For Abdul Jabbar, learning ajrakh printing came naturally as it was his family business. At the tender age of 8 or 9 he became an apprentice under his father, who first taught him the colour making process. His father would instruct him to boil substances such as tamarind seed flour with water, or mix chuno (lime) with gundar (resin) to make a paste. His training continued along with his schooling. Sunday’s break from school, especially, was the main day he learnt about ajrakh. Once Abdul Jabbar was acquainted with the colour making methods, the second stage of his training was to learn the preliminary printing process called rekh (or ‘outline’). Thereafter, the third stage of training was to learn the most advanced printing techniques. Initially, Abdul Jabbar and his fellow apprentices learned by printing small areas when one of the more senior workers was taking a break. They learned printing through using four to six blocks first, and printing just one or two small pieces of the fabric. Through his step-by-step training, Abdul Jabbar already became proficient at outline printing both sides of a textile by the time he turned thirteen.
In the post-independence era, spurred on by the popularity of chemical dyeing, Abdul Jabbar’s family also experimented with chemical colours. In one day, passing through the various stages of printing, around six ajrakhs could be made. The second stage of printing, taking up a second day, consisted of inscribing designs such as hanso and kinaro. This was then followed by datla print (block print) which fixed red colour over red and dip in blue to make the ajrakh. Use of chemical pigments remained popular in the decades between the 1950s and the 1990s. However, Abdul Jabbar’s family reverted back to natural dyeing techniques in 1972-73. This, however, was not easy to sustain as natural dyeing was much costlier than the chemical alternative.
The Making of Ajrakh and the Colouring Process
Answering the question of product pricing, Abdul Jabbar says that for making a small piece, extra effort is required compared to printing metres and metres of long cloth. For this reason, a small piece of fabric can be quite expensive. For instance, 12 napkins can be made from one bedcover; the labour cost of that bed cover could be just 25 rupees. If a napkin were to be made on its own however, the cost may be as much as 60 to 70 rupees. This is largely so because of the extra effort required in creating separate corners, lines and four matching angles and designs. Another significant factor determining the price is the amount of washing, dyeing, boiling and drying processes each piece goes through - if a piece has three or more colours in its design, it becomes much more costly.
The washing process in particular is quite time consuming. Abdul Jabbar explains that it can take three days to wash starched white cloth. To de-starch, they soak the fabric overnight before beating the cloth using a straight piece of wood known as a lakda. After that, the remaining water is removed, and the cloth is soaked overnight for the second time. In former times, camel dung and laniyo kharo were used for de-starching. Laniyo kharo is highly alkaline, dessert-dwelling vegetation. In boiling water, sandhiya ni poldi (camel dung), laniyo kharo and aerandiyano tel (castor oil) is mixed to de-starch the fabric.
The next process involves the skin of harde, a kind of a fruit, which is dried to derive a powder. That powder is mixed with water along with the de-starched cloth, which is then kept in the sunlight for at least four hours. This process is crucial for allowing the white colour obtained from chuno (lime) and gundar (a kind of resin or mucilage) to resist other colours.
Then the process of obtaining black colour starts. The black colour is derived from katelo lokhand, rusted iron. This type of iron is split into two and soaked in a pot filled with water along with gud (jiggery) and chana (gram flour). That water is mixed with tamarind flour to derive a jet black colour.
A third colour is obtained with the use of alum. The alum cannot be printed alone as it will be covered over by other colours, so to protect the properties of alum it is mixed with juvarno lot (barley flour) and mati (clay). The clay used needs to be alkaline free so it does not react with the alum. This type of clay used, called rapi reti, is available only in Dhamdaka. By mixing these substances, the alum produces a yellow colour. However, if alum is mixed with majith, it produces a red or orange colour. Alum is the basis of several colours: when mixed with henna it produces a yellow colour, if mixed with sapaan a pink colour is produced, and if mixed with alijarin, a red colour is made.
These are the age-old naturally obtained pigments. The way in which certain colours are made has obviously changed over the years however. Abdul Jabbar says that copper sulphate and dichromate sulphate are very dangerous and are no longer in use. Dhavadi na phul (a type of flower) is sometimes mixed with alum for certain colours, whereas previously they used padvas, also known as shakun (obtained from the layi tree), for the same purpose. Since those trees are nearly extinct, they now use dhavadi na phul brought from Madhya Pradesh.Abdul Jabbar adds that by experimenting with new substances they are now getting different shades of these colours. For example, they are mixing rubab into alum to get a brown colour. Rubab is locally known as revanchi. They also use dadamni chodi (pomegranate) and harde to get other pigments.
