What is Ajrak?
Pakistan is mostly famous for its artefacts and handicrafts throughout the world. However, Ajrak represents the historical culture of Sindh of Pakistan and Kutch of Gujrat. The handicraft ‘Ajrak’ refers to a block-printed designed shawl of 2.5- 3 meters. The shawl is manufactured by workers’ hard labour using several techniques to refine the products’ quality. These shawls are represented by specific designs and patterns printed by using particular block printing stamps. Interestingly, Ajrak is mainly seen in the colour scheme of dark crimson, indigo, blue, yellow, green, and black and white for outlines. Nonetheless, this colour scheme is not an exception, and other colours could also be used.
However, Ajrak is the source of identity for Sindh and Kutch and preserves their valuable cultural heritage. As is known, Sindh has the oldest civilization of ‘Mohen-jo-Daro,’ which marks its date from 3500 to 1500 BC in history. Perhaps the idea of Ajrak came from that civilization, as people found resembling printed designs that the statue of the king-priest was wearing. Besides, other blocks and stamps of Ajrak were also found from their dye shops, which marks the presence and use of Ajrak from ancient times. Hence, the handicraft is the primary speciality of Sindh and is mainly presented to Sindh’s guests as a source of hospitality by the high officials and politicians.
Origin of Ajrak
The word ‘Ajrak’ is originated from the word ‘Azrak,’ meaning ‘blue,’ which is one of the central colour schemes of the shawl. On the other hand, it is also perceived that the word is derived from a colloquial Urdu term ‘Aj-rakh,’ meaning ‘keeping it today.’ In history, it is marked from the Indus civilization (3500-1500 BC), where traces have been found that the block printing process similar to Ajrak existed from that time. Likewise, the king-priest statue in ‘Mohen-jo-Daro’ was draped in the shawl of block-printed patterns similar to Ajrak. The evidence in the form of images from ‘Harappan civilization’ also shows the history of block printed Ajrak existed from a significantly more extended period. The manufacture of Ajrak is still in process in Sindh of Pakistan, Barmer in Rajasthan and Ajrakpur, and Khavda of Kutch.
However, due to its ancient importance, its popularity is growing throughout the world. As Ajrak is quite an exciting form of art, it is also preserved in museums internationally. For illustration, various Ajrak designs are displayed in the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, and also, an Ajrak enthused textile in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is found. Hence, the Art of manufacturing Ajrak and its designs, which are ancient and valuable, is preserved mainly in the form of Sindhi and Gujrati culture.
A Symbol of Sindhi Culture and Tradition
Sindh is considered to have the oldest Indus valley civilization globally and is rich with a variety of cultures and traditions. The province also has two ancient cities of ‘Mohen-jo-Daro’ and ‘Harappa,’ where some researchers observed the Art of old Ajrak. Primarily, in ‘Mohen-jo-Daro,’ the king-priest statue was found draped with a block printed shawl, similar to Ajrak. Also, ‘Harappa’ is known for its famous cloth; However, the evidence is not primary; there are many images, statues, and other secondary resources found which identifies the ancient designs of Ajrak. Moreover, Sindh has many other Sufi and saints, Sindhi poetry, and other Sindhi forms of Art. However, the most famous arts are the handicrafts ‘Ajrak’ and ‘Sindhi topi’ of Sindh, which provides true Sindhi identity to the people. Perhaps Ajrak is one of the most desired craft that every tourist or local people love to have, as it is made with Sindh’s natural products and soil.
Ajrak is not just an ordinary shawl but is considered the most valuable piece, which is a source of affection, Sindhi culture, and tradition. It might be true that most people in the world value Ajrak for its ancient designs; however, the people of Sindh wore it with pride in cultural values and traditions. Furthermore, the use of Ajrak in Sindh is a habit; usually, men wore it as a shawl and turban. In contrast, women use Ajrak as their dupatta or scarf, while it could be used as a swing for infants. Hence, throughout the world, Ajrak is a Sindhi cultural heritage source, which has ancient ways of manufacture, design, and pattern. Besides, people from all over the world value its ancient history and fashion—especially historians and people who love to collect historical artefacts connecting with traditional stories.
Ajrak Industry in Pakistan
In Pakistan, Ajrak industries are increasing with the passage of time. The demand for Ajrak was growing since December 6, 2009, when the first Sindhi cultural day was held. It was a reaction to the criticism faced by the former president Asif Ali Zardari, on wearing cultural caps on foreign tours. Numerous celebrations of the day started on December 1, 2016, by many political, social, cultural institutions to promote the Sindhi cultural heritage. However, due to the cultural celebrations, the demand for Sindhi Ajrak started to increase, as many people wear Ajrak on this very day and week to present the Sindhi culture.
