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Ajrak as Symbol: The Fabric of Life and Cultural Affinity.

Byline: Nadia A. Rehmani and Najma Phulpoto

Abstract

This essay deals with the cultural object Ajrak from Sindh, Pakistan and explores and analyzes how this object communicates the meaning in its various social, cultural, ethnic and political contexts. By applying the semiotic approach it discusses the object Ajrak at both, the level of denotation and connotation (Barthes, 1867) and argues that meaning is not inherent in the object but is socially constructed through the symbolic use, practices and processes of representation.

Introduction

Ajrak is a traditional dress (shawl) of Sindh, Pakistan. It is also produced in Kutch, Gujarat (India). Its history is traced back to the Indus Valley civilization that existed at around 2500 BC - 1500 BC. Writers have argued that the present culture and civilization is well connected to the ancient civilization.

Ajrak: Linguistic and Cultural Meaning:

The word ajrak in Arabic means blue or indigo which is predominatly used in Ajrak. It has been argued that the word Ajrak may have been derived from Arabic. It is likely, as Sindh has been under the Arab rule and Arabic has influence on Sindh.

Sindh has been a large producer of indigo and cotton cloth. Makhdoom argues that since both the things were exported to the Middle East, it is likely that the word Ajrak, due to its dominant blue color was used in Arabic, but claims that it is very much a Sindhi word. There is also a view that the word may have been derived from persian hazarat nearer, 'gentlemen'. This seems a far fetched view as the word is in no way to the meaning of cloth, textile, and cotton. Moreover use of Persian or even Urdu seems to be a rare possibility among the people of lower Sindh and Gujrat/Kutch were Gujarati, Sindhi, Katchhi and other languages are spoken.

In Kutch, the word is spelt as ajrakh. It is interesting to note that while in Sindh, the Ajrak is widely used by both male and female belonging to different ethnic groups, in Kutch, it is mostly associated with certain Muslim ethnic groups such as Jats and those associated with production are called Khatri who live in Pakistan, may be either Hindu or Muslims. It seems interesting that while it is mostly used as a tradition of certain Muslims in Kutch and Hindu Meghwal, its cultural and economic value goes beyond geographical and religious boundaries. It must be mentioned that the tradition of Ajrak has been common on both the borders and has continued for centuries as many Hindu Khatri craftsmen are said to have been migrated from Pakistan to Kutch and have continued this tradition there. Varadaraja's opinion seems to be more appropriate when she suggests that 'Ajrakh (Ajrak) may, therefore be broadly defined as a cotton piece-good manufactured in Sind and Gujarat by means of 'bloc' (p. 20).

Mukhdoom argues that while Sindhi culture has its deep influence in Gujarat and Rajasthan, the political and ideological separation eventually finds expression in a differing material culture.

Varadarajan mentions that ajark is not the name of a piece. She says according to a Gujrati State Gazette it means 'keep it today' or 'beautifying'.

Techniques, Processes, Procedures:

The preparation for Ajrak goes through a number of stages. It needs a natural environment where water, sun, animals, trees and mud are all part of its making. It goes through a multi-phased process with repeated soakings, dryings, dying and block printing. This complex procedure is seen as a metaphor for Sufism from imperfection to perfection where a Sufi or mystic goes through a number of stages of tribulations in order to seek love of God and unity with Him. It is argued that the geometrical patterns and motifs used in Ajrak making are borrowed or imitated from very old graves or shrines of various pirs (saints) and Sufis linking it with ancient art tradition of Sindh. For example, in Chukundi graveyard near Karachi, the designs carved on tombs are also found in the textiles, pottery, jewelry and wood carving in Sindh and Baluchistan. On the other hand the outer and inner squares or round patterns used in printing of Ajrak are said to have mystic ideas of exotic and esoteric aspects of their teachings.

Artisans while working on Ajrak would continuously recite Sufi poetry of Shah Latif, Sachal Sarmast and Saami. This suggests the influence of mystic symbolism found in this poetry on the artisans.