White, black and red, with a blue background, are the trademark colours of ajrakh block printing. For a red background the cloth is not dyed in indigo and it is only resist printed. That is followed by black print. Then, for the final stage alum is mixed with the tamarind flour and is brushed over the whole cloth. This dyed cloth is kept for three to four days and then washed to remove the surplus colour. The cloth absorbs substances as much as required.
This kind of superb chemistry the Khatri dyers have been practicing for nine to ten generations. Abdul Jabbar knows tales of his ancestors going back 300 to 350 years, but he does not know who discovered the colour making processes.
Overall a textile goes through indigo dyeing, washing, drying and boiling in selected substances, washing and dyeing. It is finally bleached and dried.
Cost and Manufacturing Time
For each piece of printed ajrakh, if the labour involved increases, the cost also mounts. The costing of a piece also depends upon the different designs and different colours used. 500 meters in one colour is not particularly problematic but even dyeing twice in indigo takes several hours. Market demand also plays an important role in determining prices. Abdul Jabbar keeps the customer’s pocket in mind however as if they overcharge then they do not get buyers.
For a single print they may charge twenty-five rupees. For a very simple design the rate is twenty rupees. But, more complex prints require several days to complete and the price is then fixed accordingly. To make the one single run of material, three workers in one day can print around seventy to eighty metres. Currently, the workshop are working on a run of 1,800 metres for Fab India, comprised of one design. One man will print the outline (rekh) of the design, a second man will do the second printing (known as dattai) and a third will do a third print (called mavi). Their target in this case is to prepare 300 metres in a day ready for the colouring and painting of the cloth. For the painting, two workers are engaged for a whole day. Then, the usual process of washing, drying and dyeing in a cycle continues. Here, tight coordination is required for printing and colouring, the cloth must always be ready for the next stage of the process to continue. If calculations are missed then one of the workers will sit idle and the cost of labour increases, for whether with work or without it the workers are still paid.
Jabbar’s clients are not only from the leading fashion showroom Fab India, but for the last fifteen years, thirty to thirty-five per cent of their output is supplied to Maiwa in Canada. Jabbar benefits working with the fashion designers, who provide him with wonderful ideas, such as introducing borderless ajrakh designs. They now have also learnt to use a range of fabrics beyond cotton, such as silk, wool, gaji, georgette and chiffon. Each of the different textures of the textiles provides different challenges. For instance, khadi silk does not take up colours as effectively as cotton can. With the very finest khadi (coarse hand woven fabric), washing is also more difficult due to the delicate nature of the fabric. Stone washing is possible, but it needs to be done much more gently. After printing, dying, and washing, when it comes to the boiling stage, with khadi they again have to be cautious when stirring the cloth in the water as the fabric can easily become tangled and tear.
For Fab India they regularly have to meet urgent demands. However, with Maiwa, a sampling process is first undertaken before production starts.
Workforce and Productivity
Abdul Jabbar insists on teamwork and he believes that without each member of the team working together, the business would not operate. In the absence of any of the workers, Abdul Jabbar and the family themselves join in and supervise. They can perform multiple roles and get involved in washing, boiling, printing, and dyeing.
Jabbar’s workshop relies, to some extent, on division of labour. He has six employees engaged in printing, and six for washing. Yet, those who wash also know how to dye and even print. Similarly, those who do printing as their main task also wash when needed. Of the printers, they are well trained in dealing with colour thickness and fine printing. A new apprentice takes around one and half to two years’ time to learn the craft. For Jabbar, it mostly depends on the mind of the new starter how quickly he grasps the art however. He cited one example of one of his workers who worked for him for 35 years, but who was still learning under him. This life-long trainee mostly worked making goods to serve local demand. These original customers of the printers, particularly the maldharis from Banni, have now changed their pehervesh, or way of dressing. The new clients that have replaced this customer base belong to urban areas; they are much more demanding in asking for high quality and precise work.
The summer and winter and their main production seasons. During the monsoon, in the past they did some work, including tie and dye and block making. This kept the workers occupied through the year. Now, times have changed somewhat, and Abdul Jabbar jokingly says that they all now enjoy their monsoon time! Previously, during his father’s time, working hours were never fixed and it was common to work from seven in the morning until ten at night to ensure there was no backlog with their work. Working hours are now more controlled; from 7 am to 5 pm. Abdul Jabbar now uses his spare time to reply to emails too. Technology, in general, has helped the business; people from all over the world can Googled his name. Abdul Jabbar’s business has a distinct brand identity.
His two sons Adham (26) and Nauman (18) also work with him. Adham left formal education after graduation and joined his father in business. He is completely involved in all aspects of the business and has recently completed a 12 month designing course at the NIfD. Nauman has also joined his father after the tenth standard exam.
Occupation: ajrakh producer
Education: Class 7
Place of residence: Dhamadka
Date of interview: 8/11/2012