Indigo - my new found passion

Sangeeta Gupta
Out of the three primary colours, Red and Yellow being easily extractable from flora and fauna are found all around the globe. Blue, the third primary colour could only be generated from indigo. Hence, blue was known to be the rarest and the most regal colour. Since Indus valley civilization India has been the forerunner in dyeing and printing techniques. This knowledge of extracting blue colour from green leaves of indigo was closely guarded within the family and passed on to the next generation. Due to this reason, other parts of the world were still devoid of this knowledge. In 1705 German officials even passed an order to mine indigo, thinking of it as a mineral.
When British landed on Indian mainland, the most sought after commodity was Indigo. It was produced in Northern Gangetic plains, in Sindh, in Sarkhej, in the Deccan region and along the east coast. The finest quality of Indigo was produced in Biana, around 50 miles north-east of Agra.
Indigo plant
The process of extracting blue colour from green leaves of indigo plant is magical and unique. It involves various steps, to be carried out with great timing. The indigo pigment gets detached from glucose as the leaves are soaked in water and fermented. The leaves are taken out, leaving indigo white in the water, which when exposed to air gives out blue colour. This blue colour of indigo remains hidden until the leaf of indigo plant is fermented. After the water is whisked properly, the blue colour settles down forming watery clay. This sludge is then heated or sun dried to be made into cakes.
Indigo making process
A harvest of 200kg leaves produces 1 kg indigo. During 1908, around 30,000 acres of land was engaged in the cultivation of indigo. The Kolkata port once shipped 4000 tons of indigo per year. This blue substance was used to colour everything from Army uniforms to Queen’s bed linen. 
Indigo is the oldest natural dye known to mankind, it can be used to dye any kind of fiber and it is a vital constituent to attain greens, purples and blacks; a universal and versatile dye.
Nila House.
Founded by the Lady Bamford Foundation, a charitable arm of JC Bamford Excavators (JCB), Nila House hopes to touch the lives of 5,000 artisans in the next three years. “Craft should not be treated as a commodity. Rather, one should recognize it for the significance it has in our culture and the value it adds to our lives. Artisans shouldn’t be taken for granted—they are the true connoisseurs of our living heritage,” says Anuradha Singh, head, Nila House.
Indigo Museum Ahmedabad
With the launch of ‘Alchemy’, the Arvind-Indigo Museum’s inaugural collection of ‘Indigo art objects’, indigo (the dye) gets an instant elevation. Of course, we’re used to seeing indigo on textiles in stores, on the runway and even in some museums, for that matter—but chairman and managing director of Arvind Ltd Sanjay Lalbhai envisions a big future for this indigenous dye, a way of giving back to the material that paved the way for his own success. He says, “Arvind Ltd. was reinvented because of this dye. If we hadn’t gotten into denim when we did, we would have faced the same fate as so many textile mills. With this museum, we want to reinvent and dramatically extend the magic of indigo. It’s a unique experiment to extend the vocabulary of indigo as a brand.”
S. Lalbhai, chairman and managing director of the textile company Arvind Ltd. has made it his mission to create an entire indigo universe and involve others in his pet project.
Blue dye was so closely associated with India that the ancient Greeks took its western name - indikos (indigo) - from our country itself.
Derived from the leaves of shrubs in the Indigofera family, indigo dye has been used for millennia in most regions of India to colour yarn and fabric (especially cotton) in shades of blue. Indigo is a substantive dye, fixing without the help of a mordant, but requires expertise to successfully prepare and use.
The beautiful vibrant colour between blue and violet in the visible colour spectrum is the dark purplish blue or Indigo. It is one of the most natural and relaxed tones. When it comes to colours, the question arises whether the colour is more blue or purple. The generally accepted answer is that Indigo is one-quarter purple and three-quarters blue, and it has its own set of hues, shades and varieties. Popularised by Isaac Newton himself, Indigo is one of the seven primary colours of the colour spectrum.
The peculiar dual nature of indigo provides its distinction as an artists’ material. Used as a dye, indigo’s working qualities have inspired resist techniques in cultures around the world. After dyeing, the indigo is not chemically bound to fabric and can be abraded from it with much washing and wearing, giving us the particular worn-in look of denim. And because indigo is inert when oxidized, it has better light fastness than other natural dyes.
