Though artisan goods are making a comeback in the Western world, I think it is fair to say that in our consumer society, few buyers (including me) know much about where and how most of the products they buy are made. I know whether I bought the product at a neighborhood store or Amazon.com, and my photography gear comes from Japan. Still, other than the ubiquitous “made in China” label, I typically know very little about the makers of the goods I use daily. That is not the case in rural India, where one can purchase many goods directly from the producer.
India, of course, has an amazing culture of artisanship, and the state of Gujarat is particularly endowed with skilled craftsmen. On my last trip, I spent time in a town called Wadhwan, where brass cooking pots and other utensils are produced in what seems to be every other shop on the main street. And because India is famous for its colorful textiles adorned with intricate designs, I was lucky also to get to spend some time in what is essentially a block-printing village, Ajarkhpur. Of course, anyone who has traveled to a country in Asia has experienced the mandatory stop at some “artisan factory” where busloads of tourists get out to see a show and buy souvenirs. I can assure you; there were no shows and no tourist busses in these villages, only hard work by the locals.
When arriving in Wadhwan, you immediately hear the sound of hammers on brass and smell the fumes produced by welding. Though the artisans of Wadhwan produce many different types of goods, the pots used to carry water from the well seem to be the most popular item. Many men are busy welding in tiny little rooms rendered hazy by the fumes they generate. Yet, the workers do not seem to wear anything to protect their eyes or lungs. Other men are hammering, often in groups, not to say that the sound is synchronized. These men are proud to show their skills, and their goods are sold all over the country.
As its name (derived from the Hindi phrase “Aaj ke din rakh” or “keep it for the day”) suggests, the “ajrakh” block-printing process is very laborious. It has been conducted in the Kutch area for centuries, ever since the Khatris (artisans who apply color to cloth) came to India from the Sindh region in Pakistan. In 2001, after a devastating earthquake severely damaged towns and villages where the Khatris had settled, a new village was aptly named Ajrakhpur (place of Ajrakh).
I will not attempt to describe this completely manual process as there are between 14-16 different stages of dyeing and printing, and it takes 2-3 weeks to complete.
For the curious, details can be found here:
Details aside, my time at Ajrakhpur made me realize how lengthy and demanding this art form is. You can see people dipping the fabric in small dying ghats, others washing it in large ghats, yet others using handmade carved blocks to stamp designs into the fabric, one natural color at a time. Lengths of fabric can also be seen draped on the ground to be dried by the hot Gujarati sun.
And now that I know how it is made and by whom, I am sure I will enjoy my stunning Ajrakh scarf for years to come (and may even buy the next one on Amazon.com 😏)