As an integral part of the historical and socio-cultural fabric of the Asian subcontinent, indigo has served as a backdrop to religion, politics, trade, art forms and society, particularly in India.
Culture of Indigo: Plant, Product, Power takes the reader on a timeline tour, with details of the plant’s cultivation and production process. Highlights of indigo’s commercial use and impact on fine arts, architecture, trade, heritage as well as an in-depth analysis of its resurgence in the wake of environmental concerns enrich the reading experience substantially. With contributions from globally-renowned scholars and art connoisseurs, the inherent politics and pleasure associated with indigo come alive.
Vivid illustrations, insightful analysis and extensively-researched text hold promise for readers who cannot resist the chequered lineage of Indigo as a plant, a product and a phenomenon.
Kapila Vatsyayan is a renowned art historian and Chairperson of II C-Asia Project, India International Centre. She is former Secretary, Department of Arts, Ministry of HRD; Academic Director, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts; President, India International Centre; Member, UNESCO Executive Board; and Member of Parliament. Dr. Vatsyayan has taught at the Universities of Delhi, Banaras, Pennsylvania, and California. She has authored over 15 books and several research papers and monographs. Dr. Vatsyayan has won a number of award including Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award from the Government of India. Dr. Vatsyayan has been elected Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences; and French Academy for the Study of Asian Civilizations.
Can an international conference be held on the subject of one blue dye? Are we-is all this-about blue?
Sir C.V. Raman has described the blue of the sky for laypersons like me unforgettably. Mythologists have done that for Krishna's blue. Subbulakshmi's favourite concert sari has made 'MS Blue' famous. Kamaladevi's identification with the nilkamal made the blue lotus special. Blue is the colour of assertion used by India's resurgent Dalits.
But if I were to pose today as a partisan of blue or an expert on blue or on the dye, I would be a hue-changing chameleon. I have no preferences in colours, nor any skills with them.
Yet there is one observation I will make on the colour blue-qua-blue. India's national flag is commonly described as the 'Tricolour' after the kesaria or the bhagwa, as Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan called it, on its top band, the white in the middle and the green on the bottom band. But we forget that the flag carries a fourth colour, for the chakra, or the wheel of Ashoka's dharma, which is central to the flag and that colour is blue, navy blue at that. This Wheel of Law on the flag reminds us also of the charkha, the spinning wheel Gandhi made famous the world over. The one element on the flag which is not just a band of colour, but an image of movement and energy, organic energy, is the charkha, which is in blue.
So, the answer to the question 'should we meet about one blue dye?' lies in the fact that we are meeting on what happens to be blue in colour, but what really signifies for us in India most certainly, and for the whole world in which the wheel of dharma or the influence of the Buddha works as a tremendous symbolic energy. It is also about peasants who grow the plant on flatlands-so many of them in Tamil Nadu, in Madagascar and in the Himalayas with that very energy. Both the energy and the peasants who work with and for that energy are under global threat.
Esteemed president of the India International Centre, Professor M.G.K. Menon; Chairperson, IIC-Asia Project, Dr Kapila Vatsyayan; Chairperson, Indian Council for Historical Research, Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya; distinguished participants from other countries in Asia, particularly Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and from the great cultural tradition of Tibet; and several parts of India; experts on, and users and historians of indigo; and all assembled here with small or large awareness of indigo as a plant, a product and a player on the international chessboard of power, please accept my regards and my apologies.
Apologies, because I lack the credentials of a botanist or an artist or a historian necessary to inaugurate a conference of experts. I lack also the confidence necessary for that role because, as I said, I started off with a deep doubt on whether the conference on indigo, on a plant, on a dye, or on a colour, would be viable.
But I found the answer to the question soon enough, following some essential reading which I had to do for the conference to which, incidentally, I was not just invited, but really summoned by Kapilaji, to whom I cannot say 'no', for she has only to instruct me. But she was instructing me now in one subject of study and I studied it as a pupil would in response to the teacher in her.
The words 'demonstration by hundreds and thousands of people as we have just witnessed in Bengal has no meaning of greater importance than an ordinary commercial question.' provide a way of approaching this question. The then Lt Governor of Bengal's phrase 'signs of the time' printed itself on my mind. Let us say, in the strongest of indigo blue.
Friends, the story of indigo in India, and I speak not as a botanist- Professor Mohan Ram will tell us about that-but as an observer, is the story of marginalisation-an attempted marginalisation of Indian peasants by British planters, of British planters by certain captains of western industry, and of that industry by new changes in European technologies in chemical synthesizing. It is the story of the marginalisation of the hand- crafted by the mass-produced, of colour by colouration, of the good earth's pigment by a value-neutral laboratory's canned or caked product in paints. It is also inevitably about the marginalisation of peasants, planters, farms, factories, industry, commerce and technology, all put together, by imperial power and colonial expansion.
