Indigo is of the oldest natural dyes known to mankind, and Indians knew how to extract the colour almost 5000 years ago. Europeans, on the other hand, were unaware of its existence until the sixteenth century. Even as late as in the eighteenth century, many dyers believed indigo was a mined mineral.
Once one of the most sought after dyes, indigo is swathed in mystery and romance.
So highly prized was the plant that its true nature remained a closely guarded secret. Few, even today, are willing to reveal how the shades of blue are extracted from the dye which many times seems to have a mood of its own
Cuddapah as once famous for its indigo cultivation, but strangely, no one could direct us to the home of a single farmer who was cultivating indigo. We were in Cuddhapah in Andhra Pradesh, which, at the turn of the twentieth century, had 32,149 acres under indigo cultivation, as Sir George Watt says in his book The Commercial Products of India, published in 1908. Statistics like these apart, there are sadly few archives on traditional dyeing in the country, an art which may well be forgotten very soon despite the efforts of craft councils and dyers centers. In Cuddapah only some of the elderly people remember the practice of indigo dyeing in these and surrounding areas, but since the younger generation has gone the way of higher education with no interest in dyeing, the elders know that their knowledge will probably die with them. And their eyes mist over when they realize the vats that they have used and maintained for so many decades will remain idle in the years to come.
Even the relatives of Polu Pitchi Reddy, one of the largest cultivators of indigo in the country, have all taken up jobs in the IT industry; one of his brothers-in-law is with Microsoft in Atlanta. Encouraged by his father, Narayana Reddy, who remembers his childhood days when every home in Cuddapah had an indigo dyeing vat, Pitchi Reddy today cultivates indigo on a part of his 50-acre farm where he also grows rice. Indigo, rich in nitrogen, provides nutrients to the soil and, what is more, the waste from indigo vats acts as a natural fertilizer.
In him there is a determination to revive the traditional glory of blue extracted naturally from the leguminous plant Indigofera tinctoria, and to put Andhra on the world textile map once again. “We dress in simple white cotton clothes but there is an intangible magic to the colour indigo. The whole process is so fascinating,” he says, as he welcomes us to his home in the tiny village of Vallur in Cuddapah. In the backyard are the indigo vats which his father bought some years ago. It was his father who wanted to get into indigo cultivation. Pitchi Reddy, the more practical one, looks after the marketing. “We have Japanese buyers who come every year for the indigo cakes that we produce,” he tells us proudly.
The entire indigo plant – root, stem and flower – is used to make the dye. The plants are placed in the vat with water. The vat is closed for 12 to 15 hours to allow fermentation, before it is reopened to let out the black-coloured water into another vat. Here the waste is beaten with wooden lathes until the colour of the water becomes green, then blue, and finally the colour separates as flakes and settles to the bottom of the vat. The indigo stays in the vat while the supernatant liquid is drawn out. The pulpy mass is then boiled with fresh water for some hours to remove impurities, filtered through thick coarse cloth, and pressed to remove as much moisture as possible before it is cut into cubes and finally air-dried.
Indigo, one of the oldest dyes known to mankind, is also one of the most complex to obtain. Indeed, it has to be cajoled, coaxed, and charmed before it reveals its true colours! Timing and patience are everything. Reddy urges us to come to his house before dawn, for the plant has to be plucked before the first rays of the sun touch the earth. Once dew makes its presence felt in the atmosphere the plant must not be touched, so September usually marks the end of season for dye-making. In fact, it is actually for only 10 days in a year that that the plant attains just the right maturity to be plucked to obtain the just right shade of blue.
“This is a time-consuming process, and we have to supervise everything when we make the dye. These 10 days are like having a marriage in the house. We can’t even go out,” says Pitchi Reddy, not seeming to mind the onerous responsibility one bit.
Early in the morning, having explained the exact process of dye extraction, the elderly supervisor opens the vat with the flourish of a magician about to perform his most famous trick. What we see are dark black bubbles frothing on the top of the water which, says one of the many indigo legends, are singing. Those who actually do the singing, however, are the indigo workers who step into the vat and begin to beat the fermented liquid. The song is of the earth, the beat the rhythms of the heart. We watch in awe as the colour gradually settles down at the bottom of the vat.
