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The true colours of India

Only the initiated are familiar with the mysteries of natural dyes derived from plants, insects and shellfish. Had it not been for the first Sutra conference organised in 2003 in Calcutta by Amrita Mukerji, the driving force behind it, even fewer laypersons would have been aware of the social, commercial and historical ramifications of natural dyes. During British rule, indigo plantations gained such notoriety that the production of nil stopped altogether, and soon these were marginalised by aniline dyes which have ruled the market since.

With all the hue and cry over environmental pollution, natural dyes are back in the news, and Marg’s excellent issue titled Colours of Nature: Dyes from the Indian Subcontinent, is a timely publication. It gives us an update on the standing of these colouring agents. In our times “natural” is the most exotic label imaginable, and one to be ready to pay over the odds to buy products of “nature”. However, this book is affordable enough and it has several highly informative articles by international experts. According to the editorial note, this issue of Marg is based on a conference held in Calcutta in 2010 under the auspices of Sutra. It is guest-edited by Jenny Balfour-Paul, a scholar known for her work in indigo.

Her introductory article encapsulates all that this book is about. She writes that the Indian sub-continent is generally acknowledged to be the “home” of dyeing and that this esoteric art “was already advanced in the Indus civilisation (around 2600 BCE).” Her article takes us back about 150 years in time when Thomas Machell, a sensitive young British indigo plantation manager, wrote an eyewitness account of such a plantation. Balfour-Paul also explains how Bengal became the place for indigo production in the 19th century.

Brenda King’s article on Thomas Wardle recounts how this son of a master dyer, who collaborated with William Morris, became an expert on India’s wild silks and dyestuffs and compiled 15 volumes based on his research, a set of which was discovered by Himadri Debnath, then joint director of the Botanical Survey of India. Around the same time, Debnath had also chanced upon the volumes of textile samples compiled by John Forbes Watson in the 19th century.

Ruby Ghaznavi recounts how she has kept the art of natural dyes alive in Bangladesh. Rex Cowan’s Unexpected treasures from the Sea is nothing short of thrilling. But contrary to what Pramod Kumar K.G. writes, the names of the Indian artists who did botanical drawings for Roxburgh and thereafter are there on the works themselves. They were Lutchman Singh, Gopal Dass, Kali P. Dass, A.N. Banerjee and P. Govidoo.