Fascinatingly, people’s love for these beautifully patterned shawls increased, and many people started to use the Ajrak further to manufacture different kinds of products. For example, many entrepreneurs started the business of Ajrak made bags, shirts, bedsheets, table cloths, pottery, and other variety of products. Additionally, significant shops and industries of Ajrak are mainly found in different cities of Sindh, especially Hyderabad, Bhitshah, Matiari, and Halla. Additionally, the project named ‘Improved livelihoods through creative Industry in Pakistan’ was initiated by Aik Hunar Aik Nagar (AHAN) in order to polish the skills of workers working in the Ajrak industry. Hence, much higher industry development organizations are working on this area, and a higher number of Ajrak products are also being exported to America and other foreign countries.
Processes Involved in Making Ajrak
The manufacturing techniques of Ajrak involve the most intricate and complex methods, which require hard work to maintain quality. The original Ajrak could only be prepared by following these specific methods, which would result in an intimate colour scheme and high-quality fabric. Moreover, nature also plays a vital role in the manufacture of Ajrak, especially, all the natural elements of sunlight, river, soil, trees, mud, other elements for pigment, and the environment are the necessary ingredients. However, the most captivating idea about Ajrak is its use of natural elements and resources. Following are the steps involved in the manufacture of the original Ajrak:
The Kumbh Process
Firstly, the fabric bundles are altered into 10-meter-long pieces, which are later dumped into the river for washing. Subsequently, the wet cloth pieces are then coiled and settled on a copper vet for steam, covered with a quilt to reduce the escape of steam. However, the fabric is left overnight on the burner to cleanse all the impurities because the steam helps to open the fabric’s pores for softening and purifying methods, which will help the fabric. Hence, the whole process is known as Kumbh.
The Saaj Process
In the next process, the mixture of Eruka Sativa seeds, camel dung, oil, and water is formed so that after the Khumbh process, the fabric pieces could soak in it because the camel dung is a bleaching agent which further softens the cloth when reacted with. The stage is very crucial for the quality of the bright colour combination of Ajrak. Later, the soaked fabric is stretched and tied into an air-tight knot set aside for 5 to 10 days, depending upon weather conditions. After observing a strange smell, the fabric is dried in the sunlight and torn from the centre to make pieces. The fabric is then treated with carbonated soda with a rinse in water; after the water rinse, another oil treatment is provided. It is ensured that the oil is thoroughly penetrated through the cloth, after which cloth is dried throughout the night, which is again rinsed in the river water and then soaked into Sakun (a mixture of Galls of Tamarisk, castor oil, dried lemons, molasses, and water). After soaking, the damped fabric is then dried and taken for the printing process in the workshop; however, the process is known as Kasai.
The Wooden Blocks
The process involves the making of different blocks for printing Ajrak. As a matter of interest, the blocks are made by carving the Acacia Arabica trees, easily found in Sindh, which are shaped intelligently in patterns and designs by the block-maker, using simple tools. Indeed, the blocks are made in pairs to print on both sides of the fabric easily.
The Kiryana Process
In this process, the mixture of rice paste, lime, and acacia gum is used for the white outlining of the fabric, printed by using the outline block. Furthermore, the mixture of Fuller’s earth, Ferrous Sulphate, gum, and water is used for block printing of black dye, while Datta (filler block) is used in the process. Moreover, for dying Ajrak with red colour, the fabric is repeatedly heated on a vet with alizarine until the desired colour is yield. In the next stage, the mixture of molasses, alum, funnel, rice paste, Fuller’s earth, and other herbs is made to form the Kharrh (the mud resist paste). Perhaps the paste is to protect colours and vacant spaces on the fabric, where indigo printing should be resisted. For instance, the white, red, black, and other coloured spaces are glued with the paste before the indigo dyeing process.
Indigo Dying Process
In this process, the fabric is dyed with synthetic indigo dye, as the use of original indigo dye is forbidden for 50 years. Subsequently, the dyed fabric is taken to the river before dawn, which is dumped in the water again and again for at least 1 hour, So that the white pieces of gum and excess dye wash away. Again, the cloth is damped in sakun for vibrant red pigment.
Soaking of Ajrak in sakun solution
After soaking the Ajrak in the sakun solution, the fabric is spread out for the drying process (which is called Tapai) on the river bank. However, the continuous dying and drying process deepens the colours and purifies the impurities from the Ajrak.
In this process, the mud resists mixture is again used on the cloth with dried cow dung to dry the wet areas; usually, the process is known as Meena. Later, the thick mudded cloths are again dipped in the indigo vat to refine the quality. Lastly, the dried Ajraks are rolled and taken into the craftsmen shops for washing, which are folded tightly for drying.
