Khatri and Khatri: The First Families of Ajrakh

Khatri and Khatri: The First Families of Ajrakh

A crafts diary from Kutch begins and ends with Ajrakh. An Ajrakh diary begins and ends with the Khatri community. A Khatri diary may begin with Dr Ismail but doesn’t end there

Ajrakhpur, September 2019

It’s 10 am and we are at Dr Ismail Mohammed Khatri’s studio in Ajrakhpur. This village (with only pucca houses) that came up after the devastating Bhuj earthquake of 2001 as a resettlement space is named after its artisan community that creates, reimagines, block prints, hand dyes and supplies Ajrakh textiles to a large number of brands and retail giants in India. Even art galleries and museum shops in some parts of the world.


Photo: Saumya Sinha

The entrance of Dr Ismail Mohammed Khatri’s studio in Ajrakhpur.


Dr Ismail Khatri’s studio is ochre yellow; a contemporary new space designed by Uday Andhare of Ahmedabad-based architectural firm Studio Indigo. It mixes local Kutchi architectural principles with modern and functional interventions. It has a warm, artisanal vibe in the way it uses materials, including discarded old Ajrakh blocks, as a design element on the wooden doors at the entrance. More than 50 people can be entertained here at once. You could be a curious traveller or designer keen on watching a digital documentary on the making of Ajrakh. Or a student eager for a practical lesson in dyeing and printing. Deep, dark wood has been effectively used with painted stone to display old archival designs. Large wooden chests store the “museum” pieces as the Khatris call them.

The store is right inside, so you meander from the central courtyard which has an old-style cot strung tight with colourful synthetic wire into the store which sells Ajrakh-printed saris, dupattas, materials, stoles, a few tailored pieces for men and women—kurtas, jackets, dresses—and bedsheets and bedcovers. Everything is hand-made. Every piece has been created with natural dyes. You will find the oldest historical motifs of Ajrakh on a piece of fabric as well as new ones printed with tiny metal hand blocks with motifs hard to realise on a wooden block. The grammar of the colour too has been tweaked to rework the arithmetic between red and blue.


Photo: Saumya Sinha

The Ajrakh store set up inside the studio.


First, the Ajrakh Takeaways…

It is the cloth of Sindh. And the oldest piece of dyed and printed cloth was found in Mohenjo-daro.

It is a geometric and abstract red-blue-black-white field of block printed mordant and resist textile using a mix of geometric and floral motifs.

Also called Azraq, Arabic for azure, Ajrakh involves nine to 21 stages of printing and dyeing processes making it amongst the most complex crafts techniques in the world.

A single pattern may require several blocks each carved with different elements of the complete design. Blocks are used in stages to build up mordants and resists before each colour of dye bath.

The Sindhi Ajrakh made till date in Sindh in Pakistan, just across the Kutch border is recognisable for its deeper shades of madder, Indigo and black due to the sharpness of natural dyes, a function of the sweetness of water used for dyeing.

“Original” Ajrakh also means fabric printed on both sides and is a “dupaasi”.

According to historical texts, Ajrakh came to Kutch about four centuries back when Rao Desar, the king of Kutch brought two craftsmen with him from Sindh.

Traditional motifs of Ajrakh mirrored carvings, patterns and colours found inside mosques, tombs and other architectural structures of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Among traditional motifs of Kutchi Ajrakh are dholak (drum), champakali, haanso (birds), chhedo (border), maleer (sunflower-like circles) designs. The newer ones including Mughal-inspired motifs, smaller paisleys, graphic zigzag lines and meenakari (enamel work) designs.

In Kutch, Ajrakh is worn by the pastoral communities, especially the menfolk as a shoulder drape, a lungi, twisted as a belt to hold something around the waist, as turban, folded to become a carrier for rotlis (bread), to wipe the face, or support the head for a quick nap. It’s unstitched, personal and age-old.


Photo: Saumya Sinha

An Ajrakh-printed fabric at the store.

Juned Khatri wearing an Ajrakh fabric as a lungi, as worn by the pastoral communities.

The First Men of Ajrakh

We sit in the central hall of Dr Ismail’s studio having sugared tea with 31-year-old Juned. He is the younger son of the famed Dr Ismail Khatri, (the studio is named after him), the 60-year-old master craftsman credited with resettling a large section of the Muslim Khatri community involved in Ajrakh printing from Dhamadka their former home village to Ajrakhpur. Dr Ismail—who was away for the holy pilgrimage of Haj when we first visited in September—was awarded an honorary doctorate by a UK university for his astute approach to business, craftsmanship and innovation without tipping the balance to reckless experimentation.

The family carries a happy baggage of respected names. Dr Ismail’s father Mohammed Siddiq Khatri was an exceptional master craftsman. His younger son Razzak Khatri, who is Dr Ismail’s brother continues to live and work from Dhamadka with his family.  As does the youngest, Abdul Jabbar. Each brother has sons who are also in the same trade. As a familiar network of collaborations comes alive in conversations with the Khatris, it is soon obvious that they have worked with every noted crafts practitioner in India. Not surprisingly, you pick up almost any book on the subject, whether it is Handcrafted Indian Textiles: Tradition and Beyond by Martand Singh and Rta Kapur Chishti (2000), Bandhej founder Archana Shah’s Shifting Sands, Kutch: Textiles, Traditions and Transformation (2013), Fabric of India by Rosemary Crill published by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2015, the Indian Textile Handbook by Avalon Fotheringham published this year, or a dozen if not more books that delve into the Indian textile lexicon and craft, and you have a photograph of an Ajrakh creation or a block from Ismail Khatri or Mohammed Siddiq Khatri.


