THE village of Kongarappattu near Tindivanam in Tamil Nadu is one of those places where the past nearly slid down the sluice gates of development. We are here at the crack of dawn in search of a history so dense you could stand a spoon in it. Instead we find a placid blue tank and S Sekar’s hovering reflection. When he plunges his arm into the liquid to unplug a clay-covered hole in the wall, the tank begins to drain, revealing a deep inky sediment—a colour synonymous with avarice in British India. It is the colour of rainclouds and preening waterbirds and black sand beaches. One hundred years after Mahatma Gandhi arrived at Motihari in East Champaran, Bihar, to launch a satyagraha against the East India Company’s exploitative and compulsary indigo growing policy for farmers, indigo processing is a small scale enterprise in India, shorn of its colonialist blues but struggling to keep up with the pennywise synthetic indigo industry. Sekar, 56, works at an extraction plant that started operating in the 1960s after over a decade of dormancy. “The government does not recognise indigo—aviri in Tamil—as a crop now. It is grown across 1,500 acres in this part of Tamil Nadu,” says A Balachander, 29, the young, US-educated scion of Kongarapattu Jayarama Mudaliar Manickam (KJM) Traders, who has expanded the business to include hair dyes from indigo in the last few years. “There is demand for a lot more than I can produce,” he says. “There are a few other smaller units that process indigo, but they cannot deliver high quantities.” His great grandfather started running the plant on lease in the 1960s and bought it in 1975. KJM now produces 15 tonne of indigo in a year from raw material sourced from 50 villages. It has customers in Russia, the US, Japan, Europe and in India where the brooding monochrome of indigo is turned into vivid resist-dyed shibori and batik by a clutch of hipster clothing labels.
The colours of ancient India, laboriously extracted from trees and flowers, and dyed onto natural fabric by the riverside, are vanishingly rare today. Feathery yellows from night jasmine, myrobalan, turmeric, achiote (Bixa orellana) and cutch (Acacia catechu), reds from manjistha or Indian madder (Rubia cordifolia), the aal tree (Morinda tinctoria) and Brazil wood (Caesalpina sappan), a blazing orange from safflower and delphinium. Dyeing centres along the Ganga and the Godavari were once awash in these colours, lengths of cotton and silk, prewashed in mordant solution, dunked endlessly in them and arranged on the sands like oversize puzzle pieces. Synthetic dyes have upended the traditional way of extracting pigment and dyeing, indigo, the colour that started a mutiny, being the lone colour to have witnessed a revival in recent times. A search for the ghosts of colours past must therefore begin with blue.
In Tindivanam taluk, Villupuram district, large British-era indigo tanks lie in ruin in every other village, overtaken by trees. Modaiyur, a village near Kongarappattu, is home to one of these mottled brick structures. Jangal Seetharama Reddiar, whose grandfather owned the facility and supplied processed indigo cakes to the British, says his family made its fortune from indigo. “My father would ride on horseback to supervise harvests and extraction. The price was good since the British really coveted the crop,” he says. “The plant became unviable later because there were no growers or demand for indigo. We stopped production in the late 1960s,” Reddiar says. KJM’s business, however, has stood the test of time thanks to three generations who kept the tradition alive through the worst years. “Indigo was not our primary source of income; we grew paddy too, and had rice mills and other businesses. The plant was my grandfather’s labour of love, and my father did his best to keep it going,” says 61-year-old M Anbalagan, Balachander’s father. “My grandmother called indigo the blue goddess— Neelavati amma—and prayed to her before the plant opened in the morning. Slowly, as we built up the business, we also acquired more land to grow indigo. Today, we have over 100 acres under indigo.”
