Ajrakh Studio


THE Physical Context of Kutch, India

The region of Kutch is located on the westernmost edge of the Indian peninsula. Its western and southern edges touch the Arabian Sea, while its northern edge extends into the Thar Desert and salt plains. A part of the eastern edge bordering the state of Gujarat forms the area known as the Little Rann of Kutch (the small desert). Physically isolated from the mainland for several centuries, the region bears cultural and geographical similarities with parts of the Thar Desert and Sindh, part of present-day Pakistan.

The history of human habitation in Kutch goes back 30,000 years and many archaeological sites of the Indus valley and Harappa civilization (330-2600 B.CE) are located here. Once a river-fed region, Kutch became arid scrubland following cataclysmic seismic and climate events that led to the decline of the Harappa sites.

Our site, Ajrakhpur, has a hot desert type of climate with temperatures ranging from 5 degrees Celsius in winter to summer temperatures of 45 degrees. It has very strong westerly winds and dust storms in the summers. The soil is brackish with a high content of Bentonite clay, which makes it impervious to water. This region falls within seismic zone 5, prone not just to earthquakes but also cyclones due to its proximity to the Arabian Sea.


Kutch owes its distinctive ecology to the swathes of salt plains that dry up after the monsoon into a salt desert and allow for very few biological species to survive. The region’s vulnerability to natural disasters over time, such as earthquakes and cyclones, is indicated by its diverse geology. The most recent such instance occurred in 2001 when an earthquake destroyed about 348,000 dwellings and claimed nearly 26,000 lives.

Apart from the populated main towns of Bhuj in the centre and Mandvi to the south, a vast area is still sparsely populated, forming a distinctive collection of several communities that have migrated from central Asia to the Thar desert and subsequently crossed into Kutch.

In contrast to the north, the long coastline towards the Arabian sea allowed for a thriving maritime trade with East Africa as well as through land routes to Europe. Most trades were in cotton fabric, textiles with indigo dye—remnants of which were traced back to Egypt and Babylon dating back to 800 CE which continued till the 17th CE.


The dry, remote landscape of the Kutch is animated by an exceptional diversity of textile crafts practiced by its various communities: block-printed, coarse cotton cloth found its way to parts of Africa and Persia over land and sea. Distinctive styles of textile craftsmanship such as famous tie-and-dye fabrics and cloth embroidery emerged in the face of limited resources, a sensibility that pervades the lifestyles of Kutch’s native communities.


Ajrakh is one of the oldest styles of hand block printing on textiles, dating back 4,500 years, which continues to be practiced in parts of Kutch, areas in the desert of Rajasthan in India, and the Sindh province of Pakistan.

The word ‘Ajrakh’ has many myths and interpretations. It is derived from the word ‘Azarukh’ which means the colour ‘blue’ in Arabic and Persian. The predominant blue represents the universe or the dark sky of the desert, while the red is representative of its twilight. The night is represented as black. The white motifs spread throughout the printed fabric are the stars in the night sky. Ajrakh is traditionally worn by the male nomadic pastoralists of the region as a turban, a waistcloth, or a scarf.

It is printed on both sides with the print matching exactly with the same depth of colour. This requires extraordinary skill to achieve and the process can take about 16 stages of alternate application of resists, dyes, and mordants with multiple cycles of washing and drying of the fabric. The art of making Ajrakh is a laborious process and takes three to four weeks to finish one fabric. After the process, the indigenous natural dyes become impregnated into the fabric to become colourfast.

Ajrakh craft has been practiced in Kutch by a community of Muslim craftspeople known as ‘Khatri’. The Khatri community originated in the Sindh, now Pakistan and migrated to Kutch around the 17th century, CE. The village of Dhamadka, where the community settled, was the most renowned place for Ajrakh craft, owing to the two perennial flowing rivers vital for washing the fabric. The Khatris flourished here, making printed fabric for local as well as for urban markets.

Yet around the mid-1990s, some printers had realized a need to move from Dhamadka since the rivers had dried up and made it difficult to practice their craft. Bore wells were dug deep to extract water but the water quality was found unsuitable for use due to high ferrous content.

Following the earthquake of 2001, which extensively damaged the settlement, including the printing sheds and workspaces, the situation for the community had become untenable. Subsequently, a 50-acre parcel of land near Dhamadka village was found suitable for its re-settlement. They called this new settlement, ‘Ajrakhpur’, where ‘pur’ meant a small town for Ajrakh.