(L to R) Abdul Jabbar Khatri and son Adam Khatri.

Back in Delhi, when I mentioned this to Laila Tyabji, chairperson of Dastkar (a society for crafts and craftspeople) she repeated what she has mentioned over the years. That the initial visits she made to Kutch for Garvi Gurjari, the Government of Gujarat Emporium, almost 50 years back, changed her life. “Mohammed Khatri was quietly changing Ajrakh from what was being very crudely printed as bedsheets and the Rabari man’s shoulder clothes to the refinement that it is now. His sons Ismail and Razzak then took it further. In the Sixties and the Seventies, real, double-sided Ajrakh using Indigo and natural dyes was only being done in Pakistan. It used to be smuggled to Kutch because the Kutchi pastoral tribes liked authentic stuff,” says Tyabji.

How the Story Turns

Juned is dressed in blue denims folded at the bottom and a white kurta. His dark, thick beard veils his grins. Before he began to unselfconsciously pull out pieces of Ajrakh fabric from the store to tie them on his head or waist, then drape on the shoulders to demonstrate the versatility of the drape, his phone rang non-stop. From Kutchi to Gujarati to a sing-song and indulgent English, from his “gooo-d morning” “hai-lohs” and “b-byes”, our Juned is a man of the world. A far cry from his adolescent self, when, as a son of the indigo-laced soil of Kutch, he went to learn enterprise and creative strategy under Judy Frater, guru and mentor of more than one generation of craftsmen in the region. Frater, who currently runs Somaiya Kala Vidyalaya in Adipur, earlier taught at Kutch’s Kala Raksha Institute. She has singularly impacted many artisans. From Bhuj to Dhamadka. From Mandvi to Khavda, Frater’s name keeps coming up in awe- inspiring references, whether you dig stories of Ajrakh, of embroidery, weaving or Bandhini.

“I was a mazdoor (labourer) then, now I am an artisan,” says Juned crisply covering the distance between his school dropout years to education under Frater. He emphasises how he learnt to articulate with designers and brand representatives from cities. Today, he is a confident artisan and promoter of Ajrakh. He travels abroad many times a year giving lecture demonstrations from Japan to Canada or setting up exhibitions. He argues persuasively about pricing and quality. Quite like his elder brother, the 36-year-old Sufiyan, who has recently recruited a Japanese designer to work with their studio for an evolution of the design language.

While Juned is among the collaborative artisans who have worked with Good Earth’s Asha Madan on the Ajrakh fabric to be used for the upcoming Sindhu show and new collection, the same is the case with his cousin Adam Khatri in Dhamadka. Razzak Khatri’s son.

We met them individually in different months but each stressed the importance of block printing on new materials like crepe, chignon, marble cotton, handloom, khadi, Chanderi and of course Gajji silk and Mashru from Kutch. “Meenakari designs take two fine stamps of the hand for the motif to show,” said Juned, while 40 kms or so away in Dhamadka, Adam spoke of the importance of natural dyes, showing us boxes that hold indigo, sand, iron, pomegranate skin, turmeric before they are dissolved to make dye gels or solutions.

Each family in Ajrakhpur and Dhamadka is involved in some form or the other with the Ajrakh industry. Many others work with tie and dye—or Bandhini. Not everyone involved or employed here is an artisan or craftsperson. Some are just daily wage workers. Yet, the surge in the demand both for Ajrakh as well as the crafts and textiles of Kutch is undeniable. No wonder locals wear only screen printed and napthol dyed Ajrakh. The “original” has taken wings to the cities of the world.

From curated collaborations for specific collections to large-scale wholesale supplies to brands like Fabindia, Shoppers Stop or Reliance Retail, they do it all. That’s why it is also for the crafts curious reader of these stories to know that not every person related to the Ajrakh industry in Kutch is an artisan. Many are crafts labourers or hired hands, who work in the seven day a week workshops as employees (read our article The Talented Unseen next week).

So while Juned’s question, “Why do people love this centuries-old textile so much?” needs to be answered, the last word goes to Judy Frater.

“The Khatris who make Ajrakh know that in the true sense of slow fashion, the longer you take to make one, the better it is. The very essence of Ajrakh is slow and excellent, not perfect as perfection is an industrial idea. Today, ironically, Ajrakh is so much in demand that it is endangered. The tremendous push to scale up forces artisans to cut corners and devalue their work. Industrial-scale Ajrakh stresses the environment with its frightening consumption of water and the society with its transformation of a horizontal social structure to a vertical one. Dr Ismail however has gotten off the bullet train of scaled-up Ajrakh production. He is again carving his own blocks and printing his own fabric. What do we need to do to get this quality? I ask him. He beams and says, “You have to make it with love.”


Banner image: Juned Khatri at his studio in Ajrakhpur. Photo courtesy: Saumya Sinha.