"Indigo Nation: The Colour of British Oppression, and now of Fashion" by Jasodhara Banerjee, Forbes India

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An excerpt from "Indigo Nation: The Colour of British Oppression, and now of Fashion" by Jasodhara Banerjee, Forbes India

[...] About 24 km east of Hyderabad is Ghatkesar, in the Rangareddy district of Telangana. In a leafy haven down a dirt road is the 3.5 acre plot of Beena and Shiv Kesav Rao, head designer and master dyer, respectively, of Creative Bee, a 20-year-old design studio that works with about 200 handloom weavers around Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The studio produces about 10,000 metres of handloom fabrics in a year, which are variously textured, dyed and printed. Of the total output, about 40 percent is exported, 30 percent is customised and sold to clients who then retail it under their own brands, and the remaining is sold under Creative Bee’s own label. 

On this plot stands Creative Bee’s dyeing and printing unit, where workers are busy hand-block printing for a recent order, a large one, from Japan. A few children sit with their school books, finishing homework, while a happy mongrel loiters around. “Indigo is a quick-reacting dye,” says Kesav, as one of his workers dips a length of white cloth, tightly bound by string (as is required in the shibori dyeing process), into a tub of indigo mixed with a reducing agent and water. Although Creative Bee does use the traditional pot for dyeing, for this demonstration they have made an exception. “The tub is usually covered to minimise exposure to oxygen, but for this demonstration, we have opened it up,” he adds. 

The colour of the solution, pale green, transfers onto the cloth in about 15 minutes, when it is pulled out, untied and held out by three or four people to dry. As the dye comes in contact with air, it gets oxidised and begins to change colour—from pale green to a dark blue. “The point at which you remove the cloth from the dye is crucial,” says Kesav. “Remove it too early, and the colour will run; remove it too late, and the colour will run again.” As the length of cloth begins to dry, the patterns created by the binding strings become increasingly prominent. The darker the shade of blue, the more number of times is the fabric dipped in the dye (sometimes up to 40 times).  

Creative Bee sources its dyes from Tindivanam, a village in Tamil Nadu. “We earlier also sourced from Kadapa in Andhra Pradesh. But those growers have abandoned indigo cultivation and have now become real estate developers,” says Kesav with a wry smile. “I am to blame,” rues Beena, recalling how she had introduced the Kadapa growers—the only farm in the region growing natural indigo—to a foreign buyer. After getting a lucrative order from this buyer, the growers decided to give up farming altogether. 

The effect that the closure of one farm can have can be understood from the fact that there are very few people who still grow the indigo plant. “One crop can give, at most, two harvests; the third harvest is for the seeds,” says Kesav. “But usually it is just one harvest. The quality of the leaves, from which the dye is extracted, is dependent on rain and soil conditions.” He adds that the dye is still cultivated largely in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu; with perhaps smaller quantities in Bihar and West Bengal. “The British practice was one of the major reasons why people stopped cultivating indigo in most places,” he says. “And then, of course, was the advent of synthetic indigo.” 

Apart from a general shortage of the natural dye, there is also the concern of adulteration. “If we trust our supplier, we can ask them to send the dye as a powder; it is easier for us to dissolve it,” says Kesav. “But if we don’t trust them, we ask for the dye in the form of cakes; because then they can’t mix adulterations, such as sawdust, which they can mix in the powder form of the dye.” On an average, it takes about 100 kg to 150 kg of natural indigo (it costs about Rs 2,200 per kg) to dye 3,000 to 5,000 metres of fabric; printed fabrics require a smaller quantity of the dye than fully dyed fabrics. 

Like all other natural vegetable dyes, the extraction of indigo is a time- and labour-intensive process. And one, believes Kesav, that has immense potential in India. However, commercial levels of production of any dye require investments of time and money and a waiting period, since the returns are usually long term. 
 
He explains this through the example of the natural olive green dye, which is produced from dry pomegranate rinds. “The rind is actually a waste product of the juice industry,” he says, “but we buy it for Rs 60 to Rs 70 a kg. If there is one company or organisation that invests in the process, this is how it can be managed: A farmer could be growing the fruit, which would be used for making juice; the rind would then be dried and be made into dye; the waste product of the dye could then be used to make biomass and also as fertiliser in the orchards. It comes a full circle.” 

In the case of indigo, Kesav believes that large companies that produce industrial quantities and qualities of dyes could adopt villages where they support farmers in the growing and manufacturing of indigo, and then use the dye in the processing of mass produced clothing such as denim. 

Indigo, the colour, may have caught the country’s, if not the world’s, imagination in the past few years. But whether a centuries-old tradition will fade into history, or will survive in the way stubborn habits do, is something that is yet to be seen.

(This story appears in the 19 August, 2016 issue of Forbes India.) Read the full article here.

 

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