In these parts, blue is the colour of choice for painting tractors and the horns of bullocks, in what is perhaps a cultural upshot of indigo cultivation over decades. Unlike in Bengal, the farmers of Tamil Nadu did not grow indigo on a large scale even under British rule. Family-run farms cultivated patches of indigo and after Independence, they kept some of the crop for nitrogen-fixing and to ward off stray animals, say locals. “We never really stopped growing it,” says Aivar Udayar, whose shock of short white hair frames a smirking face. “Animals don’t approach a farm planted with indigo. If they should ingest it, they would retch up blood. And it makes a good rotational crop.” Udayar, who is over 70, retired from KJM after a lifetime of service and his son, A Murugan, is now the manager. Murugan is busy coordinating the season’s last harvest—an unruly patch by the highway overrun with thorny weeds and mudakathan keerai (Chinese lantern, an edible). “Clearly, they didn’t bother much. Indigo doesn’t need much water, some rain is enough,” says Balachander, zigzaging through brambles and murmuring approvingly at the deep green-tinged indigo plants. “You can grow five crops a year with intensive manuring, or two-to- three if you took it easy. We pay between Rs 2,500 and Rs 6,000 per 1.5 tonne of raw indigo, depending on the demand and the season.” An acre of indigo can yield 300-500 kg per crop. It takes 1,500 kg, stems and all, of Indigofera to fill up the 5,000-litre fermentation tank at the plant, and it just about fits in a small truck. At the processing unit, it is reduced to about 20 kg of indigo cake, which now sells for Rs 1,350 a kg.
An indigo extraction facility is like a primitive art studio, splotched and streaked and stinking of the soured love of fermented leaf. Wet, blue-stained dhotis and bare feet hard as hooves are the norm. Contrary bursts of green and blue tinge the open sedimentation vat—there are four of them, but only one is operational today—where the extract is aerated using a machine and the scum slung out with a cloth. The oxidised slurry, having turned a deep blue, is then filtered and boiled vigorously, before being poured into a wood press to yield a gelatinous cake that begs to be touched. Your finger stains purple- blue and you find yourself leaving telltale evidence of your visit. In a long green building adjoining the slurry tanks, C Pachaiappa, 45, works expertly with a strip of metal to chop up the 6-8 kg cake into smaller cubes, which are then shade-dried and sun-dried for three days each on the terrace of the KJM family home nearby. “The colour never harms the skin, no matter how much contact you have with it,” says Pachaiappa, his hands steeped in blue. “This is why indigo is so precious. Farmers will happily grow it if they get a good price, and sustained demand.”
Indigo exports from India began in earnest with the involvement of the East India Company in the 17th century, and surged to a high of 9,366 tonnes, valued at £3,566,700, during 1895-96. A big drain on the coffers, it led Britain to pursue intensive research into developing a coal-tar based synthetic indigo dye, and this new discovery, introduced ahead of the First World War, immediately meant that much of the land under indigo in India could now be freed up. The area under cultivation shrank from 1.4 million acres in the 1880s to 214,000 acres in 1912. Indigo, however, is not Britain’s gift to India. Indigo extracts found in the tombs of Egyptian kings have led experts to believe that India exported indigo to the West as early as 4000 BCE. ‘A hoard of block-printed and resist-dyed fabrics, mainly of Gujarat origin, found in tombs of Fostat, Egypt, are a good proof of large-scale Indian exports of cotton textiles to Egypt from the early medieval times until the nineteenth century,’ writes Padmini Tolat Balaram, professor of design at Visva- Bharati University, West Bengal, in an essay on Indian indigo. Research suggests that by the mid-16th century, with the Persian influence, the Indian palette expanded to a colour wheel that included lead white, carbon black, lapis lazuli, azurite, malachite, minium, litharge, madder lake, vermillion, indigo, Indian yellow, terre verde and the ochres. Indian yellow is an obsolete art colour that was made from the urine of cows fed on mango leaves, in the village of Monghyr in Bihar where it is long forgotten. Madder lake, a deep rose-red derived from the roots of Rubia tinctoria, essentially replaced cochineal insect colour—English attempts to introduce the insects in India largely failed—in fabric dyeing.
“A lot of traditional knowledge is lost. Many who claim to be using natural dyes and methods are cheating the market,” says Jesus Ciriza Larraona, 58, a Spaniard who founded The Colours of Nature, a natural dyeing and clothing store in Auroville near Pondicherry, in 1993. Deep inside the wooded haven of Auroville, in a campus strewn with ivory and indigo fabrics, his company has been working for two-and- a-half decades to dye garments in the darkest of blues using traditional practices perfected over the years. “I get a bit annoyed when I read in the papers of supposedly traditional dyeing at commercial centres like Jaipur,” he says. Indian dyers have had a wayward relationship with the truth, and Larraona, understandably, is wary of journalists. Over two visits, he warms up to disclose such precious secrets as a canary yellow he extracts from jackfruit wood, and how he cooks the seed of Cassia tora to mix with indigo and PH balancers to prime dyeing vats for fermentation every day. “We cook the ‘food’ twice a day,” says Saritha Gajendran, one among the 35 helpers at the unit, stirring a cauldron that smells slightly funky. The dyeing shed, with baths for colours and lime, large boilers, and crisscrossing clotheslines, is a place of zealous activity, with men and women in uniforms—a different colour for each day of the working week—wash, dip, wring, and dry fabric both before and after dyeing. Saritha brings over jars of the syrupy concoction to the indigo dye house, a shoe- free zone where over 30 underground vats, covered with wicker baskets as though in some exotic version of whack-a-mole, await replenishment.