And it is the story of resistance to all those marginalisations.
It is the story of resistance, indigo is all about peasants, the plant's growers resisting the grand coalition of powerful and entrenched interests which I just talked about, a resistance that failed.
So, if the resistance failed, is this conference about a story that is over?
Are we seeing Satyajit Ray's great trilogy in retrospective?
Even as some of that great director's films end without an ending and conclude without a conclusion, the story of indigo's subordination has not ended. The resistance to subordination has gone beyond plant and product to a continuing interplay which can become a contestation between the true and the virtual, the palpable and the emulsive, the fibrous and the fabricated, the organic and the chemic, the vat-warm and the pippet-cold, between that which the human hand plants, land, on all altitudes, Madagascar, and the flat lands of Tamil Nadu, grows and that which is manufactured.
The curtain has certainly not fallen over indigo.
Indigo, today, is no longer just a blue dye. It is a symbol. And, as Lt Governor Grant said a hundred and fifty years ago, it raises much more than commercial questions. It raises, as Kapilaji said in her prefatory remarks, civilisational questions and answers to them. It shows us the signs of our times and points to directions we can, and must, take.
As Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya and other historians will explain better, the indigo revolt in Bengal during 1859 to 1862 began and changed the course not just of Indigo's history, but also of the social and political history of our times. Blair Kling has written about this in The Blue Mutiny. It is an extraordinary book. I had not read it before, until I had to read it for this conference. I recommend the book to all of you.
By the early 1900s, I was astonished to hear and learn that indigo blue, natural indigo, was the basic colourant for Levi Strauss, which, as I learn from the seminar papers, today makes a billion pairs of jeans every year. Indigo as a plant and a product, became very soon, a source of profit. There, and there alone, lies the 'thingness' of this conference. That 'thingness' is about the plant as a product, and product as profit. When a plant moves into the realm of profit something happens to it. A plant is just a plant in the hands of the peasant. But when it becomes a source of profit, it goes out of his hands. The profit, then, is somebody else's and when that somebody happens to be, as it was then, an international trading entity, then it leads to great contestation. Such a contestation took place between Britain and Germany.
Technically, India was supposed to have the monopoly over indigo. But did India really have that monopoly? India had the plant, yes; peasants grew
When the idea of holding an international seminar on Indigo was conceived, eyebrows were raised and questions were asked, 'How can you have a seminar on Indigo?'
My response was, 'May I remind you that Indigo has been known in pre-historic civilizations such as Mesopotamia, Africa, and India alike? It was a coveted product during medieval maritime trade. Also remember the momentous invention of the synthetic indigo and its fallout on political processes during the colonial rule in India and Asia alike. Also recollect the protest movements ignited by synthetic Indigo.'
The Rebellion of 1860, the first modern middle class protest against such exploitation, was brought out in the celebrated play Nee! Darpan in Bengali by Dinabandhu Mitra. And, of course, Gandhiji's first satyagraha, the Champaran Movement in 1917, is etched in our collective memory. If we have forgotten this part of the history, are we not witnessing the dialectics of being soaked on the one hand in the uniformity of denizen jeans and on the other the powerful international movement on revitalising natural dyes, especially Indigo, the marker of contemporary fashion?
We at the IIC-Asia Project considered it pertinent to investigate the multiple levels of this seemingly simple yet highly complex subject, Indigo. It may be recalled that over the last decade II C-Asia Project has identified themes which may seem unusual but has proved its commitment to take up subjects that cut across nation-state boundaries. It was with this view that an attempt was made to make explicit the voices of the younger generation of women across Asia. It is gratifying to note that the book, Speaking for Myself - An Anthology of Asian Women's Writing, resulted from this effort, has been enthusiastically received. As important as this was the seminar held to explore how the multiple traditions of the arts and crafts of Asia should be integrated with the modern system of education. There have been many meaningful initiatives taken in this regard across Asia. This resulted in the book Transmissions and Transformations: Learning through the Arts in Asia.
If the above two attempts centred on language and pedagogy, there is another dimension of traditional cultures, for example, the creativity of a woman's hand, normally identified as the humble embroidery. It is embroidery that, cutting across national boundaries, joined stitching communities together. The seminar and the workshop brought together embroideries from across Asia-Uzbekistan, Mghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. This resulted in the publication Sui-Dhaga: Crossing Boundaries through Needle and Thread. This idea was also received first with surprise and then enthusiastically acclaimed for identifying the needle and the thread as an instrumentality of bringing diverse cultures together.
