How do you take the age-old craft of ajrakh printing and give it a modern twist? Well, apart from saris, dupattas and dress materials for which it has been used for nearly four centuries, you use it in new and different ways in bags and boots as well as create fresh patterns and designs for a contemporary feel.
Which is exactly what Bhoomi Dani and Priyam Shah of Ahmedabad-based Vraj:Bhoomi are doing. Creating concept clothing, footwear and accessories in ajrakh, the partners have been working closely with the craftsmen of Ajrakhpur in Kutch to revive this regional art and take it to a global audience.
This highly skilled and heavily patterned block-printing process came to Kutch from Sindh some 400 years ago.
In 2001, a devastating earthquake severely damaged the Kutch region where this art was practised. In the wake of the tragedy, a new village was created to rebuild the lives of displaced craftsmen and aptly named Ajrakhpur. Here, Dani and Shah work with the tenth generation of a family of artisans who have been practising this technique since the 15th century.
It’s a men’s only craft, mind you, because the process is extremely lengthy and laborious. “Because of the multiple colours involved, there are as many as 14 stages,” explains Dani (31), a graduate from the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) and creative head of the organisation.
Today, the trend is to be minimalistic, says Dani, so the idea was to create a design style that combined the elaborate detailing of ajrakh with simplistic, modern motifs. That’s how the label’s new line ‘Tula’ came about. “Tula in Sanskrit means “balance,” and the collection features minimal prints with a contemporary appeal,” Dani explains.
“When any craft is to be revived, essentially craftsmanship needs to be revamped completely. So shifting the mindset of craftsmen is a key challenge,” points out Shah, the brand’s business head. The partners recount that in their first meeting, the craftsmen were apprehensive to design change.
“The craftsmen find it pleasantly shocking that we create shoes with ajrakh fabric. They have said that they would have never ever have imagined it,” says Dani. And it could also be because of the infusion of fresh, new ideas that many young craftsmen are taking to this art.
“India produces enormously talented designers. I admire and appreciate all those who effortlessly blend respect for age-old traditions with forward-thinking aesthetics,” says Dani, who has been actively involved in researching, reviving and sustaining traditional Indian crafts ever since she interned with Fabindia back in 2008.
Dani has earlier worked with patola, mashru and tangalia techniques as well, but says that ajrakh is one craft that she can relate to the most. “Unlike the commercial production process, the idea of a product at Vraj:Bhoomi doesn’t start at the design level—it begins as a shared effort between the designer and the craftsmen,” points out Shah.
Visiting the village every two months, Dani and her design team provide various inputs in design, quality control, access to raw materials and production coordination.
In 2002, after the quake when villagers moved to Ajrakhpur, there was plentiful water. Water is vital to this craft—a craftsman requires almost 13 litres of water to produce a single metre of ajrakh fabric.
The partners want to prove that Indian fashion can be extremely trendy and stylish whilst maintaining its traditional design philosophy.