litres a day, but that’s still 1.5 lakh litres short of the village’s requirement.
Some craftsmen are tiring of the struggle. A few have sunk their savings into small local businesses like retail stores. Others have abandoned the water-intensive natural dyes in favour of harmful, and less profitable, synthetic colours.
Among those that continue the struggle, many are seeing the quality of their work deteriorate alongside the quality and quantity of the water they use.
“Ajrakh and Bagru cloth is definitely losing its lustre,” says fashion designer Anju Modi. “I have loved and used the prints since 1990. But it’s harder to find a perfect sample now. And the cost is soaring. Over the past two years, the price of 1 metre of Ajrakh cloth has gone from Rs 100 to Rs 400.”
This has prompted many small designers and retail stores to opt for digital prints instead. “This will further affect the craftsmen,” Modi says.
Ninth-generation Ajrakh craftsman Abdul Rehman Khatri, 53, would agree. “Finding water has become such a big hurdle, that if we aren’t allocated water by the state government soon, the craft will only be seen in museums,” he says.
Rainwater harvesting and recycling can help, says textile technologist Durga Venkataswamy.
“The recycling unit in Ajrakhpur is a good initiative. Similar systems must be encouraged and funded by the government,” says Radhi Parekh, founder of Mumbai-based crafts gallery Artisans’ and professor at the Ahmedabad-based National Institute of Design (NID).
Adds Venkataswamy: “The burden of conserving water should not fall on the craftsmen’s shoulders alone. While they use about 13 litres to process 1 metre of cloth, the textile industry uses about 20.”
Adds Pradyumna Vyas, director of NID: “There are about 40 million people dependent on crafts in the country. These crafts are a big part of our heritage. Just as the government allocates funds to save endangered wildlife, they should initiate schemes and build shared facilities for craftsmen.”
A troubling pattern
From catering to royalty to fixing cycles, making pickle
Jahangir Khatri (right), 42, a 12th-generation Ajrakh craftsman, is among those who is tiring of the struggle for water.
He has switched from natural to synthetic dyes and has set up a couple of side businesses to supplement his falling income.
Jehangir’s forefathers were among the earliest Khatris, migrating to Dhamadka from Sind in 1634, on the request of the then king of Kutchh, Maharao Bharmal I. They settled here, and made clothes for royalty and aristocrats.
Now, Jehangir repairs cycles and sells home-made pickle to help support his wife and four school-going children.
“I eventually realised that if I want to keep up with the growing demands of my family, I would have to seek some other work for myself,” he says.
Desperate, they buy land just to dig wells on it
Dilawar Khatri, 25, is a 10th-generation Ajrakh block printer from Dhamadka.
Sitting on the narrow verandah of his brick house, he says his family has spent about Rs 18 lakh over the past 10 years digging for unadulterated water across the village, with no success.
“We have no money for a water recycling unit; they cost Rs 25 lakh each,” he says. “So we depend completely on natural sources.”
In 2011, in a last-ditch effort, the family sold an old 9-acre plot on which they had unsuccessfully dug five wells, to buy a 2.5-acre plot. “It was a lot smaller, but had more possibilities of good water, so it was more expensive,” Dilawar says.
One of the wells yielded good water, but after 15 days it too turned saline.
After three more failed attempts, in 2013, the family switched to synthetic dyes. “We’re making a living,” Dilawar says, “but we’re not sure for how long.”
Craftsman to salesman of plastic shoes
It’s a weekday and Anwar Syed Khatri, 40, is helping a customer try on bright pink plastic sandals in his shoe shop in Dhamadka village.
“I feel miserable that I discontinued a 50-year family tradition of making Ajrakh cloth,” he says. “But my business wasn’t big. I never had enough money to dig more wells.”
It’s hard to survive as an Ajrakh craftsman in Dhamadka today, without your own water source.
For generations, Khatri’s family depended on the well on their plot. But 10 years ago the water levels began to fall, and what remained began to turn increasingly saline.
“The iron content in that water is so high now that it causes blotches when mixed with natural dyes, so we can’t use it,” Khatri says.
So the family began buying water from neighbours who had water of their own. But that was exorbitant.
Still reluctant to abandon the family business, Khatri switched to synthetic colours eight years ago. This process needs less water, but the cloth also fetches much less money. “It is sold mainly in the Indian market. Abroad, in the US, France and Canada, they want Ajrakh dyed in natural colours. This leaves little room for growth,” Khatri says.
