The Telegraph
Monday, November 20, 2017
 

Indigo researcher digs out nuggets from past

 Jenny Balfour-Paul at The Bengal Club. Picture by Sanat Kr Sinha

A famous tea company in Calcutta traded in indigo in British India. That's how its office on RN Mukherjee Road, Nilhat House, got its name.

Opium and indigo growers were locked in constant rivalry before 1859

Evidence of indigo dye has been even found in the remains of the Indus Valley civilisation

Calcutta: Such nuggets from history made up writer Jenny Balfour-Paul's hour-long Bengal Club Library Talk, organised in association with The Telegraph, on November 8.

Balfour-Paul, who has researched indigo for decades, traced its history right from the early evidence to the exploitation faced by farmers in pre-Independence Bengal.

The session was peppered with anecdotes, humour and photographs of travel that she undertook since 2000 to bring together the indigo story.

The highlight of the evening was shots of a handwritten journal by 19th century British explorer Thomas Machell, who got the author inspired in the first place.

Machell had lived in Calcutta and worked in several indigo plantations in the 19th century. His journal traced his experience and the culture of the time, in the form of correspondence to his father in England.

Balfour-Paul shared with the audience how she found Machell's journals by accident. "I was in the British Library surfing through old books and records when I found this valuable piece of history. It was the word indigo that made me reach out for it," she said.

One line in the handwritten diary had particularly caught her eye. "I wonder if anybody will find these journals in the 20th century in a dirty library..." Machell had written. "I thought I was meant to find it," added Balfour-Paul.

The author decided to travel to all those places where Machell had visited more than 100 years ago. She juxtaposed snaps taken during her visits to Calcutta, Bangladesh and also the Marquesas Island in French Polynesia with the British explorer's illustrations.

Visits to Calcutta brought out some lesser-known facts. "Tea company J Thomas & Co would auction indigo. No wonder their office was called Nilhat House," Balfour Paul said.

Another story was about her hunt for Machell's grave. "Two of his journals are missing and I am still putting together the last six years of his life. I was not sure where he had spent his final years," Balfour-Paul added.

India made Machell ill. He had left its shores for his native Yorkshire only to come back again. "My daughter and I went places in search of his grave, till we realised he had died near Jabalpur. One rainy day in Jabalpur we almost got ourselves arrested as we went grave hunting," laughed the author.

She has documented many of her tales in her book, Deeper than Indigo: Tracing Thomas Machell, Forgotten Explorer.


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