Juned Khatri looks a little puzzled as I point at a small section of pattern on a stunning, half-finished Ajrakh printed saree. But, yes - that block can be found.
I know that it's just a border though, don't I? That it's printed as one small part of a larger design?
I do. But in a flash, I also know it's exactly what I've been looking for but struggling to articulate. It's modern, minimalist, perfect - I can see the bags in my head already!
To rewind a little: welcome to Ajrakhpur. Following the 2001 earthquake that devastated the homes and livelihoods of so many throughout Kutch, this land approximately 10km from Bhuj was established as a new village for Ajrakh artisans to rebuild their workshops. Much of the village still has the feel of a blank canvas: boxy, single-storey buildings the same shade as the bleached, sandy earth dot the landscape alongside patches of scrubby bushes and trees. Injections of colour appear as dyeing vats and washing ghats outside each workshop stain pale concrete in a riot of splashes and tints, while long lengths of cotton in crimson and indigo are pinned to the ground with rocks to dry in the beating heat of the sun.
This newness makes Ajrakhpur quiet - that is, until you reach any one of the workshops. The rhythmic thump of carved wooden block meeting cloth, over and over - the heartbeat of the village. The slap of wet fabric being rinsed to within an inch of its life. The hum of a scooter or creak of a bicycle as someone arrives on an errand. And mobile phones that are constantly ringing. Oh yes, Ajrakh is in demand.
An ancient craft, Ajrakh is a long and painstakingly detailed form of block printing that involves between 14 and 16 steps of rinsing, applying resist, printing and dyeing; the artform is largely practised by members of the Khatri community whose name literally means 'one who fills with colour'. Traditional natural dyes are made with everything from fruit and vegetable skins to roots, tree barks, indigo, turmeric and even rusty scrap metal. Finished pieces are jewel-coloured, intricate masterpieces originally worn as turbans and shawls. Now, the textiles are increasingly in demand from both a national and worldwide fashion industry becoming attuned to the charms and environmental benefits of artisan techniques and 'slow fashion'.
We were welcomed into the courtyards, technicolour stock rooms, printing workshops and tea breaks (what impeccable timing!) of Ajrakh artists young and old, traditional and modern. Juned Khatri's family has been involved in the craft for at least ten generations, originally using Ajrakh techniques to make lungis (similar to a sarong) and paddo (like a saree) for pastoralist communities in the region. Though he admits to having had little interest in the art form as a young child, the routine of his whole family being involved in various daily tasks around printing and dyeing built up his expertise and these days Juned is particularly excited by the use of traditional vegetable dyes in Ajrakh works.
Many of these younger generations, the children and grandchildren of great, world-renowned masters, are effortless entrepreneurs, constantly experimenting with new designs, new techniques - and open to even the strange requests of British ladies with their eyes and hearts fixed on a simple border design.
So, the block-printed Sakina clutch, named for Juned bhai's mother, is a nod to the age-old craft of Ajrakh, though the print is surely too simplistic to be worthy of the term Ajrakh in itself. But beyond that, it's an ode to modern Ajrakhpur: rooted firmly in the wisdom and traditions of the past, but buzzing with the possibilities of a creative future.
Huge thanks to Sufiyan Khatri, Sohaeb Khatri and Juned Khatri for sharing their stories and time with us.
Want to learn more?
A New Beginning in Ajrakhpur: a short film by Khamir
A step-by-step illustrated guide to Ajrakh printing by Ruth Clifford
Ajrakh blockprinting by Khamir