Using their own money due to lack of government support, the printers bought land parcels in multiples of 200 sq. mt apiece. Jamiyat Ulema-e-Hind, a leading organisation of Islamic scholars helped construct the first 112 dwellings while the Vivekananda Research & Training Institute, Mandvi (VRTI) built 74 workshops each measuring 20’x20’ and all this, at a nominal cost to the families. Community resources were pooled together to build a mosque, madrasa, primary school, and a community hall along with basic infrastructure for this new settlement.

In contrast to the organic accretive settlements seen in the region, Ajrakhpur was a modern organised grid layout, akin to the new plotted developments of our times. Its character, open to being shaped was amorphous at the edges as it touched the agrarian borders of nearby fields.


The effort to establish and lead the community was spearheaded by Ismail Khatri. Ismailbhai, as he is known, belonged to one of the most famous Khatri artisan families, pioneers in the revival of natural dyes into the process, and an unbroken lineage of artisans extending 10 generations of Ajrakh printers. His skill as an artisan, coupled with a progressive vision for the community has made him the village headman. He was the first person from the community to learn spoken English to be able to communicate with visitors from urban areas and textile enthusiasts from around the world.

Before the late 1970s, there had been no contact of printers to the outside world, directly. Ismailbhai took upon himself to present the intricacies of the craft and allowed visitors to become familiar with its unique processes.

Starting from the 1980s he personally oriented visitors to the processes and the history of Ajrakh. Owing to his magnanimity, the visitors, textile experts, students, designers, and tourists spread the word of Ajrakh to the world. This effort continued till 2017 when he was unable to meet up with the daily visits of fifty or more people to the humble one-room shop adjacent to his printing shed. The years following the quake saw huge interest and outpouring of support for the artisan communities of Kutch. Artisans from Ajrakhpur, led by Ismailbhai and his clan, travelled worldwide disseminating their knowledge of printing with natural dyes and inviting designers, institutional heads and textile scholars to Ajrakhpur.

Ajrakh Studio – The idea of ‘place’ within the community.

We had met Ismailbhai just after the earthquake of 2001 working with village groups on documentation, damage assessment, and rebuilding strategies. Our association deepened through these interactions and has continued ever since. On frequent visits to his workplace thereafter, our conversations would often touch upon the question of how best to create a space for the advancement of the craft, culminating in the creation of ‘Ajrakh Studio’.

The project was thus, inspired by programmatic reasoning, which branched three ways: showcasing and explaining the history, processes and contextual intricacies of the Ajrakh tradition. Equally vital was the need to provide exposure to the craft while creating a space that allowed for reinvention, experimentation and the development of newer designs and techniques.

The Ajrakh printing process owes much, visually and technically, to an understanding of the material chemistry of lime. We sought to revive the use of the material not only to address the resilience of the building but also generate the possibilities of lime plaster as an expressive surface that complimented the Ajrakh craft.

Values of frugality, the integration of sustainable natural processes, respect for water and thermal comfort were at the core of all building endeavors in the project. A public space for the community, yet one which could also retract into a personal space for the family, the use of the studio would extend into instances of community Eid prayers, name-giving ceremonies for newborns, and entertaining fellow craftspeople from distant towns.


The site was adjacent to the family home of Ismail Khatri, located in the northeast corner of the settlement fronting a large central open space to the west. The new plan was proposed on the footprint of the old. An older printing shed and a processing wood stove were all that stood on the site alongside a Neem tree.


The plan organization purposefully draws from the vernacular dwelling typology of parallel common walls perpendicular to the street seen in the older settlement of Dhamadka village. It essentially comprised two enclosed volumes, one defining the public entry and a personal family space at the back, separated by an open courtyard. The court becomes a climatic device, a social space and the functional core of the house. The moorings of this plan are deeply cultural alluding to the center as a void. The project for the Ajrakh studio provided an opportunity to reinterpret this archetype in terms of the formal and the programmatic.

The strategy was to work with two volumes oriented NS lengthwise with single inclined roofs on the shorter sides defining a court. The two short ends hold the services. It is a compact building designed to occupy the periphery, shut like a box and leaving out its centre, open to the sky above. The court buffers the public functions from the focused inner workspace and also becomes an informal place to socially congregate while providing a processing space for drying fabrics. Each space has the potential to bleed into the other thereby creating an informal functional core allowing for all the processes of the craft to habit in an arena of intense activity.

The nature of space in the studio is multivalent and contiguous: as an exhibition space, as an audio-visual area, that can be screened off internally by bamboo chick screens for demonstrations of certain printing processes and congregation.

