Mushtak Khan: लोतिका-दी, हमारे भारत में बहुत तरह के textile traditions है, लेकिन अजरख के बारे में लोग बहुत ज्यादा नहीं जानते, तो यह अजरख है क्या? (We have a great variety of textile traditions in India, but Ajrakh is one about which people don't know very much, so could you tell us what it is?)
Lotika Varadarajan: You can look at ajrakh from different points of view. One is the actual fabric. The second point of view looks at what is behind the fabric, in other words, what are the influences that went into the shaping of ajrakh. I have written somewhere in my book that ajrakh is very much related to Sufism, in the sense that if you look at a real ajrakh like that piece in this exhibition, there is no centre, there is no periphery, and it keeps on expanding without any end.
The term ‘ajrakh’ comes from blue, because dark blue is also the colour of Islam, and it was worn by the Muslim Maldharis, and blue was a very important colour. The person from whom I learned about ajrakh was Mohammad Bhai [Khatri Mahammadbhai Sidikbhai], who lived in the village of Dhamadka. And I was told about the village of Dhamadka by Mr Bhasin, who was then Head of the Gujarat State Handicrafts Corporation. He was the one who actually started marketing ajrakh, not as a dress fabric or as a sari, essentially as bedspreads. It was very close to the original ajrakh. Later on, as it became fashionable, many things happened, but this was the time of the original ajrakh.
M.K.: उन्नीस सौ तिरासी के करीब आपकी यह किताब अजरख नाम की पब्लिश (publish) हो गई थी। १९८० के डेकेड (decade) में आपने इसके उपर जो रिसर्च (research) किया, उस समय तो आज से बहुत ज़्यादा यह ट्रडीशन (tradition) बहुत अच्छी हालत में होगा, अपने pure form में होगा, तो उस समय क्या हालत थी? (Your book, Ajrakh and Related Techniques was published around 1983. When you did your research in the 1980s, the tradition must have been in its pure form as compared to today, so could you tell us what its condition was then?)
L.V: It was done in the village of Dhamadka. Mohammad Bhai was a very small child when he migrated to Dhamadka. They all come from Sindh, and Sindh is really the heartland of ajrakh. And he started ajrakh in the village and he wanted other villagers to profit. So he had to be able to sell the ajrakh in order for other people to come in. And at that time Mrinalini Sarabhai and Brij Bhasin, they worked very well together. It was also the time of the great famine in Gujarat, and both of them tried very hard to make as many commodities marketable as possible, and ajrakh was one of the areas that they chose to make profitable.
I really chose ajrakh because it was a very enclosed craft. I had my main person who could tell me what it was about, I could document how it was made, because at that point in time, Dhamadka still had the river, a running river with water. And the river water was extremely important. Because now there is Ajrakhpur, but they don’t have a running river, they use tanks. And in the tank the blue colour remains in the water, the red colour remains—it’s more difficult.
M.K.: सफेद ज़मीन उसमें पाना बहुत कठिन होता क्योंकि बहता हुआ पानी नहीं है, स्टॅग्नेंट वॉटर (stagnant water) है, उसके अंदर दूसरे रंग भी मिलते जा रहे है, तो कपड़े के उपर वह अपना धब्बा छोड़ते, जिससे उसकी खूबसूरती जो आना चाहिये वह नहीं आ सकती है. जब आपने काम किया, उस समय धमदका में नदी बहती थी, तो यह काम बहुत आसान होता था. (It would be very difficult to get a white ground, as the water is not flowing but stagnant, in which other colours keep mingling, so they leave stains on the cloth, because of which the cloth does not acquire the beauty it should. When you did your research, there was a river flowing in Dhamadka, which made this craft much easier.)
L.V.: I feel even now the ajrakh of Dhamadka is more beautiful than the one of Ajrakhpur. It is the family of Mohammed Bhai that is doing both. Some brothers stayed behind in Dhamadka, one brother came out of Dhamadka, because he had the foresight to sense that sooner rather than later the river would run dry. He thought ahead, he found this place, he attracted other people to come, he started the industry almost from scratch. So he’s a great entrepreneur, of that there’s no doubt.
