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Ajrakh: A Conversation

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Jasleen Dhamija in conversation with Krittika Narula

Krittika Narula: Welcome to the exhibition 'All about Ajrakh'. It is an honour to have you here, and we are all excited.  You have had a long association with the crafts and we would love to hear from you how your journey started and about your association with ajrakh.

Jasleen Dhamija:  Lovely to be here Krittika, and to be surrounded by these pieces of ajrakh.  Yes, it has been a long journey. It was in 1956 that I started on a project for the revival of textiles, and it was so strange for this vast country with its wonderful range of textiles , the ministry sanctioned Rs. 21,000! How they expected us to do any work is beside the point, but anyway we started.  I went to Kutch. Very few people know about Kutch, it is a strange place. I went for the first time in 1956. It was still a walled town where the doors are closed at night and are opened in the morning. If you are travelling and cannot come back on time, you need to wait till the morning of the next day. I remember the food that we ate was full of sand because the desert was very near and the high wind blowing would carry the sand to our dal and roti...it was something!

But it was a fascinating place.  I went there primarily to revive mochibharat. And I failed. Because those who did mochi bharat, exquisite embroidery, were no more available. But in the process I also managed to see other crafts and one of them was ajrakh. We visited the villages, we had been to Mandvi and you won’t believe it, by accident we lost our way. We went into the banni area and were so frightened, with the thought that we might get lost and stray into Pakistan and be arrested. We were so relieved when we saw somebody waving a lantern, and we managed to get to that place. All these people on the high platform of mud, with their eyes shining in the night, wondering who these people were. When the car stopped I got out. As you know I always wore a sari, everyone looked at me as someone landed from the Mars or so... they had never seen anyone from outside, especially the women. The men used to go out and they might have. Some of them who had been outside to the city and seen a film said, ‘Film star hain!’... ‘Tara (star) hain? Tara?’ I was looking at them, they were looking at me, and they dragged me inside. That was my introduction.

There, I examined what they were wearing and they examined what I was wearing. There I saw ajrakh for the first time. Because the Maldharis who lived in that area used it, Meghwals used it. So I said, 'Yeh kahan se hei (Where is this from)?’ They said, ‘It is from the town,’ and that led us to Dhamadka. But that time when I went there was nothing other than printing for the people...but yet they were beautiful. There was tremendous demand in the local communities because most men required two to three, lungis (sarongs), chadars and even pagdis (turbans). All were of high quality.

In 1957 Kamaladeviji went to Kutch and I accompanied her. I told her about the village Dhamadka and we went there. We met Mohamad Bhai there and she asked him, 'Can you do vegetable dyes?' He said, ‘I used to, though I have forgotten.’ She was a persuasive woman and she persuaded him. She said, ‘We have no budget.’ She from her own pocket gave him 100 rupees and said, 'Aap hamare liye shuroo to karlo (Just start something for us)'. He said, 'Is se kuch nahi hoga (Nothing can be done with this)' She said, ‘I will go back and send you.’ Through the district industries officer she was able to send some more money to him and Mohammad Bhai started to collect the material to do the vegetable dyes. It took a long time for the vegetable dyes to happen. But finally they did, and these were indigo, alizarin, majitha (madder) and iron oxide that they used to do ajrakh dyeing. So the journey with ajrakh began slowly.

 

K.N.: What kind of products they were making with vegetable dyes?

J.D.: Local people could not afford to pay the price. So we persuaded Mohammad Bhai to make few of these chadars, because we thought there was no point in introducing something new. Then we asked him to make a couple of saris. Then we persuaded him to make saris with the traditional ajrakh, like the one I am wearing, which is a very fine ajrakh from the workshop Mohammad Bhai’s son conducted, because Mohammad Bhai was no more by that time. But his entire family is involved in it. So the Cottage Industries Emporium began to place orders for saris with them. The other person who did a lot of work with them was Archana Shah later on; when she began her Bandhej, they brought a lot of stuff from him. Fab India and various others and people from Bombay. Mohammad Bhai was the one who started work for the outside market.

 

K.N: He was the first one; from catering to a traditional clientele for ages, they suddenly moved to a new market. How was that journey, a little bumpy, for the advisories?