According to Bilgrami (2002) and Shah (1998) Ajrak preparation has some twenty processes before it is finally ready. Earlier in the seventies, Francoise Cousion conducted a research with the Sindh University and visited some of the places where block printing is practiced and narrates the process of Ajrak making.

The artisans have continued this tradition for generations in their families as entirely a family oriented activity. Women do the preparation of raw materials at homes whereas men do most of dying, printing, drying etc. in the workshops. The craft has remained mostly in Khatris, Muslims as well as Hindus. Even across the borders are the Khatris whose ancestors migrated to Gujarat in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Each workshop has a master craftsman (usto), artisans (Karigar) and finally apprentices (Chokro; little boy).

In present times, argues Varadarajan, (1983:67) due to increasing market demand artisans are commercially employed and techniques are consequently reduced to cut on costs. If full techniques and processes are to be encouraged a strong aesthetic justification is, to pay them well.

The younger generation seeks more paying jobs in order to earn good living conditions. Political uncertainties and change in fashion and consumer demands also affect markets for Ajrak. Hence, the original Ajrak is disappearing; as modern, quicker printing methods of copying the original patterns are fulfilling lock demand. Thus the traditional producers of Ajrak can not compete with industrial giants and this is threatening their livelihood. Such fake Ajraks are sold at a much cheaper price against the original Ajrak, which is produced after a hard work of many days. The question is how this ancient laborious craft tradition can be saved?

Ajrak: Social, Cultural and Political Symbol:

There are many levels of meaning and representation of Ajrak. It is a symbol of dignity, honour and respect but signifies different meaning for both men and women. Men use it for head covering as a turban (safa) and shoulder cloth as shawl.

Removing a person's turban off his head (pugree uchalna) is sign of insulting him, and dropping one's turban at someone's feet is sign of extreme humility and to seek forgiveness for an offence or to greet the feudal lord. Farmers drop the turban at the feet of their landlords and also touch the latter's feet. It is also used in the political and ethnic sense representing honor and respect. Turban plays a very important role in society's value systems. It is regarded as sacred and is given great importance. Turban also represents class structure and power relationship in society. Landlords wear special kind of turban signifying their status and power in society and peasants wear a simple turban made of Ajrak.

Ajrak for women signifies privacy and represents as a head cover and chest cover. It is a sign of protective talisman. Motif, color and composition signify identity, occupation and social status. In many parts of Sindh, unmarried women or married with children or a widow is immediately distinguishable by the ornaments she wears and by the shawl she uses to cover her head and shoulder. The costumes and textiles are powerful symbol of social and religious traditions. Young girls are trained through conventional wisdom to prepare costumes for their dowry from the very young age. Ajrak with beautiful embroidery is prepared for dowry gifts for daughters and son in laws. Ajrak with peacock, pair of birds and flowers is prepared for matrimonial ceremonies. Each sign represents deeper meanings. Peacock is a metaphor for a bridegroom, as it is revered as a noble bird which brings good fortune. A pair of birds symbolizes coming together of the newly weds and the sanctity of their union.

Flowers symbolize fertility and prosperity for the bridal couple.

Urban women also use Ajrak cloth to make shirts or skirts. Small pieces of Ajrak cloth are decorated with embroidery in neck and chest covers which is stitched to the skirt or shirts. Ajrak is also used as a swing for kids by tying knots on its four sides. It is spread over beds, on ground for sitting and as dining cover or a table cloth. Rural men and women use it to tie up bundle of things. Even when worn out it is recycled as a hammock of a baby, over for bullock cart and most commonly used as a backing to patchwork quilts (ralis). Hence use of Ajrak has become an integral part of lives of people of Sindh from the birth till the death for they have a deep reverence for it. Same is the case with Jats of Kutch.

In Kutch Ajrak is mostly considred a man's cloth and is commonly given as an Eid present, at wedding, or on other special occasions. In Sindh it is an integral part of daily life. It is given to a guest of honor as a mark of respect. It has now become a tradition to put Ajrak around the neck of a male guest of honor; a speaker, a political leader, or any influential personality, in functions and is given to women in their hands wrapped up in plastic cover. On the other hand it is also spread over dead body of close friend or relative, on shrines or tombs of saints as a mark of respect for the departed soul.

