There are many ways to tell the Yellappa story. We can talk about the tall, spritely and friendly Yellappa, whose nails were permanently stained a gentle indigo. We could describe Uravakonda, the village in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, which was made instantly recognisable in many circles because of him. Or we could talk about the natural dye called indigo with which Yellappa created magic on cotton yarn in the shadow of the mountain ( konda in Telugu) around which Uravakonda lies.
Yellappa was the man who almost single-handedly resuscitated a practice that was once an integral part of the nation’s identity but was dying a rapid death. A repository of knowledge and traditions, a craftsperson par excellence, the man died a year ago, but left behind his legacy.
If cotton was the fibre that embodied the identity of pre-colonial India, natural indigo was the colour of a million colonial dreams. “It ought to be remembered,” Nicolas Manucci, the Italian traveller, wrote in his 17th century memoir, “that the whole of the merchandise which is exported from the Moghul kingdom comes from four kinds of plants… (two of the important ones being) the shrub that produces the cotton from which a large quantity of cloth, coarse and fine, is made… The second is the plant which produces indigo...”
England alone imported 40,000 tonnes of indigo from India in 1895, a big drain on the Western nation’s resources, which led to a sustained effort to find a chemical substitute.
This laid the foundation for the great chemical conglomerates of the 20th century: BASF and Hoechst in Germany, CIBA in Switzerland, and Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) in Great Britain. By 1897, BASF alone had invested 18 million gold marks in the development of chemical indigo and by 1900 this had resulted in 152 German patents. The success it achieved directly impacted India. The export of natural indigo from India fell drastically to 8,000 tonnes in 1901 and to only a 1,000 tonnes in 1914. By the middle of the 20th century, the indigo industry had been practically wiped out in the country of its origin, taking with it the livelihoods of thousands who depended on it, both for cultivation and for the craft of dyeing.
It was not just the export of raw indigo that was important. India had multiple traditions to colour cotton, and Yellappa carried the practice and memory of one such priceless knowledge system — the cold vat dyeing process — that used earthen pots, sheep dung, seeds of the Cassia tora plant, lime, indigo dye and water to create an indigo so deep and rich that it became the colour of royalty around the world.
Yellappa was the last of indigo’s original magicians, but fortunately he was not the ‘last’. Working with the Hyderabad-based Dastkar Andhra, he effectively taught the intricacies of the vats and the many moods of indigo to a new generation. As a consequence, vats of fermenting indigo continue to colour cotton yarn in units set up with his guidance at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, in the Rural Technology Park in Hyderabad’s National Institute of Rural Development, in an independent weaver’s collective in Chennur in Telangana’s Adilabad district, and at the Charaka weaver’s co-operative in Heggodu in the Shimoga district of Karnataka.
Yellappa, who started working with indigo when he was just 15, was 75 when he passed away after six decades of coaxing the vats to yield the deepest blues. Thankfully, his work did not go unheralded. His last public felicitation happened only a few months before he passed away, in June 2014, in Hyderabad at an event organised by Dastkar Andhra, the organisation he worked with for over 25 years.
When asked to talk about his memories of Indigo, Yellappa would often reminisce about his youth when indigo cakes were sold on the streets. About when the nine yard indigo saree was sold in the weekly fairs at Guntakal, Anantapur and Bellary, the important towns around Uravakonda. Then, there were at least 20 indigo units in Uravakonda alone.
Today, all that is gone but more, his family too has decided not to continue with the craft. The house and land where he had his vats have been sold off to meet outstanding debts. The last vat toppled with Yellappa and there may be no more indigo colours in Uravakonda.
But Yellappa’s legacy is immensely rich. And that is why his memory is so priceless — for what he gave us when he lived and for what he has left behind to be carried forward.