M.K.: यानी जिस समय आपने अजरख के उपर study की, वह समय already इसको revive करने की कोशिश चल रही थी. आपकी बात से मुझे यह समझ में आता है कि अजरख मूलतः सिंध की कला है. तो क्या undivided हिंदुस्तान में सिंध नदी के इस तरफ गुजरात में/कच्छ में, क्या यह अजरख होता था उस समय? (So at the time you were studying ajrakh, efforts were already on to revive it. From what you say I gather ajrakh is essentially an art of Sindh. So in back in undivided Hindustan, was ajrakh being practised this side of the river Sindh, in Gujarat, in Kutch?)
L.V.: I think it was probably not being practised because Mohammad Bhai told me he was the first person to start ajrakh in Gujarat.
M.K.: और आपने अपनी किताब में यह भी लिखा है कि अजरख कच्छ के साथ बारमेर मे भी होता, धमदका के साथ बारमेर में भी कुछ खत्री उसको कर रहे थे. तो फिर यह गुजरात से बारमेर जाने का सफर कैसे हुआ होगा? (And in your book you have also written that ajrakh was practised in Barmer [in Rajasthan] as well as Kutch [in Gujarat], that apart from Dhamadka, there were some Khatris in Barmer who were doing it. So how would they have journeyed from Gujarat to Barmer?)
L.V. That I do not know. There must have been relatives, and they must have gone to Rajasthan because Rajasthan also is a great place for printing. But Barmer in those days was not rated as highly as Dhamadka.
M.K.: जी। यानी धमदका का जो काम था अजरख का वह बहुत ज़्यादा superior था बारमेर से उस समय भी। क्योंकि मोहम्मद भाई से आपको जो सूचना मिली, उसके अनुसार सबसे पहले उन्होंने आके धमदका में अजरख का काम शुरू किया. लेकिन अगर मानिये ऐसी स्थिति होगी तो, जो 'ब्लॉक्स' (blocks) है, जो designs है, वो क्या मोहम्मद भाई अपने साथ में लाये, फिर वहां पे उसे बनाने का काम कैसे शुरू हुआ होगा? (Indeed. The work of Dhamadka was much superior to that of Barmer even at that time. For according to the information you received from Mohammad Bhai, it was he who first came and started the work of ajrakh in Dhamadka. Yet supposing this to be the case, were the blocks, the designs, something Mohammad Bhai brought with him, and then how did the work of manufacturing them there [in Dhamadka] begin thereafter?)
L.V.: Mohammad Bhai must have started making the blocks...
M.K.: ... क्योंकि एक नयी tradition जब एक जगह शुरू हो रही है तो उस में यह भी उनको बड़ी कठिनाई आई होगी कि वे जो 'ब्लॉक्स' लेकर आये होंगे, वह...(...for as the tradition started emerging in a new place, this must also have been a challenge, that the blocks they had brought...)
L.V.: शायद block makers भी आये थे मोहम्मद भाई के साथ. नहीं तो इतना fine work [कैसे करते]? और आपके सौदागिरी के लिये जितना fine ब्लॉक होता, अजरख इतना fine नहीं है. (Probably the block makers too came along with Mohammad Bhai, else how could such fine work be produced. And if you think of the fineness of the blocks used for Saudagiri printing, ajrakh blocks are not so fine.)
M.K.: लेकिन अजरख की जो छपाई है, वह कपड़े की दोनो तरफ होती है, उसके बारे में थोड़ा सा बताये? (But in ajrakh the printing is done on both sides, could you talk a little about that?)
L.V: नहीं, अगर आप दोनों साइड करेंगे (No, if you do both sides), it’s your skill as a block printer which is important. It is not the block—the block is important no doubt—but the precision with which you had to place the block, at exactly the same spot on both sides (you would do one side, then you would do the other). So the precision at the block-printer’s command was much greater, if you wanted to do both sides.
M.K.: तो आपको क्या लगता है, अजरख में प्रिंटर का जो skill level है, वह दूसरी छपाई से बहुत ज़्यादा excellent होता है? क्योंकि और किसी tradition में दो-रूखा छापने का इतना चलन नहीं है. (So would you say that in ajrakh the printer's skill level is of much greater excellence than in other forms of printing. For in no other tradition do we have this practice of double-sided printing).
L.V.: वो बात सही है (That is true). But that apart I would not like to say that one printing tradition is better than another, because for me fine printing is fine printing, whether it is from Sanganer or ajrakh or saudagiri, it is the same degree of finesse that is required. I don’t think that because you are printing on the other side—you need a certain degree of finesse, but if it was a custom with other kinds of craft, they would be able to do it also.