J.D.: In the beginning, it was hard, because vegetable dyeing is difficult. But when he found that there was a clientele, then there was a sense of pride. Now, today, his son has been given a doctorate, his children have been educated, and some of the wonderful abstract works in this exhibition done on gajji (satin), mashroo (cotton and silk combined) and silk tradition, is the work of his family youngsters, I think the fourth generation after Mohammad Bhai. This is the work which has been done very recently, and one feels so proud. Bumpy, yes, difficult, yes. I left India to work in Iran in 1970. By that time, ajrakh was being produced, vegetable-dyed ajrakh was being produced. They have also revived ajrakh in Barmer.

So [that was how we revived] this age-old ajrakh, which comes from the word for ‘blue’ in Arabic, from which there comes the word, ‘azure’,  in English and European languages. And it is interesting what the connections were. Because in the Pharaonic times you painted the face of the dead blue, because blue was seen as leading towards immortality, but it also meant death. It is only when you die is your face painted blue. And it was a curse, and still is, in Egypt, ‘May your face be blue.’ So these old traditions, they cling on forever.

And the interesting thing is that this is a very old tradition that India was the home of dyes. And the art of dyeing with the use of mordants to create rich colours which would be lasting is nearly 5000 years old. Because in the Indus Valley Civilization they found a piece of cotton which was dyed with the use of mordants, and that takes it back to 5000 years ago. So they knew cotton weaving, they knew the art of dyeing, because it is chemical dyeing using mordants. And nowhere in the world had they developed fast dyes, and India was known for it, and they dyed indigo, therefore India had the reputation for being magicians, that in this vat of pale white-yellow, they would put the white cloth, and as they brought it out, slowly...slowly...slowly the colour would change. And they would dip it again and it would become dark, and everybody would say, ‘Aaah...! See, this is the Indian magic, to bring colour from white water and the air!’ It was oxidization which was taking place, and thus there was a tremendous demand and these textiles which were done in the western coastal area, in Sindh, were exported all over the world. They were exported to the Middle East, to South East Asia and they have been found in quantities.

The first old pieces which came to our knowledge were from Fostat, and there was another collection made by the University Field Museum at Chicago, at the Red Sea, and in the Red Sea ports they found innumerable samples. Oh, I learned so much by looking at those samples at the Field Museum because they were the indigo blue. Now indigo needs to be dyed, it can’t be printed, whereas the majitha red colour can be printed, and so the outline will be in black, and then the fill-in blocks would be used, and they would use resist and mordants. And with the use of mordants and resist, a complicated way, this complicated piece of printing and the range of designs that were done was typical of ajrakh. And ajrakh found its way right up to Scandinavia. Because Fostat was the place where these textiles must have been brought and distributed to Europe, it came to be known and is referred to in European literature as ‘fustian’, after Fostat. So there’s mention of fustian, an eighth -century record in a monastery says that priests are not allowed to use fustian because it is a luxury item.

 

K.N:: You’ve worked a lot on motifs and how different kinds have come to develop...

J.D. Well, you know my passion is for the symbolism.  And the first fragment of the Fostat textile that I saw was at the Calico Textile Museum which showed Hamsa, the swan, going round the lotus, and there’s the fish motif also. Only a section of that, so we recreated what the original design might have looked like. And later on I found that this was also a ritual cloth made, as they thought by the gods in Indonesia especially in Toraja, where large pieces of this printed material were found. So there we working with a tiny little fragment, and I saw piece upon piece of beautiful patterns. So these early patterns were influenced by the Vedic tradition, or the Hindu view of life. For Hamsa is the golden goose who laid the egg, which in the story of the origin, the world was created. ‘Hamsa’ is also a sacred word, like ‘Ham So’ is a form of meditative repetition. ‘Hamsa’ has so many myriad significances and meaning. And you also found other [motifs] like the kalpavriksha in some of the old samples. The cloud pattern is a later introduction, a Chinese influence, because they absorbed a lot of influences.

But what is very interesting is that ajrakh that we know today is mostly of geometric patterns. And according to my understanding, this is the Middle Eastern influence. As I showed you a book that they worked out the geometry of the design and the fantastic juxtaposition, because in the Islamic tradition you are not supposed to create living beings, whether they are plants or birds or animals. So therefore you find mostly these abstract forms which are worked in geometry, or the stars. And when you travel to Kutch, in the night in the desert, you see the night sky studded with stars just like ajrakh is. It is full of the star motif. So you see, we always think everything began and ended in India. I feel here we have absorbed an influence, later yes, but we have absorbed the influence.

