The natural Indigo dye has a special spot in India’s textile heritage, independence movement and beliefs. It continues to inspire contemporary artists, artisans and designers to create beautiful and attractive works, textiles and garments.
Almost a century ago, the forced cultivation of a crop raised a protest that is regarded as an important factor that sparked the movement for India’s independence. Rewinding to the first quarter of the 20th century in Champaran, Bihar, farmers were compelled to grow indigo under harsh taxes and threats by landowners and the British, which pushed them to the brink of starvation and poverty.
In 1917, Mahatma Gandhi was requested to visit the area. Moved by the plight of farmers, Gandhiji rallied for their cause, and eventually farmers were granted more humane terms. It was another three decades before India attained independence, yet the Champaran indigo movement is regarded as an important step towards freedom. And in the process, indigo came to be inextricably associated with freedom, nationalism and India, sentiments that continue to inspire artists, artisans and designers to create a spectrum of works and experiences.
An Ancient Dye
“Indigo is one of the oldest dyes along with Indian madder. The whole plant is used to produce indigo that is regarded as the king of natural dyes. It is a beautiful natural colour and can be dyed in different tones of blue, from pale to dark blue to almost blue-black, just by dipping more number of times in the vat. There are many varieties of indigo plants being cultivated around the world, of which Indigofera tinctoria is most popularly used,” says Hyderabad-based Kesav Rao, an expert in natural dyes, who heads the Natural Dye-Print department of Creative Bee.
Kesav says, there seems to be a belief among traditional producers of the dye and staunch wearers of indigo-dyed garments, that, indigo-dyed fabrics have curative properties, and that these garments ward off evil spirits. Some wrap newborn babies in their old indigo-dyed fabrics. “Some societies hold their natural indigo-dyed fabrics and garments dearly and even the rags are sewn together. In some small towns and villages of Andhra Pradesh, landlords and few prominent traditional families would have their indigo saris personally delivered by the weaver. The saris were carried on his head, in a ritual, accompanied by traditional village music band, to make people aware of the procession and to keep distance. These fabrics would be received by the senior members of the families, preserved and passed down as family heirlooms”.
Beautiful and Versatile
Natural indigo was a prized export from India to the West, and its trade brought profits to landowners and traders. “The indigo dye had an important place in the history of Indian textiles just as the muslins and double-ikats that were trade textiles. Inspired by the beauty of Indian textiles, Weavers Studio was established in 1993, in Kolkata, to use as many hands as possible to create textiles and garments. The studio’s USP has been designing and creating a range of products from block printing to resist-dyeing, batik and weaving with natural indigo dye. At the studio, sixteen shades of indigo are created for use in textiles, and these have been greatly appreciated by textile lovers all over the world,” says Darshan Shah, Founder, Weavers Studio. The studio has information related to indigo, conducts workshops to showcase the techniques of using the dye and its possibilities, and holds exhibitions of various collections.
Indigo has inspired many artists and designers. “As a designer and visual artist, I always found indigo a fascinating colour. While collaborating with American artist Laura Kina on a show titled Indigo that travelled across India and the USA from 2009-2015, I set out to research indigo in India. The first reference I came across was the Champaran movement in 1917 when Mahatma Gandhi took up the cause of indigo farmers who were reeling under a harsh tax system implemented by the British. This spiked my interest in the dye and its history,” says Shelly Jyoti.
Shelly was moved by the suffering of farmers who were forced into growing indigo for export, forgoing growing food staples that left them malnourished. She was inspired by the literary text Neel Darpan (Indigo Mirror) written in 1860 highlighting the exploitation by the colonisers, and was moved by the words of an Englishman who remarked that “not a chest of indigo reached England without being stained with human blood.” She expressed her reflections on thought-provoking textile works that brought together indigo, khadi fabric, ajrakh printing, calligraphy and embroidery as they conveyed poignant messages related to indigo cultivation and trade in the late 19th century; she continues to work on and exhibit works on the subject.
In recent years, with increasing awareness of opting for sustainable fashion, designers and apparel manufacturers are more aware of eco-friendly dyes and opt for them where possible. “Indigo as a colour –from both natural and synthesised indigo- is in fashion. The trend of indigo shibori is sweeping the fashion and textile market, in India and internationally. As India is one of the home countries of indigo cultivation and use it as a natural dye in textiles, we should be very proudly reviving our ancient indigo textile techniques to the best of its quality”, says fashion and textile designer Bina Rao, wife of Keshav Rao.
At the Creative Bee studio, Bina designs indigo-dyed and printed garments for her own label as well as for export using different techniques such as tie-dye, clamp-dye and block-printing. Her all-indigo collection was shown at the Sustainable Fashion event at the Lakme Fashion Week Summer/Resort 2016.
With the efforts of artisans, artists and designers, there is increasing awareness of the beauty and attributes of indigo, and these efforts carry forward a prized textile legacy, with deep resonances, especially for India.
Written by Brinda Gil