The seminar on Culture of Indigo - Exploring the Asian Panorama: Plant, Process, Product, Power, was held in 2007. It was designed to explore the varieties of the plant known in India as Indigofera tinctoria (plant), from which the dye was extracted (process). The seminar endeavoured to re-examine the socio-political results of the imposition of the synthetic dye on subjugated people. It also aimed at identifying the methods of extracting natural Indigo through indigenous technologies of long continuity. Alongside, of course, was the magnetic attraction of the natural Indigo and its use in the vast vista of the artistic traditions of Asia. The canvas was pretty large.
The seminar, the exhibition, and the workshops were all parts of a cohesive whole. For us at the II C- Asia Project, this was an energising exercise, which could not have been accomplished without the active participation of specialists from diverse disciplines from many parts of Asia.
It was appropriate to invite Gopalkrishna Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, to inaugurate the seminar. He represented the continuity of the tradition as also the concern with modern movements with regard to Indigo at both political and artistic levels. Though originally perplexed by the seminar theme, on deeper reflection, he consented. In his inimitable ability to juxtapose the past and the present, the political and the cultural, he recalled the story of Indigo in India as 'the story of marginalisation, an attempted marginalisation of Indian peasants by British planters, of British planters by certain captains of western industry, of that industry by new changes in European technologies in chemical synthesising. It is the story of the marginalisation of the hand-crafted by the mass-produced, of colour by colouration, of the good earth's pigment by a value-neutral laboratory's canned or caked product in paints. It is also inevitably about the marginalisation of peasants, planters, farms, factories, industry, commerce and technology, all put together, by imperial power and colonial expansion.' His brilliant address was heard with rapt attention and all initial scepticism was duly silenced. We chose to include his scintillating presentation as the Foreword to this book.
The seminar had four sessions: (i) Plant and Scientific Dimensions; (ii) Product: Archaeology, Ethnology; (iii) Profit and Power: A Global Trade before Globalisation; and (iv) Contemporary Issues. Papers were sequentially presented keeping in view the logic of the seminar. The first session, chaired by internationally known botanist, Prof. H.Y. Mohan Ram, concentrated on the plant and its scientific dimensions. He introspected on how the humans identified a plant which would give the colour blue, Neel. The colour, lying dormant, may be unseen in the plant. It is through a very complex process of extraction and oxidation that one identifies the blue colour. No wonder the blue colour has attracted humans from prehistoric times. There have been different ways of extracting this colour in different civilisations. One can only surmise how Mesopotamians extracted the colour and used it in their textiles as far back as 3000 BC. Or how did the Egyptians extract blue and use it for mummies? There are other countless examples.
Prof. Mohan Ram and Gita Mathur also observe that although less common in plants, blue is essential to plant life. It is important for growth and development, as it mediates light responses through phytochrome pigment. In addition to its ornamental and aesthetic value in flowers, blue protects plants from herbivory. Blue pigments in fruits and vegetables have important antioxidant properties for improving human health.
Dr M. Sanjappa, former Director, Botanical Survey of India, Kolkata, in a comprehensive and well-documented paper, narrates the history of the plant, its numerous varieties and its spread across the world. Egyptian funerary clothes dating between 2300 and 1880 Be are reported to have been dyed with Indigo. The dye has a mention in Sanskrit writings of that period. Dr Sanjappa draws attention to the fact that 60 species and 10 varieties of Indigofera are available in India. These plants are also used in medicine and as green manure, cover crop, fodder, and ornamentals. The first section of the exhibition, which displayed live potted plants brought by the Botanical Survey of India, Kolkata, complemented this paper.
In an illuminating paper, Dr T.S. Nayar of the Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute, Thiruvananthapuram, says that blue and green are the prominent colours used in ancient art forms of Kerala. Mural artists use them to depict different mythological characters. He points out that a botanical investigation into these colours reveals that the main source of blue and green, especially in murals, is still Indigofera tinctoria L. He suggests that at a time when natural products are being substituted by chemical compounds in ancient art forms, documentation of ancient knowledge system that recommended employment of natural product, such as Indigo, has high relevance.
Two other papers by Vijaykumar Menon, an art historian of Jnanasramam, in Wadakkancheri, Thrissur district, and by K. U. Krishnakumar, Principal, Institute of Mural Painting, Guruvayur, mention that in classical and folk traditions along with rituals in Kerala-face and body painting, floor pictures, mural paintings, and costumes for performances-only five colours are used, that is yellow, red, green, black, and white. One important aspect is that while blue is absent in these visuals, it constitutes the base for green colour. Menon suggests that the aesthetic dimensions of the five colours need to be investigated Krishnakumar points out that the Kerala mural painting tradition strictly follows the Panchavarna (five colours) in colour rendering. The paintings on temple walls in Kerala re in evidence from AD 9th century onwards and become significant by the 16th century.
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