The blue from the indigo plant has been highly valued from time immemorial, not for the money alone but because only few knew how to extract the colour. It requires patience, concentration and an eye that knows when to stop the process, at just the right tint. The dye changes colour almost every day, and the correct formula for how a particular shade of blue emerges remains forever elusive.
Until the invention of synthetic indigo in 1880, the indigo from India was precious and expensive, a sought after natural dye. It is one of the things, like mathematics and astronomy, which Indians knew about almost 5000 years ago. Europe was wholly unaware of this extract till almost the sixteenth century. It is no wonder, then, that the while awarding the Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Adolf von Baeyer in 1905 for his research on the composition of indigo, the Nobel Committee remarked that this was a difficult dye to fathom, and that the research had its origins on the banks of the Ganga.
The word ‘indigo’ is derived from the Greek indikon and the Latin indicum, both of which mean ‘a substance obtained from India’. The properties of ‘asuri’ or ‘askini’ find a mention in the Atharva Veda, and evidence that indigo was used in India well before the medieval age is based on the writings of an Egyptian trader in the first century AD. So famous was the lasting quality of the colour, that St Jerome in his fifth century version of the Bible likened the value of wisdom to the permanence of India’s indigo dye!
Blue was a predominant colour even in the funeral wardrobe of Tutankhamen. The linen wraps of urns containing the Dead Sea Scrolls carried symbolic geometric patterns in blue. Historical records of Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (c. AD 80) speak of indigo as being exported from Barbarikon, a Scythian town on the Indus and the port for the metropolis Minnagar. In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo gave a somewhat grotesque though accurate account of the native indigo industry as seen by him in Colium in India.
Examples of Indian art and textiles bear ample testimony to the exuberance with which colours like indigo permeated the soul of Indian artists who used it with abandon. Colour is central and significant to Indian culture. As the diva of Indian textiles and crafats, Pupul Jayakar once wrote, “In India, the sensitivity to colour has expressed itself in painting, poetry, music, and in the costumes worn both by the peasant and the emperor. ‘Raaga’ was the word used for both mood and dye.” While red is the colour of lovers, neel or indigo is for the sky and the water in which the sky is reflected. It is the colour of Krishna who is likened to a rain-filled cloud, and of Shiva who drank poison that tinted him blue down to the neck. Blue is also the colour associated with royalty. Known as ‘ai’ in Japan, it was a colour once so cherished that its use was regulated by a code that permitted only royalty to dress in blue.
Indigo is indigenous to India but spread along the Silk Route to other South Asian countries, and even to Africa. It continues to be cultivated on a small scale in parts of Indonesia and large parts of Africa. In these countries there are legends and folklore associated with the dyeing of the cloth, and songs about it have come to be identified with the suppressed voices of women. In Africa, blue cloth is sacred, connected with rituals of birth, marriage and death. In islands near Bali, only women who have reached menopause are allowed to participate in the dyeing – symbolic, it is believed, of them having mastered not only the complex process of indigo dyeing but also their bodies!
Indigo was, for the most part, available in western India, and was shipped from the port of Surat. Sarkhej, near Ahmedabad, and Bayana, near Agra, were the two major indigo centres, and ancient vats exist in these towns even today. The Portuguese carried the dye to Lisbon from where they sold it to dyers in Holland. It was partly the desire to procure a regulated supply of indigo (along with spices) that led to the establishment of the Dutch East India Company, and shortly thereafter to the overthrow of Portuguese supremacy in Asia.