Ajrak is also used in wrestling sport Malakhro tied to abdomen area (cummerbunds) as a belt or rope. The wrestlers are allowed to grab each other only by these ropes to make each other fall on the ground. As this type of wrestling is particular to Sindh, use of Ajrak cloth symbolizes mark of cultural identity.

These multifaceted uses of Ajrak denote social fabrics of Sindhi and Gujarati societies. There are differences in uses across the two borders although the tradition in common has a meaning of respect and dignity as well as pride and solidarity. This meaning is particularly attached when Ajrak is used as a turban by men; and also when given as a gift to guests of honour or to a bride.

For women it is a cloth to cover her body especially the head and chest. This may be seen as a symbol of chastity of women. These meanings are socially constructed.

Regional, Cultural and Ethnic Identities:

Ajrak is emblematic of ethnicity. However, the relationship between Ajrak and ethnicity is a complex one. Ajrak denotes different ethnic communities in Sindh. There are various textiles, materials, objects such as cap, turbans and chadors that are features of each particular region of Pakistan and symbol of their identities. For example, the cloth, colour and styles of making and wearing turbans specify particular ethnic and regional identity. Similarly, Ajrak and Sindhi topi (cap) are mark of sindhi cultural and ethnic identity referred to as Sindhiyat. Judy Frater uses the term 'cultural region' alluding to the fact that styles and embroidery patterns are common and distributed through out Sindh and Kutch 'without an obvious geographic pattern' and that these cultural regions correspond historically.

Conclusion:

Ajark has become a symbol representing meaning at various levels and in different context. It has become the fabric of life and culture of Sindh. Sindh occupies an important place in the history of human civilization as it is the oldest civilization. Much needs to be done in order to preserve the cultural heritage as IUCN-Sindh Program states that it needs "comprehensive elaboration, scientific documentation, proper preservation, and global publicity". Thus there is lot of scope for further research in this area.

Notes and References:

1. Shah, S., 1998: "Sindhi Ajrak: an ancient art from", Proceedings of 14 annual convention of Sindhi Association of North America, Chicago.

2. Bilgrami, N. 'Ajrak Cloth from the Soil of Sindh' 2002

3. Lotika Varadarajan, (1983) Traditions of Textile printing in Kutch Ajrakh and related techniques (p.20), see also Farhana Ibrahim, 'Sindh and Kutch, cloth and verse Emphasis on common elements of everyday life a piece of cloth, a verse of poetry allows pastoralists in Gujarat to express a memory and yearning for Sindh" http://www.himal mag.com/2006/may/cross border_report.html published in Himal, South Asia, May June 2006.

4. Makhdoom 'Ajrak-u' http://home.pacific.net.sg/-makhdoom/ajrak.html

5. A view of Dr. R.N. Mehta (Department of Ancient Indian History and Archaeology, M.S. University, Barado) mentioned in Varadarajan p.20.

6. Lotika Varadarajan, (1983) Traditions of Textile (p.20); see also Farhana Ibrahim, Sindh and Kutch, cloth and verse' op.cit.

7. Ibid p.2

8. Ethel-Jane W. Bunting (1980) Sindhi Tombs and Textiles: The persistence of Pattern. University of New Mexico Press.

9. Makhdoom 'Ajrak-u' http://home.pacific.net.sg/-makhdoom/ajrak.html

10. See for details Shah, S., 1998: Sindhi Ajrak: an ancient art from" op.cit.

11. Bilgrami, N. 'Ajrak Cloth from the Soil of Sindh' 2002 op.cit.

12. Cousion writes 'The principle of block-printing consists of printing on a white cloth, either a mordant or a resist. When a mordant is printed the dye reacts with it and only the printed areas are colored. When a resist is printed it is the areas not protected by the resist which are colored during dying.' P.229. It is the later resist printing that is used for Ajrak which is more difficult and arduous process. See 'Some Data on Block Printing In Sindh.' In Hamida Khuhro (1987 (second Impression) Sindh through the Centuries, Karachi: OUP. Pp.228.236.

