Textile Item Number: 1472/1 from the MOA: University of British Columbia

Description

Block printed cotton textile, printed on both sides. Blue and red are the predominant colours. Two identical, large, rectangular panels of geometric patterning are printed on the textile. In each panel, geometric and floral designs are grouped in intersecting horizontal and vertical borders that surround, on three sides, a large central rectangle of stylized floral and geometric patterns. A strip of black cotton textile (3.5 cm wide) is sewn to one end of the textile.

History Of Use

Textiles that are printed in this manner are intended to be cut in half crosswise and the halves joined together with a center lengthwise seam. The designs on the two halves are matched to form an ajrak, a symmetrical rectangular textile that is traditionally used for many purposes in everyday life: as a shawl or shoulder cloth for Muslim men to keep out the morning and evening chill or for protection from the sun and wind; as a carry-all sack for food and other items; as a bedspread; as a turban; as a temporary curtain; as a backing for a quilt. Women may also use it sometimes.
These textiles are made by male members of the Khatri caste. The term Khatri refers to dyers, and all Khatri are by profession printers or dyers. Khatris live in extended families, with every member of the family doing some part of the printing process. Block printing and block making are done only by men, but women help with drying and grinding of ingredients. Members of the Khatri community may also engage workers from other communities to do subsidiary tasks, such as washing the cloth.

Narrative

Purchased by Razia Ahmed from a dealer in Karachi.

Cultural Context

domestic

Iconographic Meaning

Razia Ahmed says: “No detailed study has been done on the symbolism of the motifs, but the word ajrak comes from the Arabic meaning blue.” Another possible interpretation of the word is that it is derived from the Persian colloquial term for gentleman. Designs are highly stylized objects from nature, such as flowers and leaves, and some may have been derived from the decor of ceramic tiles one finds in mosques and tombs. The types of designs and their placement on the ajrak are determined by tradition, but novelty and innovation are also achieved by changing the traditional layout of the designs and combining elements in new ways.

Specific Techniques

In preparation for printing, the cloth is first simmered with caustic soda solution in large copper pots for 24 hours to soften and bleach it, then taken to the river and washed to remove all the existing chemicals (this process is called bati ka marela). It is then left to soak in a mixture of castor oil, sarso seed oil, irindi oil and soap for 15 to 20 days, then washed again so as to remove just the right amount of oil from the cloth (sarg ka marela). Next it is dipped in a mixture of sakun seed oil, lemon, soda and soap to soften it and allow it to absorb the dyes (kasaiee ka marela). After this preparation, the cloth is printed on both sides in twelve stages. It is printed with a resist containing a solution of chalk and gum and printed again with a mordant containing iron sulfate and a mordant containing alum (phitikari). It is then covered with powdered cow dung or rice bran to fix the resist and mordants. Dyeing begins with a dip into a cold bath of indigo, and the unprinted, exposed areas pick up the blue colour. After washing, it is then dipped into a simmering madder bath, where each mordant reacts differently; the mordant containing iron sulfate turns black and the mordant containing alum turns red. The cloth is then washed in the river to remove the resist, leaving these areas white. As the ajrak begins to dry, the dyer sprinkles water over it and the colour begins to darken.