Larraona is among the last custodians of the age-old practice of cold vat dyeing—a process where the water is never changed, instead undergoing a refresh every day with ‘food’ for the microbes that enable fermentation. “It is the most eco-friendly way of dyeing. But it takes a lot of effort and money,” he says. “You need a good nose to tell if your vat has the right PH.” A trusted lieutenant maintains the pots, coming in even on holidays. When he first came to India, Larraona doggedly ploughed through fat 19th-century volumes published by state revenue and agricultural departments to learn ancient and vanishing processes of dyeing. “That is how I picked up English,” he says. At his house, a happy mess of toys, dogs and books, I flip through pages heavily highlighted in neon, detailing entire dyeing processes practised at the time in Sambalpur, Mysore and Seoni, among other centres.
The Colors of Nature sells 400 kg of dyed fabric in a month—a very small yield, says Larraona. “Natural dyes take time, and you need ingredients in large quantities. Even Indigo, the one natural colour that does not need a mordant, takes three days to make and another to dye. Madder and other reds need three days just for mordanting with alum,” he says. Plans are afoot to expand capacity by 62 vats next year.
In the narrow lanes of Srikalahasti, a temple town 40 km from Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, homes painted a gaudy pink or an aqua blue sport equally colourful kolams out front. The month of margazhi is one of celebration with music, dance and art, and Srikalahasti’s artists’ colony, one of only two surviving Kalamkari collectives in India besides Machilipatnam, is sparing no effort to attract visiting pilgrims. Women stand guard at their white metal gates, waiting to flag down cabs passing through and to drag in anyone with a semblance of interest in Kalamkari art. “Kalamkari? Kalamkari?” they query, like touts at a race track. Should you heed the thunderous welcome and climb up a slender flight of stairs to a dingy studio, you will likely be struck with lightning: so-called Kalamkari art where the real and the synthetic are brought together in an overly polite truce: a yellow from kadukkai (Terminalia chebula) dissolving into the teal blue of an aniline dye; an artificial pink next to earthy madder. Nearly all the 300- odd artists in Srikalakasti have succumbed to temptations of cheap synthetic dyes and a vast colour palette. “Natural colours are hard work, and at least five times as expensive. We cannot make a living painting tapestries as our fathers used to. We have to paint on new media like dupattas and saris, which cannot be processed the way we once processed thick cloth,” says Tilak Reddy Adanapattu, 30, candidly summing up the state of the art today. In his studio- cum-residence, women in their early 20s colour inside the lines of a chintz-inspired design, dabbing now and then. “I can sell this dupatta for Rs 1,300 and the synthetic colour costs me next to nothing,” he says. “Natural colours would have cost Rs 300 for a work of the same size. But they never fade whereas synthetic dyes do.” He chose a turnover of Rs 2 lakh every month over following in the footsteps of his father, the late Munikrishna Reddy, an accomplished artist who made larger-than-life tapestries using natural reds, yellows and olives.
Patalam Ramachandraiah, 52, is an exception to the impressionable tribe of Kalamkari artists. Most of his work, of a high artistic standard, uses dyes that are entirely naturally derived, with the exception of some orders where clients insist on ‘bright’ colours. Not that Ramachandraiah and his protege Inakollu Geetha, 42, are complaining. For this is the time of the year when there is enough water in the Swarnamukhi river, even if they must trek a few km upstream. “Kalamkari colours need flowing water,” Ramachandraiah says. “We first wash the cloth to remove the starch and dry it. Meanwhile we soak tender kadukkai overnight, manually grind it to a paste, then add buffalo milk to make a solution. When we wash white cloth in this solution, it turns sepia,” he says. The high casein content in milk helps colours adhere better, solving for me the riddle of why Kalamkari tapestry always seems to be infused with a suffocatingly milky odour.
