In the aftermath of the 2001 earthquake, remarkable as it may seem, there emerged a stronger will and a deeper engagement into Craft practices in Kutch. Besides the immense loss of life and infrastructure, the earthquake upset the entire ecosystem, like the village of Dhamadka whose underground water reserves reduced to nothing overnight.
The Khatri community, whose name means “one who fills or changes colours,” practised the art of textile block-printing with the locally available natural dyes and water from the Dhamadka, the river that gave their village its name. This craft consumes a lot of water; as a result of the earthquake, the residents of Dhamadka therefore not only lost their source of water but their source of income as well.
Craft is the second largest livelihood of this region. Rehabilitation work started immediately during which, dozens of families from Dhamadka, with the help of the local government and various NGOs, decided to simply “move” the village to continue to practice this art of the block-printing called ‘Ajrakh’. Thus was born the village of Ajrakhpur.
When we visited, we were received by Abdul, who hails from a Muslim family that has been practicing block-printing for centuries. He is in his thirties, with a jovial smile and speaks English! Along with his brother, he left Dhamadka a few years ago to settle down in Ajrakhpur and continue to practice the craft.
Abdul mostly uses natural pigments: indigo, henna, turmeric, pomegranate, iron oxide …This is a work of a true chemist. With patience and precision, each piece of tissue goes through an average of fifteen steps before arriving at the finished product: printing blocks, boiling, washing, soaking, new printing..
The printing is done by hand with hand carved wooden blocks. Several different blocks are used to give the characteristic repeated patterning.
Block-printing for Abdul is not only a source of income but a passion as well. He continues to explore the possibility of natural pigments by experimenting with several different dyes and processes. He employs a dozen people from surrounding villages and sells these tissues all over India and even abroad. Water is always a problem for this technique but the craftsmen of the village are working with a local NGO to establish a system for treating and recycling the colored water.
I have worn so much block-print through my life but a visit to Kutch opens whole knew perspectives on the skill and craftsmenship ; it does not take long to realise how little we knew of this region, or of the treasures it holds.