Here at Sewing Seeds, we decided to step back briefly from the plants and try our hand at different ways of naturally colouring fabric – earth pigments!
The use of earth pigments is nothing new; people have been working with it for centuries. The first recorded paintings in history were created using red ochre and carbon black earth pigments on cave walls. From Egyptian tomb paintings to those of Leonardo da Vinci, Claude Monet, and even Andy Warhol, earth pigments have been used to achieve a vast range of colour.
Earth pigments are minerals mined all over the world for their colours. Since they come from the Earth’s surface, they are not actually classified as dyes. Dyes create colour when a substance makes a molecular bond with fibre and chemically attaches together. Earth pigments cannot penetrate and bond molecularly with fibre by itself; it has to be suspended in another medium that joins with the fibre. In this case, we are using fresh soy milk. The protein in the soy milk is what binds the earth pigment and the fibre together.
The Indigo Museum in Tokushima, Japan combines a modern building with an historic home.
The arrival of a new blue dye called “indigo” came from a excessively grown crop—called Indigofera tinctoria—that was produced across the world. Its import shook up the European textile trade in the 16th century, and catalysed trade wars between Europe and America.
The use of indigo for dyeing textiles was most popular in England, and was used to dye clothing worn by men and women of all social backgrounds. Natural indigo was replaced in 1880, when synthetic indigo was developed. This pigment is still used today to dye blue jeans. However, over the last decade scientists have discovered that the bacteria Escherichia coli can be bio-engineered to produce the same chemical reaction that makes indigo in plants. This method, called “bio-indigo,” will likely play a big part in manufacturing environmentally friendly denim in the future.
Fun fact: Sir Isaac Newton—the inventor of the “colour spectrum”—believed that the rainbow should consist of seven distinct colours to match the seven days of the week, the seven known planets, and the seven notes in the musical scale. Newton championed indigo, along with orange, even though many other contemporary scientists believed the rainbow only had five colours.
Klein once said, “Blue has no dimensions. It is beyond dimensions,” believing that it could take the viewer outside the canvas itself.
Gradually textile artists were recognised just as relevant as other fine artists and the mediums became less segregated. Sonia Delauny, co-founder of the Orphic art movement during the 20th century, was a painter, fashion designer and textile artist known for her use of bold colours and geometric shapes. Gunta Stötzl became the only female master at the Bauhaus school in Germany where she reinvigorated the textiles department, she utilised the same language that was generally used when discussing modern paintings. Like Delauny, Stöltz used bold colours and patterns.
Today we have the likes of Nike Davies-Okundaye and Ann Hamilton representing contemporary textile art. Davies-Okundaye is a Nigerian textile designer focusing on traditional Nigerian textiles as a way of reviving a dying culture in her home country. . Ann Hamilton is a multimedia artist who uses anything from photography, performance, textiles and other created objects to create large-scale installations. During the 21st century we finally see textile art given equal room and importance with other art forms.
Anni Albers might be remembered as one of the textile art’s greatest 20th-century practitioners, but she was slow to respond to the medium. Later in her career, she reflected that, ‘Galleries and museums didn’t show textiles, that was always considered craft and not art.’
Nearly a century has passed since Albers first began turning threads into art, and the tide is finally turning. Meanwhile, in a world dominated by life online, textiles’ emphasis on the hand worked, and the sincerity and emotion that labour-intensive craft implies, offers an alternative that’s both comforting and fresh.
It is essential for humankind’s survival that we nurture and harvest fibres, be it cotton from the land, wool from sheep, or silk gleaned from larvae. Textiles follow us from the cradle to the grave.
Hicks is a luminary of the fibre-art generation that emerged in the 1960s. Like Albers, Hicks was fuelled by notions of blurred boundaries between art and craft, and would go on to learn from the textile cultures of Central and South America, as well as India, the Middle East, and Africa.