USING FIRED tamarind branches to sketch, the artist draws neat outlines over it with a watery solution of fermented jaggery, palm jaggery and rusted iron—and this turns black only upon contact with the kadukkai-treated cloth. Yellows and reds are obtained by mixing alum with herbs including madder, pomegranate rind, catechu and kadukkai blossom. The outlined cloth is then boiled in a solution of the colour selected for the base, and dried—traditionally, on coarse river sand—before other colours are filled in. The painted cloth is dipped in milk and dried. Indigo, if used, is filled in at the very end. The method is as elaborate as some Kalamkari designs, winding like tendrils through the prism of nature’s alchemy.
Ramachandraiah’s humble under- construction home is crowded with sacks of sweet-smelling raw material. Big earthern pots cast hunched shadows like half- forgotten pets in need of a wash. Ramachandraiah and nine others of his generation, who apprenticed under a senior artist, are the torchbearers of the Kalamkari tradition. Supplies for their art are fast fading, stocked only by Ayurvedic and Siddha medicine stores like Bharath Trading Co on Chennai’s Govindappa Naick Street. “Indigo at Rs 1,350 a kilo and Iranian madder at Rs 850 are the most expensive ingredients for dyeing and painting,” says Hemant Rao of Bharat Trading, from whom a vaguely alarmist Ramachandraiah sources materials in bulk once a year. Thirty per cent of Rao’s inventory is intended for artists and dyers. The most popular among them are Indian madder, at Rs 200 a kilo, and a resinous substance from the Chhota Nagpur plateau that is perhaps one of India’s oldest sources of the colour red.
As far as primary colours were concerned, India was all sorted. For mineral blue, lapis lazuli was imported from central Asia and Persia at dizzyingly high prices. “Only the central deity was painted blue. The other colours came from inexpensive sources—ochre, hematite and rust,” says MV Bhaskar, an art conservationist who has worked on documenting and replicating early narrative murals found in Tamil temples. The mural being an outmoded art form, there are few practitioners of the art of mineral painting. Sadanandan PK, a Kerala muralist for 30 years, is one of them. At the Kochi Biennale last year, he created an overwhelmingly large mural on a wood panel with natural colours alone. “Laterite—both red and yellow—yields the base colours for Kerala murals. We get the brighter highlights from indigo, lamp-black, ocean shells, besides mercury, arsenic and lead,” says Sadanandan, who experiments with contemporary forms within the framework of the classical art.
Perhaps the most versatile reds of all come from lac, an indigenous source of colour for centuries hailed in the Atharva Veda as being ‘dazzling as gold or the rising sun’. It can be whatever you want it to be: the rosewood-red of Kanchipuram wedding saris now largely chemical-dyed, the colour of cheap wine on tie-died garments, a glazy purple perfect for plum jam, the scarlet seal on India Post parcels. A resinous pigment obtained from the female lac insect (Kerria lacca) harvested from host trees—kusum (Schleichera oleosa), dhak (Butea monosperma) and ber (Ziziphus mauritiana)—lac is processed into a waxy powder or flakes, known as shellac, widely used in medicines, furniture polish, electrical insulation, and more. Cleaning the insect-ridden bark of the tree—called sticklac—involves large amounts of water. The byproduct is an aqueous dye extract that can be processed into a striking purple-red dye. Upon adding a mordant, lac dye become a permanent colour on silk, wool and cotton, and therefore, was a prize Indian export in the 18th and the 19th centuries. With cheap aniline dyes flooding the market in the 20th century, production of lac dye dwindled to naught. Even shellac, of which 30,000 tonnes were exported annually in the 1950s, languished with the arrival of new synthetic materials. Before the Second World War, for instance, all flat disc records were made of shellac, but in a few years, vinyl took over as the preferred material for LP records, leaving lac in the lurch.