Importance of Ajrak in Pakistani Culture
The Art of Ajrak in Pakistan is the essential source of Sindhi culture and tradition, which is acknowledged nationally and internationally. However, its importance is not limited to the ancient cultural value; instead, it is a unique form of Art with great reverence in Pakistan. People understand the value of this Art, and for them, Ajrak is not just a piece of cultural heritage but a feeling of pride, which shows admiration for their moral values. From birth to marriage and till death, people use Ajrak as their daily life products, especially for dressing in shawls. For illustration, we could see that the traditional Ajrak’s primary importance is a valuable traditional gift, which many Politian’s presents to their important guests or guests from foreign states to show their cultural love and prosperity. Also, many tourists use Ajrak as a souvenir of Pakistani culture.
Nonetheless, Pakistani people require Ajrak for daily use, mainly because Sindhi people use it as shawls for both men and women for table cloth, bed sheets, valuable gifts, and other products. Remarkably, Ajrak could also be innovated to make handcrafted pottery, quilts (called Rillis), shirts, handbags, sofa’s, curtains, carpets, and other advanced products, which would be helpful for export purposes and help Pakistan improve its economy. Besides, Ajrak is also a famous dress code of Pakistan because most of the musicians, actors, and other artists wore it as a symbol of national pride on social media, cultural and international events. It could be perceived, Ajrak is the most significant source of national identity for Pakistan because its intellectual knowledge has been passed down to the generations with great dignity. And there could be steps taken to preserve the ancient cultural identity, which is in the form of cultural day celebrations on a bigger platform.
The colour scheme of Ajrak
The colour scheme of the Ajrak is vibrant because it has gone through many processes to maintain its quality. Astonishingly, it is one of the benchmark motifs of Ajrak, which increases its demand and people’s interest more among the masses. Moreover, the primary colour dyes used for the original Ajrak are red, white, black, blue, yellow, and indigo. However, there are more than 20 colours used for the manufacturing of Ajrak nowadays. Usually, the dye used for the colour scheme is prepared by using dried pomegranate peel, Katha (an ingredient used in paan), alum, dried lemon, soda ash, clay, mustard oil, sakun (the mixture of tamarisk gall, castor oil, molasses, dried lemon, and water), kesu phool, indigo dye, and alizarine (red dye), which provides lively colours to the fabric. Subsequently, these natural products soften the fabric and mature the colour combination quickly. Also, there are many ancient designs and patterns of blocks which make Ajraks more figurative and attractive. According to many researchers, the history dates back to the Mughal era and is many centuries old. Hence, it could be seen that the colour scheme and patterns of Ajrak play a vital role in its popularity and demand.
Variety of Ajrak products
Ajrak is an artistic block printed shawl, having a variety of designs and blocks, which could also be transformed into new products with the help of innovation. Mainly, Ajrak is used as a cultural shawl; however, other varieties of Ajrak products are bed sheets, cushion covers, dresses, table cloth, handbags, curtains, and other critical handcrafted products. However, these Ajrak handcrafted products hold a higher value in foreign countries as a unique form of Art. These innovative products could be used for exportation throughout the world, which would help the Pakistani economy grow. For illustration, we could take the Ajrak and innovate it according to the present situation use in COVID-19. If given time, Ajrak companies could make block printed masks for the purpose of cultural awareness. Nonetheless, many Pakistani projects and organizations are working to preserve Ajrak’s cultural heritage and demand in foreign states.
However, the primary use of Ajrak for shawls is still in demand, how beautifully the prints are incorporated with individual artisans’ hard work. Especially for women throughout the world, Ajrak is considered as a source of fashion. Its remarkable patterns and designs would make the buyers crave the attractive block printed designs. For example, the Gowns, shirts, and other dress made by Ajrak attract women to spend on this product more easily. Not only eastern countries demand the Ajrak designs, but also west is now launching designs of shirts similar to Ajrak. Moreover, the original Ajrak shawl is of four main varieties;
Teli Ajrak: (Meaning= oily Ajrak)
The kind of Ajrak is manufactured by the most challenging working way and is gone through various processes repeatedly. However, this kind is famous for its long-lasting properties. This Ajrak has the quality that its combination of colours intensifies with washing; the pigment’s brightness depends upon the number of uses as the Ajrak has gone through many oil treatments. It’s capacity for pigmentation increases.
Sabuni Ajrak: (Meaning= Soapy Ajrak)
This kind of Ajrak has an easy manufacturing process than the Teli Ajrak. However, the process includes a mixture of soap and bleaching agent, which reacts with the fabric to maintain the quality. This process contains fewer oil treatments than other kinds.
Do Rangi Ajrak: (Meaning= two-coloured Ajrak)
This kind of Ajrak consists of the same manufacturing process as Teli Ajrak, but its block printing process is different. Because two primary colours are used in it except for the basic border colours of black, white, and indigo, this kind is also known as double coloured Ajrak.