From the Bauhaus to the Venice Biennale: How textiles became art. Anni Albers, Sheila Hicks, and Pacita Abad have revolutionized yarns
Combining the conceptual innovations of abstract art with those of ancient traditions from across the world, Hicks’s sculpture also anticipates focus on globalization, offering a model of respectful creative empathy with multiple cultures at a time when the global project is under threat, when fibre art began to make an impact in the 1960s.
“Life today is very bewildering,” wrote Albers in 1938. “We must come down to earth from the clouds where we live in vagueness and experience the most real thing there is: material”. As fibre art’s resurgence continues apace, it seems her words have never been more relevant.
I chose to weave the story of Shiv in my painting titled ‘Aadiyogi Shiv, a journey in cosmic indigo’.
 Indigo dye in Bangladesh : tracing cultivation roots

The word indigo derives from the Greek word ‘indikon’, which means, ‘from India’. Ancient Greek imported their blue colourant from India. Indigo, the last natural dye, was an expensive commodity on the “Silk route”.
RANGPUR: During British rule farmers were brutally oppressed by the British rulers for their refusal to grow a single sapling of indigo, is a story of the era bygone , farmers of Rangpur are now cultivating indigo with zeal and are now financially well off.
After a long time gap, indigo cultivation has revived in Rangpur. It is no more a curse for the peasants but a blessing.
Large number of peasants in Rajendrapur and Paglapir areas under Rangpur Sadar have found a way to change their socio-economic condition through indigo cultivation. Now indigo farming has become a lucrative business for the peasants of the region.
There are documentary evidences of the East India Company from 1600 onwards which testify about production of indigo in India and its export. Gujarat and Sindh were the major sources then. Indigo created fortunes for farmers in mediaeval times.
The trade of Indigo from Asia was controlled by the Portuguese in the middle of the sixteenth century. Indigo dye was a major item of international trade from the 16th to the late 19th century. The Spanish were their main competitors.
Since the soil of the Indian subcontinent was suitable for the cultivation of indigo, British indigo investors, invested large sum in indigo cultivation. In Bangladesh, then part of India, indigo cultivation started in Nadia, Jashore, Rangpur and some other districts. Indigo production and export was a lucrative business in Bengal province in the early 19th century.
Later it became non-profitable for farmers and therefore, they started to grow paddy and jute . Consequently indigo cultivation disappeared from Bengal.
Due to the Industrial Revolution in England, the demand for indigo was on the rise, and a major share of it happened to come from the subcontinent. In Bengal, farmers were forced to grow indigo instead of rice or other major crops by the British rulers.
In the 18th and 19th centuries fine quality of indigo was cultivated in Bengal (now modern-day Bangladesh). Colonial merchants and owners of the indigo factories took all the profits while local people worked in terrible conditions to produce the dye.
The indigo revolt
The farmers organised a resistance movement during 1859-60 which is called the ‘Indigo Revolt’ or ‘Nil Vidroha’ because of the fact that the British indigo planters, who had invested huge capital, forced them to cultivate it through undue coercion and exploitation. The indigo revolt started from Jashore and Nadia districts in the Indian state of West Bengal in 1859 and then spread to other districts.
Later a commission investigating the causes of the rebellion found about many stories of suffering, coercion, gross injustice and violence where few individuals profited by exploiting thousands of natives. The English judge Edward de Latour stated that, ‘not a chest of Indigo reached England without being stained with human blood.’
Extinct for more than a century, indigo is now being cultivated in Bangladesh. Indigo is produced from leaves, which can be harvested three times a year.
In 2006, when an Indian fashion designer, Tushar Kumar came to Rangpur as a consultant on a CARE Foundation project to train and supervise local artisans, he by chance rediscovered the indigo plant. The locals had forgotten about the existence of indigo plant and the practice of extracting blue from indigo had stopped for some centuries.
After the cessation of indigo cultivation in the 18th century, local farmers continued to use the shrub for other purposes. Indigo is a herb plant. It is used to increase nitrogen in the soil as it absorbs nitrogen from the atmosphere. The process also helps to reduce soil erosion. The farmers of North Bengal were aware about these qualities, when they chose not to grow a crop in the field, they planted indigo for three or four months. Besides this the locals used the rotten, decomposed leaves as fertiliser and the branches as fuel.