The first volume holds the public interface comprising the entry, a small office/studio space, a retail shop and a large hall for public meetings, viewing films on the craft and discussions. The second volume across the court is the printing workshop flanked by a storage area and the wood-fired stove and wash area for dyed yardage. An apparent external opacity of the form reveals a porous interiority along the east-west axis.

The design embeds three strategies for making the building resilient and thermally efficient as a space to habit and work.

Preventing the building from gaining heat: The plan orientation, segregation of service functions and storage walls along the west and south, provide the desired heat buffer.

Light and its modulation ensure its quality and quantum in the studio, guided through carefully crafted wooden louvered openings and deeply shaded roofs to cut out glare. The sky component is controlled, while effectively allowing breeze to flow through the spaces. Operable fenestrations at the roof level provide exit of hot air depending on the season and for breezes to tunnel across during the night providing nighttime cooling. There is no use of glass in the fenestrations.

Appropriate building method: Owing to its presence in a zone of high seismic activity, a confined masonry system with 230 mm brick and minimally reinforced concrete columns and slabs meet the code criteria while being very economical to construct. Locally sourced, lime and fly ash bricks, along with lime, sand and waste brick-dust was used, for a faster set and stability. Off-the-shelf galvalume roofing sheets with under-deck insulation, using waste packaging material and wood particle boarding provided the soffit. All external and internal stucco was done using two coats of lime, sand and brick dust with two coats of dolomite fine plaster as the finishing coat. A local yellow ochre mineral pigment from Khavda in Kutch was added to give a vibrant ochre colour. The plaster’s higher emissivity ensures better expulsion of heat to the infrared spectrum, thereby draining heat effectively into the night sky. The use of mild steel and bamboo in the trellis structure on the western terrace for drying dyed fabric acts as an occasional shading device for the roof below echoes the traditional method of drying fabric, prevalent even today. Recycled timber was procured for use in all woodwork and the furniture was repurposed and reused from old scrap yards.

Draining the heat from the structure using stored rainwater: The printing shed also houses a 55 thousand litre rainwater-harvesting tank below its plinth.

Intermittent pumping of stored cool water through the floor slabs ensures a stable temperature for working indoors in the harsh summers without evaporative loss of precious rainwater, which is used for drinking and certain special washing processes.


The construction site for the studio was a matter of great curiosity for the community after the project started; While it seemed familiar as a built form alluding to the vernacular, it addressed a contemporary need exhibiting the known and functional, in a crisp new light.

It demonstrated several meaningful strategies that were essential for resilience, comfort and livability in this harsh context. Frequent visits by the residents of the village ended up in discussions on these elements and their outcome as a reference point for the new buildings to emerge within the community.

Playfully, the lime plaster artisans and local Ajrakh printers engaged over several sessions, mixing indigo, madder, alum, local mineral pigments and oxides to generate tones for the fine dolomite internal finishes. In an amazing experiment, block prints were made with indigo on wet dolomite lime-plaster on one of the print shop walls; a set of block patterns imprinted for posterity.

The Ajrakh studio opened quietly one summer evening after Ramadan in 2018, by inviting the children of the community for a meal. Since it’s opening, the studio has had an average of 50 to 60 walk-in visitors per day in the tourist season during winter and annually about 7000.

The audio visual space along with the fabric sample wall have proven to be very effective in tandem with the video on the craft and is a huge draw with visitors. Ismailbhai is pleased that the sales from his small store help pay for the maintenance of his studio and support his endeavor to develop new blocks and plan new initiatives to further the craft.

The children from the family and their friends relate to these spaces warmly, and are seen prancing freely through them, watching the practice of the craft, engaging in small tasks at will.

The studio is now the metaphorical ‘village plinth’. A physical landmark in the village for matters related to the crafts and the community. It has influenced other artisans to open small shops within their compounds to showcase and sell their goods. Wholesale buyers from various national and international design stables come and procure material in Ajrakhpur, resulting in greater exposure for the young, upcoming artisans in the community and ensuring their economic sustenance.

Issues of identity, place, craft, community, expression, dissemination and sustenance come into focus here, defining new frames of reference.

Client : Dr. Ismail Mohmed Khatri
Location : Ajrakhpur, Dist - Kutch, Gujarat
Architects : indigo architects, Ahmedabad
Design Team : Uday Andhare, Mausami Andhare, Geet Khurana, Darshik Parejiya, M. Naeem Shaikh
Consultants : Ami Engineers, Ahmedabad Plumbing Consultants- Chetan Vyas, Ahmedabad
Site Area : 4,060 sq.ft
Building Area : 3,085 sq.ft
Completion Year : 2018
Civil Engineers : Kishor Parmar, Bhuj
Photo Credits : Uday Andhare