M.K.: लेकिन जैसे अजरख resist-dye का block printing है, तो राजस्थान और कच्छ में जो डाबू की resist की छपाई है, वह अजरख से किस तरीके से different है? (But ajrakh is a form of block printing using resist dyes, so what are the ways in which it is different from Dabu, a tradition of block printing with resist dyes in Kutch and Rajasthan?)
L.V.: In Dabu you get many more colours. Ajrakh used to be mainly white, blue, red, no other colours. Green was not there, nor yellow.
M.K.: मतलब पुराने अजरख जो था, उसके अंदर लाल, नीला और काला, और ज़मीन का जो रंग है, वही होता था. हरा और पीला बाद में introduce किया लोगों ने. और एक यह भी कहते है की बाकी सभी तरीके के कपड़े ज़्यादातर females के लिये छापे जाते थे, लेकिन जो अजरख है, येह केवल males के लिये है. (In other words in traditional ajrakh you had only red, blue and black, and the ground colour. People introduced green and yellow afterwards. And they also say that all kinds of cloth were printed mostly for females, but ajrakh is one that is meant only for males.)
L.V.: You look at the kinds of the costumes of the men. They make ajrakh cloths which men can wear as a chadar, or they can wind around the head. So basically it’s a strip of cloth. With other communities, say if you look at Saurashtra, it is true the men wear a turban, but they don’t wear a chadar as frequently as is the case of ajrakh.
M.K.: तो आज तो हम अजरख का एक बहुत ही बदला हुआ एक आधुनिक रूप देखते है, लेकिन आज से तीस-पैंतिस साल पेहले, जिस समय आपने इसके उपर study किया, और वो भी केवल एक ही family, ज़्यादा families इसको practise नहीं कर रहे थे, तो उसकी study आपने कैसे किया, क्या-क्या कठिनइया आपको आई, कैसे आपने study को आगे बढ़ाया? (So today what we see of ajrakh is a much-changed, modern form, yet 30-35 years ago, when you did your study on it, and that too with just one family—not many families were practising it—how did you conduct your study, what were the difficulties you faced, how did you take your research forward?)
L.V.: When I started to work on ajrakh, I was already working on the textile tradition as part of the Homi Bhabha Fellowship. And I remember that Brij Bhasin, Nellie Sethna who was working on kalamkari and I went to several centres, and it seemed to me that it was very important to work on ajrakh, because no work had been done on it, absolutely none. And Mohammad Bhai was a great figure in ajrakh in those days. He had a family, he had a home. We were living in Baroda, so I made several trips to Dhamadka, I stayed in Mohammad Bhai’s house. He was very hospitable, so I could get the feel of the family, and see all aspects of the production process while I was with him. So that was very important. There was a lot of washing: how important the washing process is, the way in which they squeeze the cloth, every part of it Mohammad Bhai explained. And the dynamism of Mohammad Bhai, the leadership of Mohammad Bhai in that village of Dhamadka, those became very important for me. And marketing also, the project to do ajrakh was sponsored by the Gujarat State Handicrafts Corporation, so they would obviously be interested in marketing ajrakh after we had finished the documentation. So this is the background to the work that I was doing there.
And Mohammad Bhai was very strict. There was ajrakh which would only be worn by men. Other designs could be used by women, and he would make them, for instance, he made very beautiful printed bandhini, these were for women.
L.V.: And the way he sold the items took me right back to the 17th- and 18th-century textile trade. He would carry a bundle of 20 pieces on his shoulder and go from village to village to sell the items, taking care of the male-female distribution patterns. So that is how it was done.
And I remember Mohammad Bhai belonged to the sect which is called Ahl-e-Hadis, but he was not strict. The women did not wear burkhas, everything was open. And I remember once it was the morning, we were working, and at about 12 o’clock I asked Mohammad Bhai whether it was time to say his prayers. He said, ‘No, I will say my prayers at night. Allah will understand. Work is very important.’ So there was none of this hatred, this animosity, this tension, which at a much later date contributed to his son moving out and creating a new place in Ajrakhpur. It was a very open society.
And the items had a great beauty, because you look at ajrakh and you see the way it just expands and expands. It’s conceptually very beautiful.