the more i look at the saree, the more it wraps me in thoughts. random ones that i can’t arrange beautifully like the profusion of hand printed patterns on it.
i want to write a simple piece, i mutter to myself… about those nails and camel dung, but i can’t stop the steady stream of images and words: shadowy memories of things heard far away in the past, and some just the other day. cotton trade, american civil war, indigo revolt… neel bidroho, east india company, slavery, justice, sassoon docks, farmer suicides.
and jostling with these: beauty, artistry, heritage, craftsmanship, inventiveness… desert, earth, sun, river, an aura of indestructibility.
i touch the saree, its raw, not-machined feel, the rich deep indigo base allowing just the bit of colour through that’s needed to see the patterns in red, black, and dull white. the colours seem to like each other, nothing standing out too much, calling attention to itself. layers of patterns mesh and mingle; ancient motifs, something tells you. i’m surprised by the thickness of the fabric, but not its sturdy ruggedness; feels like integrity. the kind only pure, handloom cotton has.
the cotton crop has failed again, at least eleven farmers have committed suicide in telengana barely a couple of weeks ago. my malkha sarees, this is one of them, came from the same part of the country. a dear friend picked them up in october, from malkha’s shop in hyderabad. i’d read somewhere, the name malkha combines “malmal” and “khadi”.
malmal. you instantly think of softness. of something fine and gentle. of your mother’s sarees and your pretty dupattas, and a song. there’s not much in the indian experience that hindi cinema hasn’t written lyrics on, so why not this dreamy airy fabric. “hawa mein udta jaaye mora laal dupatta malmal ka…” from the 1949 film barsaat, traipses through my mind. to translate terribly: goes flying in the breeze, red scarf of malmal mine.
and khadi, the handspun cotton i’ve loved since i was i don’t know how old. an assertion of freedom and self reliance, a cotton yarn and a simple unpretentious cotton cloth. i have always liked the class-free temper of khadi. the farmer wears it, the shopkeeper, the rickshaw puller, the intellectual, the politician, the apolitical, the doyenne of the cocktail circuit, the cool d.u. (delhi university) student, the behen ji, the communist leaning actor, the superstar, the journalist, the lyricist, the freedom fighter, the everyday ordinary human being like me.
i liked the name malkha. i liked whatever i read about it on the net. and suddenly, i had to have a saree from malkha. my friend was most cooperative, she bought me not just one, but three sarees, and one of them was a gift.
malkha is an attempt to bring just practices to the business of growing, weaving, and selling cotton. they don’t shun technology, but they stay away from technology that isn’t really needed in this trade, like power looms. india has woven textiles for millennia, long long before the industrial revolution and the big machines came; though yes, the camel dung was always there, and some iron that would rust; but really, why would we throw away all the knowledge and the striking quality of handspun fabric and replace it with mundane machine milled stuff? okay, you want to bring in new tech, get all worldly wise and flaunt your progress, export, have more choice, fine… but why not keep what you’re ridiculously good at and which feeds millions and millions (no exaggeration) of people, and give it the place, the policies, the price it deserves?
so that farmers don’t have to die. weavers’ kids don’t have to tell their parents, there’s not enough money in this, so off i go to seek my livelihood elsewhere. the artistry of the weaver, the spinner, the ginner, the dye maker, the block maker, the pattern creator, doesn’t have to wither away.
the saree that’s making me wonder about things is a block printed one, an ajrakh. started hearing this word quite recently, maybe a year or so ago, the art though is ancient. ajrakh might refer to the arabic word for blue, azraq, and since one of the main colours used is indigo, this might be true. it may even mean “keep it today” as in “aaj rakh”. ajrakh is a tradition from sindh; you see it on scarves, turbans, stoles, it’s given as a token of respect, it’s part of life.
back in the sixteenth century, i learn as i flip through the net, the khatri community moved to kutch in the north west of gujarat and started using locally available dyes and other material to make the prized ajrakh. khatris are muslims. i feel pretty certain the story of blue will take us to connections with many old traditions and people. for the jews, i know blue has great significance, and if you see the pottery of turkey, morocco, the middle east, also the evil eye, it’s blue in all its shades everywhere. “neel” is blue in bengali, it’s the word for indigo as well, the plant. neel always reminds me of oppression and injustice and greed, of farmers exhausted and poor, and dying; of farmers finally revolting against the british planters in bengal.
ajrakh came into being long before all that. before the british came to india. before slaves were brought from africa to america to grow cotton. before the american civil war started to create problems of cotton supply to britain’s textile mills, and so other sources of cotton had to be found. before sir david sassoon moved to bombay from baghdad, for jews were being harassed by daud pasha. before his company set up western india’s first commercial wet docks in 1875. before the sassoon docks helped “establish the cotton trade” between india and britain. before the hunger for wealth made cotton barons kill off most varieties and go for only the kind the machines in manchester or wherever could handle. before the power loom came into existence. before khadi became a movement and malmal dupattas flew in a song. before i fell in love with sarees.
in ajrakh printing, the cloth is first washed in water then comes the process of “saaj”, when it’s submerged in a solution of castor oil, soda ash, and camel dung overnight. it’s dried the next day in the sun and then… returned to the camel dung solution. the process of soaking and drying is repeated a few times. till the cloth is ready to be washed and put into mordants that fix the colours. why the camel dung? no idea. but there is some pretty good reason i am sure.
as i read about ajrakh printing, i am gaping at the inventiveness. how did these guys work out the various aspects of this technique? how do you figure out, for instance, that by fermenting scrap iron, jaggery, and gram flower, then taking the liquid or “iron water” and mixing it with tamarind seed powder, you’ll get the colour black?
ajrakh involves several steps. colour isn’t printed on cloth directly, instead a resist paste is block printed onto the material and then the cloth is dyed. this is repeated with different blocks and dyes till the final patterns and colours are in place. it’s complicated and relies on deep knowledge, innate skills, the right kind of sun, earth, water, and of course, cotton. spock, i’m sure, would have said, “fascinating!”
there goes my mind again, a bit red dupatta-ish today.
an article in the hindu about malkha and weavers.
sarees tell stories | the indigo ajrakh cotton, the blue and white and the grey kalamkari printed cottons (in the image with three sarees) from malkha, hyderabad, bought/gifted october 2017. the other blue ajrakh in that image may not be the real thing, just a nice print, from a fair in singapore.