The persistent export of the dye from India by the East India Company had the effect of stimulating the Spanish, French, Portuguese and English colonies to produce indigo in as many countries outside India as possible. However, when the British colonies in the Americas declared independence, the British began to make renewed efforts to produce indigo in India. This time Bengal and Bihar were selected for its revival. Large tracts of cultivable land were taken over by British traders who leased them out to small peasants, forcing them to grow indigo to the exclusion of all other crops, and was one of the reasons that led to what was called the Bengal Famine of 1943. It was the plight of the exploited indigo worker that compelled Gandhi to visit Champaran, a remote village in Bihar, in 1917, to fight for their rights. It was thus with indigo that he conducted satyagraha for the first time and launched his struggle for freedom!
Just as the Industrial Revolution sounded the death knell of Indian textiles, the discovery of synthetic dyes dealt a fatal blow to the vegetable dye industry of the country. In 1856, William Perkin discovered the first synthetic dyestuff – mauveine, an aniline dye – and in 1878, Adolf Baeyer synthesized indigo for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1905. The synthetic indigo dye, marketed from 1897, is chemically identical to natural indigo and has replaced it almost completely. It is cheaper than natural indigo, more uniform in concentration and dyes more evenly.
Today, few have the patience to work on vegetable dyes, which are time-consuming and don’t always give the expected results. There are, however, people like Uzra Bilgrami and her Dastakar Andhra group who believe that the age-old skills of the Indian weaver should be pulled out of archival memory and museums and made a living, viable tradition. Dastakar has adopted Chinnur, a small village in the Adilabad district in Andhra, which has traditionally been a weaving community but gave up the profession for lack of a market. The weavers who have joined Uzramma’s cooperative travel to Hyderabad and Karimnagar to procure yarn, dye it themselves with techniques taught to them by the legendary K. V. Chandramouli of Bangalore and Jagada Rajappa of Hyderabad, and weave it into scarves that find a market in distant Japan.
There is an earthiness to natural indigo whose subdued magic can never be replicated synthetically. The subtle variations in tone, the way in which it seems to look more beautiful with each wear, make natural indigo still precious the world over.
One wonders whether a woman in, for instance, the US, who buys a blue ikat scarf from India would be aware of the long journey that the colour has made, from the indigo plant in Cuddapah, to the stylish store in California. But perhaps just running her fingers through the scarf she may sense the pulsating energy of a 5000-year-old tradition.
Whether it was khadi or indigo, Mahatma Gandhi saw these as joyful expressions of the creative life as well as a rooting with natural ways. Gandhi had urged his followers to continue spinning the charkha even if the yarn occasionally snapped. In carrying on the indigo tradition, Pitchi Reddy in Cuddapah and others in Chinnur, have ensured that the yarn of continuity of this age-old process that may have come close to snapping, has at least endured.
Indigo’s medicinal values
Natural dyes are derived from plants, animals, insects and the earth. The wide range of climatic zones and altitudes in India has resulted in a rich biodiversity that has gifted us with many sources of natural dyes.
There are about a hundred plants found in the Himalayan range alone from which dyes may be extracted. Of these the most commonly used are madder for red, and indigo for blue. Indigo is obtained from the plants of the Indigofera genus. There are about 40 species of Indigofera growing in India alone, of which only 16 yield dye and only four are commercially cultivated.
Indigo dyeing was at one time thought to make women sterile but this is at best a rumour floated by vested interests to discourage the production of this plant. Indigo is in fact a medicinal plant and used as an emetic. The Chinese use Indigofera tinctoria to clean the liver, detoxify blood, reduce inflammation, alleviate pain and reduce fever. The powdered root of Indigofera was used in South America to alleviate toothache.
Indigo was used in ayurvedic medicine in India too. According to TV Sairam in his book Home Remedies, indigo has anti-toxic properties and is therefore a good antidote for poison. It is believed to cure abdominal enlargement, excessive urination, problems connected with the spleen, giddiness and gout. The plant is also reputed to possess anti-tubercular properties and is useful in the treatment of snake bites. Niligbrigandhi tailam made from indigo is believed to promote hair-growth.
A quarter teaspoon of indigo leaf juice taken with a cup of milk is traditionally said to be good for those suffering from asthma, palpitation of the heart, kidney disorders, lung disease and whooping cough. And the juice of a young stem mixed with honey is good for the treatment of mouth ulcers.