Ajrak (also written Ajrakh) is a cloth that hails from the desert regions of the Indian Subcontinent. Specifically produced in Pakistan’s Sindh province and Kutch in India, this textile has been used for thousands of years to create a wide assortment of textile goods. The earliest recorded instance of Ajrak cloth in the area was found at Mohenjo-Daro as part of a Harappan sculpture of a Priest King donning a shawl with trefoil motifs, resembling those found in contemporary Ajrak prints. It is believed that the cloth was used by the Indus River Valley Civilizations living in the area.
The word “ajrak” is believed to be derived from the Arabic word “azrak,” meaning “blue,” indicative of the indigo dye used in Ajrak cloth. “Ajrak” also translates to “keep for today” in Urdu and Hindi. The Ajrak is regarded as a symbol of pride, and it is among the few textiles that does not distinguish class or status; it is adorned by rich and poor alike.
The cloth’s major indicators are its signature red, blue, black, and white block-printed patterns. The floral and geometric patterns are always printed on both sides and emphasize Sufi principles through the use of balance and symmetrical harmony. The patterns and colour are achieved through an extensive resist-dyeing and printing process. The arduous procedure involves multiple washings and treatments; taking one month to complete a single piece of Ajrak cloth. Both men and women are involved in the labour-intensive process of creating this fabric.
Today, mechanization has made the reproduction of Ajrak copies faster. This, combined with a lack of investment in the traditional art has led to Ajrak artisans and producers being pushed out of business, as the practice of creating authentic Ajrak cloth is dying.
Appropriation and Influence
Sea's Ezri Collection, 2016
New York-based brand Sea released their “Ezri” collection, featuring various garments with Ajrak designs. The garments were produced in China and sold for around USD$200. No Sindhi craftsmen were involved in the production of these knockoffs. Additionally, these garments were claimed to be inspired by the French, rather than the authentic Ajrak origins of Sindh.
Urban Outfitters, 2016
Urban Outfitters released a line of swimsuits featuring Ajrak prints advertised as “Moroccan swimsuits.” In addition to inaccurate attribution, this knockoff was widely regarded as disrespectful, due to the significance of the Ajrak to Sindhi people.
Forever 21, 2016
Forever 21 released Ajrak-printed dresses described as “Baroque Print.” These inaccuracies led to outrage on social media. There was speculation that, as in the case of the Urban Outfitters swimsuits, such use of language was intentional as it would help the brand to sell more product.
Dhamija, Jasleen. “History of Textiles of South Asia.” In Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: South Asia and Southeast Asia, edited by Jasleen Dhamija, 30–37. Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010.
Edwards, Eiluned Mair. “Ajrakh: From Caste Dress to Catwalk.” Textile History 47, no. 2 (July 2, 2016): 146–70. doi:10.1080/00404969.2016.1211436.
Rehmani, Nadia A. and Najma Phulpoto. 2012. “Ajrak as Symbol: The Fabric of Life and Cultural Affinity.” New Horizons 6 (2) (07): 17-24.
Sun, Fire, River: Ajrak Cloth From the Soil of Sindh, directed by Sana Bilgrami. (Karachi, Pakistan: KOEL Productions, 1998), VHS.
Book: Sindh Jo Ajrak
Article and Media: Ajrak: An Ancient Art of Block Printing
Article: Ajrak: Cloth From the Soil of Sindh
Podcast Episode: Ajrak from Pakistan