 

K.N:: The influence of trading all over the world, or the craftsmen’s own faiths, several different factors

J.D.: The impact of artistic traditions, of the geometry of design...

 

K.N:: Through architecture...

J.D.: They must have seen the textiles, and the calligraphy, and the architecture... And also because many of the people who were using these were the Maldharis, and they were Muslims, so they may have preferred to use these geometric patterns rather than the floral ones or the others. And so they evolved these, but within these they have so many [variations], as you can see in this wonderful exhibition. And then so many influences, like you mentioned the cloud motif. The cloud motif is really something  which has probably been absorbed from trade, because trade also brought many influences. The traders said we want these geometric patterns, so they may have copied those. But also there is a whole range of patterns as such, and one feels enriched.

And they have another technique which is very interesting, the ‘durukha’ (double sided), that they print on both sides, and that’s very complicated, and that requires a lot of expertise to be able to do it so that the colour doesn’t run but is printed in just the right quantity to be absorbed on the other side.

 

K.N:: Real technical expertise. Even in this exhibition we have so many examples of durukha. It’s a technically very complex form.

J.D.: It is.

 

K.N:: This is a great historical perspective that you’ve given us. If we move to contemporary times, you’ve been personally involved with the family of Mohammad Bhai, the different generations. I know they keep visiting you and you’ve been in touch. What have you noticed over the years, what are the differences in their art, and how they have evolved, and how they are interacting with the market.

J.D.: Well, they have evolved. It is amazing. Mohammad Bhai worked only in cotton. The next generation started working in silk. And the printing of silk is more complicated actually, and difficult, and they did a beautiful job. And those silk ajrakh saris are coveted all over India and abroad. And the yardage material...And the locally woven gajji (satin) and mashroo (cotton and silk). And then recently what has happened is that some of the younger generation worked with NID as well as the designers who came from abroad. And some of the designers who came from abroad made friends with them and stayed with them and they worked together, and in the process they learned the art, and Mohammad Bhai’s grandsons also learned from them, and some of them joined the institute Kala-Raksha which Judy Frater and the local Kutchi people had started, a school of design, which opened their minds to other approaches than the traditional approach. And then they kept experimenting. You have in this exhibition that beautiful piece, which is an abstract piece, which combines blocks, it’s a wonderful graphic, it’s a piece of art. See, we don’t appreciate the richness of the creativity of our craftspeople. In what way is this less than a painting. In no way. But we will not be willing to pay that extra plus. I think people need to be educated, and need to understand that this is an art form which has to be appreciated.

 

K.N:: Finally I’d like to ask you on the same note, as there are more and more collaborations between contemporary designers and traditional craftsmen, e.g., this is a collaboration between students of NIFT and the Crafts Museum, so these students went out into the field, interacted with the craftsmen. They learned a lot in the process, but they would be using what they learned from the craftsmen in their own garments as well, or they’ll be collaborating with these craftsmen in the future. What would you say would be some guidelines perhaps that we should keep in mind, for these collaborations to be fair to the craftsperson as well as to move forward.

J.D.:  Well this has been a big issue with me. I have felt that the National Institute of Design, the National Institute of Fashion Technology, various design schools, should give openings to the children of master craftspeople. The attitude of many of these institutes has been rather negative. They send their students, and I don’t think they are briefed properly either as to what they are going to look for, how are they going to conduct themselves. And they come back, some of them, I have been on their jury, with the most weird designs which they think should be given to these people. And some of them collect material I don’t know from where, which has no relevance, and which I think they are misinterpreting, or they have been a made a fool of by the craftsman. Sometimes that happens. But not always, it depends on who the students are, or who the guide is, they have come forward with very interesting studies which they have made. I personally share my knowledge with everybody, I’m not going to hang on to it, and everybody uses the knowledge in their own way.

So the mastery which the craftsman has, the student if they worked a lifetime might achieve one tenth of. But what I mean to say is they should be given the opportunity. So this dyer-printer who made such a tremendous contribution couldn’t get his son admitted to the Design School in Jaipur. Why? Because he had not passed his school. He was educated, he had been to school, he could read and write, and he was a master printer and dyer. They need to look at their policies for training, and especially the design institutes.