PUBLISHED April 10, 2022
The ajrak, one of Sindh’s most recognizable visual symbols, has been part of the province’s culture for five centuries. Once a ubiquitous block print style for textiles, Ajrak has become more difficult to produce over the years due to the high prices of the chemicals and organic colors used to make the prints. Many small-scale ajrak printing houses have closed and hand-made products are now produced by machines. Still, people love the traditional ajrak style and the value of these authentic styles has increased.
In Sukkur alone there were over 200 small-scale ajrak printing units. But due to rising material prices and labor shortages, almost all of these businesses have closed. A unit, led by a man and ten workers, remains operational. However, the prospects for this activity are also uncertain; Many workers feel that they are underpaid for their long working hours and consider seeking employment elsewhere. As they only have experience in ajrak printing, some of them feel stuck.
How it’s made
Ajrak’s history dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization, which existed between 2500 and 1500 BC. People living at this time began to cultivate cotton to make textiles and clothing. They mastered the art of making the fabrics and dyed them with indigo and other natural dyes. Due to its common roots in the Indus Valley Civilization, ajrak is popular in parts of Gujrat and South Punjab, India. The block printing process takes time and skill, which many artisans have learned over decades of practice.
The owner of the company, Riaz Ahmed Mirbahar, took over the trade from his father who learned to make ajrak with his grandfather. When Mirbahar’s father sensed his disinterest in education as a child, he started training him in how to make the product. Once he became skilled in doing ajrak, Mirbahar never looked back. Turning raw fabric into colorful ajrak isn’t easy, Mirbahar said. First, he buys raw white cloth from the markets of Faisalabad, Karachi and Hyderabad, and colors the cloth yellow, which serves as the base color.
Next, ajrak makers use black blocks, followed by orange, white, and red. Sometimes it takes dozens of blocks to make a design and at least a dozen people to prepare each piece. After the printing process is complete, workers lay the fabric out in the sun to dry. During the final stage of production, workers take printed ajraks to the river, where they mix a blue color in a drum of water, soaking the fabric in the mixture, before rinsing them under running water. When this process is complete, the blue color takes over the yellow, giving the ajrak its finished look.
Later, the washed ajraks are prepared to be sold in the market. Mirbahar said the prices of color chemicals have increased by around Rs 2,000 per kilogram and organic colors have also become more expensive. He said his business earns between 800 and 1,000 ajraks per month. The wholesale price for a coin is Rs. 1,0000, and traders sell them for around Rs. 1,200.
Ajrak used to be worn primarily as a turban for men and chaddar for women. Apart from this, ajrak was also used as a gift to reconcile group disputes. Warring clans used to send a “minth mear kafla” (reconciliation delegation) made up of bareheaded young girls holding the Holy Quran above their heads. When this delegation arrived at the other clan, the elders of the clan would put money on the Holy Quran and cover the heads of the girls with the ajrak. This meant the end of the conflict. The ajrak was also used to cover the body of the dead as a sign of respect by mourners. This practice continues to this day.
Festivals that celebrate Sindhi culture have boosted the sale of ajraks over the years, diversifying the use of the product. Over time, it gained uses as a colorful accent in weddings and other celebrations. It is also sometimes given as a gift. With the increasing popularity of the pattern, textile companies have started making ajrak vests, kurtis, caps, shirts and other products.
Mohammad Ramzan, the unit’s master trainer, has been printing arjak for fifty years after learning the craft from his father when he was young. “At first it was exciting work, turning raw white fabric into colorful ajrak,” Ramzan said. “But the work required to print an ajrak is so intense that I often used to [think about] print ajraks while sleeping. As the senior member of the team, Ramzan said he earned 900 rupees a day while other workers in his unit earned 650 rupees.
Because the job is so labor intensive, Ramzan said he often considers quitting, but after many years of doing ajraks, he fears he lacks the skills for another profession. “I can’t afford to sit at home,” he said. Since his unit is the only one still printing ajrak in the traditional way in Sukkur, he said it was also impossible for them to find time for anything else, including setting up a platform. online form to sell the products. “Many traders in Sukkur market are selling their products online because they have enough time,” he said.
Indeed, many marketers have found success with their products on the Internet. One of Sukkur’s largest handicrafts merchants, Hala Handicrafts, attracts many customers with its diverse range of ajraks and handicrafts both in-person and online. The shop sells different types of ajraks, hand-embroidered robes, Sindhi caps, patchwork rhillies, and more.
Mohammad Fareed, the shop owner, said that although there are fewer ajrak producers in Sukkur and other parts of Upper Sindh, the variety of ajrak products has increased. Today, most ajraks are printed using the screen printing process, which is faster and allows producers to produce the product in bulk. Screen-printed ajraks are cheaper than handmade ones, selling for between Rs 150 and Rs 300. Handmade ajraks printed with organic colors are the most expensive in his shop, Farred said, costing up to Rs 20 000 Rs.
Fareed said he has increased his customer base by marketing his ajraks and other handicrafts online. He said there are advantages and disadvantages to selling items online as sometimes people fail to claim packages they have ordered. Merchants also send different items to those ordered by the customer, which Fareed says is professional dishonesty since customers are also required to pay delivery costs.
Another trader, Naseer, who sells ajraks and sheets, said he was strongly opposed to selling his products online. He said he mostly deals with customers from rural areas of Sukkur who don’t know how online shopping works. Many of his clients run small fabric stores and come directly to him to purchase products. For this reason, he says he sells cheap ajraks and sheets, which rural people can afford.
Mohammad Aslam, who runs a wholesale clothing store in Sukkur market, said he mostly deals with traders in rural areas and has no time to sell his wares online. Most of its business is on credit, and traders in rural areas have to settle their debts before placing new orders.
Although the new business model using screen printing has made ajrak designs more affordable and widespread, it has also affected the work of people who continue to make the designs in the traditional way. Some companies have taken shortcuts in search of quick financial gains which some craftspeople say has diluted craftsmanship and made it harder to survive. The labor-intensive process also has some wondering if it’s worth continuing to make the product in the traditional way.
Although the method of making ajrak has changed, its cultural significance remains strong and the style can be seen on the streets of Sindh and other places in Pakistan. For people with ancestral ties to the province, the ajrak is a symbol of Sindhi pride. Young people have embraced the trend and are wearing the style with pride. The style has even gained prominence outside of Pakistan, where designers have incorporated the pattern into their clothing.
Ajrak is an integral part of Sindhi culture, which is worn by people from all walks of life, from the poor to the elite. It is respected for its history and craftsmanship – where people like Mirbahar and his team work daily to keep tradition from fading.