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Blues & yarns spun over centuries

The deepest blue comes from the small leaves of the shrub-like leguminous plant Indigofera tinctoria, one of the handful of indigo dye-yielding plants that grows most
in India
Yemeni dress from mid-20th century. Cotton with natural indigo and hand embroidery, glazed
and calendered with wooden beaters

Ho Chi Minh Sarani: Not for nothing did the East India Company stake so much on indigo. The dye that comes from the indigo plant remains one of the most precious and exotic materials, coming with a story that stretches over wide swathes of history across the world, including, of course, Bengal. Now an exhibition at ICCR, Calcutta, brings this story to life.

(Top) From Japan, c. 1900. Boro Noragi farmers jacket, pieced together with multiple layers of old indigo-dyed textiles. Bottom: From China, c. 1950. Tailored jacket, cotton with natural indigo dye. Calendered, possibly with rice starch, to produce a glazed effect

The exhibition, part of Indigo Sutra, an event organised by Sutra Textile Studies, has on display a wide range of textiles, garments and objects dyed or associated with indigo. The replica of a miniature clay model of an indigo factory, showing how indigo was produced in Bengal under the colonial masters, greets visitors at the entrance of the first hall. The original is at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London.

Sugar cube machine stitch design, similar to the Japanese resist techniques from Nigeria, 1970s. The design imitates sugar cubes, which suggest a statement against the exploitation in sugar plantations. Exploitation seems to be a theme that brings together so many strands of politics, textile and music, says Monoleena Banerjee

The following sections have rare indigo fabrics and garments on display, from India and several parts of Africa and Asia. “Sutra intends to inspire everyone with a love of textiles, so that their makers get to benefit,” said Amrita Mukerji, president of the organisation. Indigo Sutra, which follows other events held by Sutra earlier, was an elaborate affair comprising the exhibition, a seminar, workshops, demonstrations of indigo manufacturing, a bazaar from where indigo garments from many parts of the world disappeared before one could blink, and an indigo auction! The last, said Mukerji, was the fun event.

An installation by Maku Textiles. Pictures by Sanat Kr Sinha

Most of the African garments were from Mukerji’s personal collection. Sutra wants to revive the use of indigo, which suffered in the nineteenth century with the indigo revolt in this part of the world and the invention of the synthetic indigo colour in Germany.

The second hall had on display a large collection of paintings using indigo and other natural dyes.

Monoleena Banerjee, a textile professional in charge of the indigo dyeing workshops, reminded that indigo was as old as Mohenjodaro. The priest’s garment was touched with it. Navy blue, the colour of the uniform, was also named after indigo. She thinks Blues music has something to do with the condition of African workers in indigo plantations.
Indigo researcher Jenny Balfour-Paul was also part of the project.

The exhibition is showing till Saturday.

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