13. There are three main stages called Khumbh, sajj and kasai before any printing is done again. The printing is differently named with each new stage beginning from asil or asul to kot and then khor and ktti. Then the process of dyeing begins. The first applied color is indigo; it is then washed before madder dye is applied in boiling water. Once this process is over the cloth it is immersed in water containing camel-dung and then washed in caustic soda and spread on ground with pouring of clean sprinkling water with intervals. This process is called tapai. Then the cloth is again printed with a resist and again immersed in indigo dye. This is mina process. At the end to give it a finishing tough the cloth is again washed in water containing soda-ash and detergent then in clean water. Beating is carried out after a number of washes to soften and calendar the cloth. The colours are sharp and vibrant along with blue, red and white colours.

Ajraks are thus distinguished from one another due to its motifs and patterns. Cousions, op.cit.pp.229.230

14. Cousin p.232

15. Qasim Shah, 2003: p.12 Asia Pacific Regional Initiative on Trade, Economic Governance, and Human Development Geographical Indications and National GI System in Pakistan. A Case Study SDPI, Islamabad, Pakistan. Web link accessed on May 12, 2007.

16. Nasreen Askari and Rosemary Crill, p.17

17. Nasreen Akari and Rosemary Crill, p.20

18. Bilgrami 2002, op.cit.

19. See farhana Ibrahim, 'Sindh and Kutch, cloth and verse' op.cit.

20. Manzoor, 'Ajrak-u', op.cit.

21. Judy Frater (1993), 'Elements of Style: The Artisan reflected in Embroideries of Western India'. In Nora Fisher (ed.) Mud Mirror and Thread: Folk traditions of rural India, NJ: Grantha Corporation pp.66-109 (p.74)

References:

1. Askari, Nasreen. And Crill, Rosemary (1998) Colours of the Indus: Costumes and Textiles of Pakistan, London: Merrell Hollberton in Association with the Victoria and Albert Museum. Bilgrami, N. 2002 'Ajrak Cloth from the Soil of Sindh'.

2. Cousion Francoise (1987, second Impression) 'Some Data on Block Printing in Sindh'. In Hamida Khuhro - Sind through the Centuries, Karachi: OUP. Pp.228-236.

3. Ethel-Jane W. Bunting (1980) Sindhi Tombs and textiles: The persistence of Pattern, University of New Mexico Press.

4. Farhana Ibrahim, Sindh and Kutch, cloth and verse' Emphasis on common elements of everyday life - a piece of cloth, a verse of poetry - allows pastoralists in Gujrat to express a memory and yearning for Sindh'. http://www.himalmag.com/2006/may/crossborder_report.html published in Himal, South Asia, May, June 2006.

5. Hall, Sturart (1997) 'The work of represenation'. In Hall, Stuart (ed.) Representation, cultural representations and signifying practices, London: Sage Publications Ltd.

6. Judy Frater (1993), 'Elements of Style: The Artisan reflected in Embroideries of Western India'. In Nora Fisher (ed.) Mud Mirror and Thread: Folk traditions of rural India, NJ: Grantha Corporation pp.66-109 (p.74).

7. Lotika Varadarajan, (1983) Traditions of Textile Printing in Kutch: Ajrakh and related techniques. The New order Book Co. Ahmedabad, 380006.

8. Makhdoom 'Ajrak-u' http://home.pacific.net.sg/-makhdoom/ajrak.html

9. Pirzado, Anwar, "IUCN-The World Conservation Union Sindh Programme, Status Paper on Cultural heritage in Sindh", October, 2002.

10. Shah, Q. (2003) Asia pacific Regional Initiative on Trade, Economic governance, and Human development Geographical Indications and National GI System in Pakistan SDPI, Islamabad, Pakistan. Web link accessed on May 12, 2007.

11. Shah, S., 1998: "Sindhi ajrak: an ancient art form", proceedings of 14th annual convention of Sindhi Association of North America, Chicago.

*Research Candidate

**Chairperson, Department of Sociology, Shah Abdul Latif University, Khairpur
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Publication:New Horizons
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Date:Dec 31, 2012
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