This kind is the simplest of all four themes And contains fundamental block printing patterns of Ajrak. The color scheme used in this kind is also not that lively as in Teli Ajrak. However, the quality is still maintained by the workers.
Scope of Ajrak Selling Business
Since Ajrak is a massive part of Sindhi and Pakistani culture, it has great importance in the business industry. The Sindhi culture is exceptionally vast and dates back to a time long ago. Consequently, its traditions and cultural values hold a special place in people’s hearts. Ajraks have since forever been considered to be a part of the Sindhi identity. They are a symbol of power and culture among the Sindhi people. As it holds importance in the vast majority of Pakistani people, it is a highly sought-after product. Ajraks hold cultural importance and are now also considered classy and fashionable among teens. As a result, there is a huge demand for different styled Ajraks.
Moreover, the Sindhi population considers Ajraks a must, so the product has a fair market share in the Pakistani and Eastern clothing industry. Interestingly, increasing demand for Ajraks is seen when there are cultural days celebrated over the country. Almost all of the people in Sindh prefer Ajraks to represent their cultures.
Ajraks are the most common gifts exchanged among Sindhi people. Since their beginning, Ajraks have held unique importance that no other thing has among Pakistan’s people. With its beautiful design, people around Pakistan love the product. Ajraks used to be just Ajraks before, but now, they have been imprinted into other products. Ajrak Kurtis is very famous in the fashion industry these days, with various prints, colors, and designs. Ajrak printed some very aesthetic brands that have also developed bedsheets. There are even Ajrak print accessories to be seen in the market nowadays. Creativity has no limits, and therefore there is no limit to what one can do with a simple idea. The simple idea was the Ajrak design, and now, we can further develop and better the idea of an Ajrak.
The scope of doing Ajrak business or even Ajrak related business shows encouraging results. There is a good demand for Ajraks in the whole country and internationally. Moreover, the product sells itself because of its ties to the culture and traditions of people. And with the variety of products concerning Ajraks, the cultural value has been added with style and fashion, making the product so much more attractive and appealing to the customers.
Ajrak Printed Clothing
Recently, a new line of Ajrak printed clothing has been making rounds in the fashion industry. The spectacular Ajrak clothing is featured in a variety of fabrics and colours. The majority of the people have liked the new inspired clothing idea. Beautiful design modifications have been done in the original piece to get variety. Moreover, these designs are appreciated by the people that are connected to the Ajrak culture. They think of the designs as modifications of the original Ajrak and highly appreciate them. Kurtis, Shalwar Kameez, and many eastern designs have been created using the cultural Ajrak print, and people love and endorse it. Ajraks present in their designs some beautiful patterns that are not usually found in other clothing prints. The Ajrak printed clothes give a breath of fresh air and an edge of something different and unique. Women of all ages love the refreshing designs and variety of the Ajrak prints.
International Trade Value
Ajraks are a source of pride for the people of Pakistan. Pakistan exports a good number of items; textile fabrics and designs being one of them. Ajraks are one of a kind, something that exists in Pakistan. And therefore, it holds charm and allure for people outside of Pakistan. Pakistan is a significant exporter of Ajrak designs and prints. It may even be the only place Ajraks are exported from, except for India. Many international fashion brands have decided to use the Ajrak prints for their collections, which results in the high import of Ajrak designs from Pakistan. Many brands use the product as it is, in its original and best state. Seeing people from outside Pakistan wearing Ajraks or Ajrak printed clothing brings us Pakistanis a joy. To see our culture being spread throughout the world is truly unique. However, its international trade value is relatively high because of its ancient history and origin.
Ajrak is the source of national pride for the people of Sindh. It is a beautifully incorporated shawl of block print, manufactured by a complicated method. However, the patterns involve designs from a thousand years back history of ancient Indus civilization and the Mughal empire. The benchmark motifs of Ajrak are its artistic outlook, unique patterns, attractive colour schemes, ancient history, cultural value, and tremendous importance among the Pakistani people. Nonetheless, its attractive elements became the reason that it is famous nationally and internationally, as many foreign museums are displaying its artistic patterns.
Moreover, the quality of Ajrak is made perfect by manufacturing it using several complex techniques. The scope of the Ajrak industries in Pakistan is very high, as it has become a fashion among the celebrities whom everyone follows throughout the world. Many steps are taken by the ministry of Pakistan’s foreign affairs to raise the field and business in Pakistan and other international countries that value the Art and literature related to Ajrak. Subsequently, many innovations in the production of new Ajrak handicrafts and objects took place. Changing the shawl into objects like Ajrak handbags, pillow covers, sofas, curtains, and other crafts are exported to different international states and help Pakistan improve its economy. Hence, the craft is recognized and valued among Pakistan and other international states.