As more Kutchhi Ajrakh businesses make the switch to synthetic dyes, the increased competition is also hitting profits. A year in, for instance, Khatri found that he was no longer earning enough to pay his neighbour for the extra water.
“I had two options, either relocate to find water or change my business. I chose the latter as my ancestors have lived here for more than 300 years,” he says.
So, seven years ago, he put his savings of Rs 70,000 into a small store. He now sources goods from Mumbai and Ahmedabad and sells to clients in Dhamadka. “With the rising costs, we had been living hand to mouth. Now, I make enough to give my family a good life,” he says.
He might be the last generation to live in Dhamadka, though. His son moved to Pune two months ago, to open a store selling generic Kutchhi handicrafts.
In Rajasthan, Bagru craft suffers too
Farmers have stopped sharing their water with the Bagru craftsmen of Jaipur district, Rajasthan. “Weak monsoons over the past five years have put more pressure on groundwater levels. So now we are dependent on water tankers,” says Lal Chand Derawala, 43. Most of the craftsmen can only afford one or two tankers a day, so output has dropped and incomes are falling.
For master block printer Suraj Narayan Titanwala, 55, the irony is that of all the growing demands on existing water sources — urbanisation, infrastructure, industry — the Bagru craft is the most non-polluting. “The water we use can even be reused to water crops. That’s how non-polluting it is. And yet we have to struggle to sustain the same craft that has made this region famous,” he says. “Dams in the region supply drinking water for swimming pools and parks, but they don’t supply to us.”
The water crisis and resultant shrinking margins are turning younger generations off the business. “Earlier, the whole family would be involved. Now, youngsters prefer to work in big cities and earn better, more stable pay,” Derawala says. “A craft that was so successful, famous around the world, is becoming less and less profitable.”
Amit Derawala, 23, son of Lal Chand, is among the few youngsters of his generation willing to fight the battle. “I am hoping to try design innovations and work on ways to reduce how much water we use,” says the Commerce graduate.
Suraj Narayan’s 31-year-old son Deepak Kumar, meanwhile, describes how he and his family have struggled to identify alternative sources of water. “We are trying a combination of rainwater harvesting and water recycling to try and recharge the groundwater table and sustain the business. But it would help if the government could allocate water to us from dams,” he says.
Inputs from P Srinivasan
Breaking down the Ajrakh processes
* It takes 16 days to create a swatch of original Ajrakh cloth, printed by hand using natural dyes.
* The 16-step process includes washing, printing, dyeing, boiling and re-washing.
* The dyes are made using leaves from the indigo plant (for indigo), pomegranate peel (for pinkish yellow) and turmeric (for yellow).
* Once the cloth has been printed, it must be boiled, dyed and washed several times in order for the colour to set.
* The water used must be pure, or contaminants such as iron cause blotches and stains when combined with the natural dyes.
* This might sound like a less-than-ideal use of clean water, but all the substances used are natural — resin, flour, etc. As a result, the water can even be reused to irrigate fields.
* “These craftsmen are producing eco-friendly garments. This is what the world wants now. The government must work with them to ensure that they are able to sustain their livelihoods,” says Pradyumna Vyas, director of the National Institute of Design.
A 300-year history under threat
* The Khatris, traditional Ajrakh craftsmen from Sind, were invited to Kutchh in 1634 by then king
Maharao Bharmal I.
* They chose to settle in Dhamadka, by the Saran Ganga river, where water was plentiful.
* Here, they made their distinct handblock-printed clothes for the royalty and locals.
* In the 1950s, the craftsmen discovered synthetic dyes and many switched over. The new powders were quicker to process, and cost much less effort and money. By mid-1960s, the natural dyes were forgotten.
* These dyes were revived in the 1980s, as part of a Gujarat government initiative. By the 1990s, orders for Ajrakh cloth were flowing in from the US, UK and Europe.
* It was around this time that the tributaries feeding the Saran Ganga altered course and the river dried up. The craftsmen were now dependent on groundwater.
* After the 2001 Bhuj earthquake, groundwater levels in Dhamadka plummeted and 40 families moved away in search of greener pastures, settling in what is now Ajrakhpur, 37 km away, where groundwater was plentiful.
* Over the past 15 years, however, climate change, urbanisation and industrial development have depleted and polluted the groundwater, leading many to abandon the livelihood or switch back to synthetic dyes.
The author tweets at @riddhi09