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The indigo chronicle

LALITHAA KRISHNAN
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TECHNIQUE Gasali Onireke Adeyemo’s enviable collection is a symphony in blue and white. LALITHAA KRISHNAN

Gasali Onireke Adeyemo.
Gasali Onireke Adeyemo.

“Indigo is very powerful,” muses Gasali Onireke Adeyemo. “We, in my tribe, revere indigo as it symbolises love. When we love someone, we gift him/her an indigo-dyed cloth.”

The renowned indigo artist, whose name has become synonymous with the Adire cloth of the Yoruba tribe (Nigeria) among craft lovers worldwide, solemnly narrates the story of indigo. “Many centuries ago, Iyamopo, a wise woman who belonged to my tribe, found the indigo plant growing in the wild. She studied its nature, discovered its manifold uses and healing properties, and taught the rest of the tribe how to benefit from it. Even today, we offer a silent prayer to invoke her blessings before we begin the dye-extracting process. And believe me, this prayer ensures that everything goes well perfectly in obtaining the best quality dye.”

Demanding process

Preparation of indigo dye is a slow process that demands care and frequent overseeing. The leaves of the indigo plant are gathered, pounded in a wooden mortar and made into balls. These are steeped in water mixed with wood ash within a clay pot and fermented for two days. Through a hole at the bottom, the dye slips into another pot below, where it is allowed to sit for five days and checked daily. If bubbles form, it is a good sign.

“It should be handled with clean hands and always be kept covered. Otherwise, the dye will become flat. There are six types of dye baths. Water from an old pot can also be added to obtain dyes of varied strengths. Hot, humid weather like Chennai’s provides ideal conditions,” says the artist.

Pure cotton yarn is dyed in indigo thus obtained and woven into cloth. Running fabric, quilts and stoles as well as garments – shirts, dresses and skirts find a place in Gasali’s collection.

The art of Adire is similar to painting. The patterns are finely etched, symmetrical and conform to a traditional vocabulary. The designs are hand painted using stencils, chicken feathers, slender broom straws and a small knife dipped in cassava paste to create strokes of differing thickness and texture. Each composition transmits a message, communicating the happenings in the community and the events of a generation in a style that emphasises the link between life forms and the environment.

Since indigo is the only colour used, each piece is a symphony in blue and white. The art is passed down from one generation to the next, with Gasali inheriting his artistic legacy from his mother. The craftsman feels that his identity is best expressed through Adire. “The cloth you wear is your second skin. So, Adire is as much part of me as my skin. My work is the medium through which I campaign for the environment”.

Gasali’s other specialty, Batik, offers infinite scope for innovation and improvisation. The figures, flora, fauna and motifs are drawn free hand and the areas that are to resist dye are blocked with cassava (tapioca) paste. “In Batik, wax is customarily used to block the dye-resist sections, but wax is difficult to remove. Cassava paste, unlike wax, washes off easily in water. Also, it only coats the front surface on which it is applied, not the back of the cloth.”

“The indigo plant is also used for cleansing and medicinal purposes,” explains Gasali. “A decoction of indigo stem is sun-dried, burnt to ash and mixed with cocoa ash to make black soap, which cleanses skin and relieves dryness. As medicine, indigo relieves stomach complaints.”

Humble beginnings

Making a humble but determined beginning with sketching at weddings and festivals in his community, Gasali spent six years at the Nike Centre for Arts and Culture at Osogbo, Nigeria, from 1990-96, two years as a student and four as a teacher. Over this period, he gained expertise in batik painting on fabric and rice paper, indigo dyeing, quilt making, embroidery and appliqué. His first big break came in 1995, with an opportunity to exhibit his work in Bayreuth, Germany. Numerous workshops and exhibitions in the U.S, New Mexico, Canada, France and most recently, India, followed. Gasali currently resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and sends a large part of his earnings to his native village to meet the education expenses of his nieces and nephews. Gasali Adeyemo was among the master craftsmen featured as ‘Living Legends’ in Kaivalam, the World Crafts Council summit in Chennai.

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