A half-hour drive from Ranchi towards Khunti in Jharkhand, which along with Chhattisgarh produces much of India’s shellac, takes you to the Karkari river, also known as Tajna. In the mid-1980s, Roshanlal Sharma was quite taken with a tract of land by a bend in the river and acquired it for a few thousand rupees. There was nothing but forest for miles, but he and his wife, both from Punjab, would make a home here and start a business that today has a yearly turnover of Rs 25- 30 crore. With two decades of experience in the lac industry behind him, he took a loan from the government and started a factory. “Each passing year, I would look at the bright purple water and think, what a waste. I wanted to extract dye once the business matured, even if there was no demand for it,” says Sharma, spry at 82, thanks to hours of morning yoga. The dye business was kicked off only seven years ago, after obtaining yet another loan to buy machinery for extraction. “We make only two kg of dye a day, using 10-15 per cent of the coloured water from washing lac. It is priced at Rs 2,000 a kg plus 18 per cent GST and yet, there are eager buyers, mostly from the Western nations. But the situation was very different some years ago,” he says, pointing to 1.5 kg packs of the final product on his office shelves. Tajna Shellac Pvt Ltd sold lac dye worth Rs 16 lakh last year, and expects to close this financial year with Rs 23 lakh in sales. “We are the only commerical producers of lac dye in India,” Sharma says. Khunti, the lac heartland of Jharkhand, is dotted with shellac processing units, many of them defunct, having perished in the wake of low demand and mismanagement over 20 years ago. None of them made lac dye. Sharma’s factory processes 1,000 tonne of raw material in a year to obtain half the quantity of pure shellac. “Although there are references to lac dye in ancient literature, we lacked the scientific knowledge to extract it commercially,” Sharma says.
The cleaning shed at Tajna Shellac is a chiaroscuro of dust clouds lit by pools of sunlight. Lac is harvested up to four times a year by tribes across Jharkhand, the winter harvest starting in December. The raw product is brought to local weekly markets and procured by middle men on behalf of lac factories. Arriving in sacks of 40-45 kg each, it is dumped at the cleaning shed to be sorted, threshed, and washed thoroughly. Lugging basketfuls of lac encrustrations, Sangita Devi and Susila Devi, 20-somethings from Birhu village, have smiling eyes above the swathes of cloth wrapped around their faces. They break open a piece of unwashed lac to display the red ooze inside, quickly scanning my face for a reaction. “It is the blood of the insect, you see,” says Susila, feigning shock. There is an escalation of laughter in the background as the workers titter at my ignorance. A thorough wash in a spinner turns the dirty grey sticks into reddish gravel, they tell me. This is then dried in the incinerating sun by these women, who swiftly rake it across vast terraces.
TWO FULL-TIME workers—Gorachand Mahto, 32, and Gudia Devi, 30—manage the dyeing unit at Tajna. (The lac factory, in comparison, employs 200.) The investment in machinery, though, has been considerable. The concentration of dye in the water after wash is very low—0.2-0.5 per cent—and to extract this over the course of 10-12 days, the water is first processed through a hydro separator to remove sediments. Then an acid, usually hydrogen chloride, is added in small quantities, and the solution pumped into filtration tanks. Once filtered, lime salt is added to neutralise the acid, and the mixture pressed through a heavy cloth-lined filter to yield cakes of lac, which are then shade-dried in a room with fans whirling round the clock.
Lac is a way of life for Jharkhand, but prices are highly volatile, dictated by exports from Kolkata. “Two years ago, the price shot up to Rs 900 a kg, and dipped to Rs 80 last year,” says Kanhaiya Gupta, 32, a middleman who has been in the business for 10 years. There are two weekly markets in the vicinity today—in Khunti and in Murhu, 14 km away. They are raucous, discursive fairs where everything from mahua liquor to clothes, oil and vegetables is on sale. Hordes of tribes from villages within a 20-km radius arrive in tempos that cost Rs 20 a ride. Many are here to trade their lac, which they collect from the forests. After the harvest, they will introduce fresh brood lac on to tender branches of suitable trees, where, in a week or two, the larvae will settle down. “Today’s price is Rs 210, which is not very high,” says Asa Bodra, 32, who has brought 12 kg of quality kusum lac in a cloth bag from Bindadiri, a village 16 km from Murhu. She speaks shyly in Mundari, and the shopkeeper, Lakshmi Gupta, translates for me. “I only have 5-6 kg left for the season,” Bodra says, before leaving in a huff to do some shopping for Christmas—‘Bada Parab’—before the tempos drive back.
A large crowd of women has gathered under a blue tarpaulin outside the Aadhaar registration centre at Murhu market. They have sold off their lac and are making a picnic of it amidst the anarchy of colour, smell and sound. One offers me a sweet sesame stick. “What is lac dye? We have heard of lac bangles but these things are for the rich,” says Lukhi Purthu, 38. “Do you like these beautiful saris we wear?” she asks, modelling her magenta- pink polyester sari for me. “It cost less than Rs 100,” she says with pride. It is not easy these days to court Nature, empress of the kingdom of colour, and charm her into revealing her secrets. For the rest of us, there will always be aniline dyes.