Colour of the Universe
Ajrakh block printing is an ancient craft. The earliest imprints of its existence can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilisation and even beyond. While there are many fascinating traits that make Ajrakh special and unique, what got our attention was its relationship with colour Indigo. The two most prominent colours in the Ajrakh craft is apparently Indigo and Madder red. It is said that the reason for this is nothing but the fact that- if you were to ever lose your way in a vast desert, it’s these two colours that will help you get discovered from far.
‘Jab disha bhramm ho jaata hain na, tho yaheen bas ek sahara hain’.
Survival of this craft is indeed a tribute to its craftsmen and their sacrifices and resilience over centuries. This is one such story of survival.
It was almost halfway through summer, when old man Khalid decided that it was time for him to leave. Money from the previous year was almost getting over and the big family he had to support demanded a crunch. There was hardly any ghee left to serve the kids, women could only feed kids at night and the eyes of men at work had started to look weaker. Khalid was half hoping that he could postpone his trip till first showers, when the bloody summer heat would subside. But one look at the pile of clothes lying at the back of the house, clothes that had to be sold to the rich cattle traders of Banni, and the images came flashing in his mind – food supplies that lasted a year and smiling faces of his people. This helped him strengthen his mind. He called out to his wife ‘Oy…keep my potli ready and feed the camel well tonight, I think the time has come for me to cross the Rann (white desert)’.
His wife’s forehead twitched at the thought of her husband traversing the white desert. How can he manage to travel so far in this scorching heat, she quickly tried to immerse herself with work and keep her mind busy, for she knew that the time would come again and again when he would have to go in search of markets for the clothes they made. However, all she ever wished was for it to not happen during summer.
She sneaked out quietly and searched for her little nephew. She had grown fond of Ali over the years. It was not just for his infectious cheerfulness that changed the mood of a place, but also his dedication to work, and his devotion towards his uncle that made him really special for her. Khalid had taught him the craft of Ajrakh printing right from a very young age, a craft that Khatris believed to be the gift of god or the generations before, sustaining the clan for over many centuries. But she had seen many elders having to patiently wait for their kids to fall in love with the craft as deeply as they did. One had to give them time, she had often heard them say. And so she was fascinated to see this boy, from a very young age smitten by the craft of his ancestors so much so that he would often look like a miniature of his uncle, a master craftsman. With hungry curiosity he would explore the various facets of Ajrakh work. One day you would see him carving out wood to form geometric patterns that could be used as a design block and on some other days he would just peer into the pot of Indigo striking a long conversation with it!
Ali walked briskly towards his aunt who was not only a foster mother, but also a guide to his teacher’s mind. Hearing about the travel, Ali felt excitement in his heart. He had only heard about the grand markets of Banni. The many sacks of rice and bottles of ghee that his uncle brought back after each of his journey across the desert had looked like real treasures in his childhood. Kids would all sit around Khalid chacha and listen to stories of his travel to the unseen land of Banni. He was finally ready to go on the journey himself, his uncle had proudly declared only last month.
Ali had successfully worked on a cloth, working with it elaborately for over 20 days -preparing the cloth, dipping it in camel dung, washing and dipping it multiple times in dyes and washing and printing and waiting. For doing it slow was key.
Ali’s smile brought back the lost colour in his aunt’s face. She knew that her nephew would keep her husband in good spirits through the long dry spell. Ali and Khalid started off with the camel and two big bundles of clothes, soon after the morning Namas. It was better to finish a huge chunk of the journey before the sun got into his raging best. Ali knew it was not going to be an easy journey the moment he saw what his aunt had packed for them- pots of water, food and two full bundles of cloth to be sold. Bulk of the journey, they would attempt to walk, Khalid had informed his nephew, as they did not want to over burden the camel. They would rest in the afternoons and continue the journey through the night for almost two days.
Ali felt fatigue setting in by afternoon. ‘this is only the first day’, he tried to tell himself to gather more strength. But was only too grateful when his uncle declared that they were breaking for lunch and rest. As soon as the sky became slightly benevolent, they resumed with the walking. It was a long walk without much halts in between. Ali marveled at his uncle’s sense of direction. Khalid would look at the mountains in the distance during the day and during night continue to take confident strides gaping at the stars. Ali would blindly follow him. Khalid could feel his nephew grow silent by the second evening. He knew what that silence meant and that they would have to pull through the last leg with all their might. The night passed very loud and shrill and within no time the sun rose for yet another testing spell. Khalid suddenly felt a pain in his stomach. The desert lay in front of him horrifyingly generous. ‘Did the desert trick him this time’? he wondered… did his gaze at the stars quiver a little too much last night? But how could he get it wrong?
How could the desert fail him with a terrible fate? After all, he had taken to its vastness from a very young age, much before Ali or any of the kids could even imagine taking a journey of such magnitude.
But he had also gone through this pain many times before, when a far-away post would reveal hints of a settlement suddenly ending the ordeal and bringing back images of life and water. He consoled himself.
‘Ali’!!!, he called out turning back to notice that his nephew had trailed behind long back. Ali had a lost look in his eyes, almost as if he had stopped listening. He called out to Ali a second time, also inspiring him through gestures to walk a little faster. One closer look at Ali and Khalid knew that he would not be able to carry him along for too long. Moreover, the sun was getting harsher. His own lips had parted in the hope of getting water traces from the winds. He searched for the last remnants of water but could find not many drops in the bottle. Khalid felt his legs wobble, two days and nights of walking had now started taking a serious toll on his aged limbs.
Ali suddenly sprang from behind. He said, ‘Uncle, would you have a matchbox? Khalid looked at his nephew deeply for there was a resolve in his face that frightened him. Ali said with mounting anger in his voice, ‘Let’s just burn these bundles of clothes.Why should we give our life and soul to this work that gives us only such hardships? Let’s burn all of it so that the next generation is not cursed with such a tough life!’
Khalid did not have answers. Helpless and miserable, he continued his gait towards what looked like a small marsh of water source. The water was filthy and probably had remains of an animal which couldn’t survive the long harsh traverse. Ali swiftly took out his turban and strained the water through it and squeezed out a few ounces of water, sipping it down greedily. Khalid sat down looking at this sight.
He must have been sitting in that same spot for a long time perhaps, he couldn’t fathom. Suddenly he felt the colour of his potli spread across the skies. A deep baritone of blue. And from there, he also saw the stars emerge…growing slowly into an infinite universe of stars. He could hear the song of the cattle herders coming from a distance. He dozed off with fatigue or may be to escape from the fear of the vastness around.
When Khalid opened his eyes, he was in the room that smelled of Banni. The smell of calves and milk was unmistakable. Ali was at his side, and the moment he saw his uncle open his eyes, he hugged him tightly. Now remorseful that he had spoken against his craft which was probably their only sliver of hope, a teary eyed Ali, informed Khalid about the nomadic cattle herders who had miraculously appeared to rescue them and helped them get to Banni. Khalid muttered a prayer, thankful that he was to his forefathers and to the Universe for letting him live, to tell the tale of yet another journey.
Inspired by a true event told to us by Dr. Ismael Khatri, a master craftsman of Ajrakh block printing from Ajrakhpur village, Kutch.
* Some names have been changed to protect privacy and some events and characters recreated. This story continues to send shivers down the spine of many Khatri community craftsmen who have had to sacrifice, live through many harsh realities of nature and life to let this ancient craft of Ajrakh survive. And the craft survives to this day at Barmer, Ajrakhpur and Dhamadka in India and Sindh in Pakistan, currently unified only with a common thread of history and ancestors.
Images are representative and have been taken from the following sources:
Illustration by: Pallavi Jain