In 2007 few representatives of these local artisans went to Delhi’s “Dastkar Nature Market” along with their products and earned good amount of money. Seeing huge demand for indigo,they decided to start their own business after returning home. Finally, in November 2008, the journey of “Nijera Cottage and Village Industries” (NCVI) began. The brand name for NCVI’s products is ‘Living Blue.’ In 2014, it was renamed ‘Living Blue Private Limited’.
The NCVI model played a vital role in creating an opportunity for the poor in the market. Handicrafts are not new in the market. But artisans’ ownership of such businesses is a new phenomena.
NCVI owns 49% of Living Blue (artisans and farmers), while CARE owns 51% and a 17-member management committee runs Living Blue.
The process
Living Blue’s atelier currently has two tanks with a capacity of 10,000 litres of water; these can hold up to 1,200 kg of leaves. Only 1 kg of colour can be extracted from 200 kg leaves of the plant. 
For fermentation, the leaves are immersed in this tank for 14 hours. After fermentation, the green slurry is deposited at the bottom of the tank.
Then slurry is transferred to another tank for oxidation. The process requires a grid of pumps and shower heads. After running the pump for two and a half hours, the green slurry reacts to oxygen to form a blue jelly-like substance. After drying this substance for four days in the sun, it is called blue powder or blue gold.
Extinct for more than a century, indigo is now being revived in Bangladesh. Several non-government organisations have undertaken projects to produce high quality indigo, the demand for which is now increasing. In response to environmental hazards, people are now showing more interest in natural dye. Indigo cultivation is more profitable than the traditional field crops cultivation. Indigo can be cultivated in poor grade soils where it is not possible to cultivate grain crops. Indigo cultivation improves soil quality. 
The legacy of Khadi
Khadi is the rich heritage of Bengali culture, it reminds us of the Swadeshi Movement. Khadi or Khoddor cloth is hand made since the ancient time. The yarn is made from capas cotton which is then weaved on hand-operated charkha (spinning wheel) or taant to be turned into traditional cloth.
Since the British period, Cumilla’s khadi has been quite popular. Khadi is cherished in culture and tradition of Bengal for centuries before the partition of the sub-continent countries. During ‘Quit India’ movement on Mahatma Gandhi’s call for the boycott of industrial spun fabrics from England, demand for this thick cloth increased immensely. Consequently it became a huge symbol of patriotism. Boycott of British clothing inspired weavers across India to produce handwoven cloth.
At that time raw materials were exported to England and finished clothes made from them were imported back to India. The movement intended to end the local dependency on foreign materials as a mark of protest against the British imperialism. Thus, khadi became a tool against colonial rule. 
The 1947 partition created a new nation named Pakistan from India, based on religion. It reduced the popularity of khadi in Pakistan because it was seen as symbol of the ideology of Congress that had led the non-cooperation movement.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s historic 7th March speech refuelled the momentum to produce khadi, when natives from East Pakistan discarded the use of goods from West Pakistan.
The sudden wave of demand persisted in Bangladesh for many years after the country’s independence from Pakistan in 1971.About 30 weavers now make khadi because they are in their twilight years and khadi reminds them of their achievements.
Buyers from foreign markets – like Italy, Spain, Portugal, Australia, and the US – have expressed their interest in khadi as an organic cloth. If more demand arises, it is unlikely that existing weavers will be able to cater to them. Pradip who is a second generation khadi producer would try to mobilize resources and manpower to the best of his ability to initiate change.
Khadi textile has the lowest carbon footprint; it can help mitigate global warming to a certain extent. Weaving the Khadi requires no electricity or burning of fossil fuels. Today we are concerned with long term sustainability, eco-friendliness, and green product. Khadi is the solution to such concerns related to global warming.
Khadi is the signature fabric of sub-continental countries. According to traditional business analysts, right now, what Bangladesh government is doing to revive khadi, needs more push for such initiatives. If efforts continue in this direction then khadi has a glittering future like other traditional sectors like Tangail saree and Jamdani. 

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