Dyeing to be natural
India has a historic relationship with indigo. How far have today’s designers succeeded in ensuring the survival of the distinctive dye?
This is the centenary year of the Champaran Satyagraha, when Mahatma Gandhi highlighted the woeful plight of Indian farmers who had been forced to cultivate indigo by the British. It also happens to be a time when synthetic rather than natural indigo is in vogue.
Indigo is suddenly on the lips of everyone from fledgling fashion students to fashionistas. With the authorities giving indigo a push, it has become fashionable for even those designers who are heavily influenced by the haute couture of London, Paris and New York to use the distinctive blue dye in their creations.
The Ministry of Textiles is promoting indigo across the country. A grand celebration marking the historic Champaran movement was held recently in Patna, Bihar recently in which the National Insititute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) was involved.
“German companies are now developing special dyes to replace indigo but the new generation needs to know that it was Champaran where it was created locally and the movement was given a thrust by Mahatma Gandhi,” says Sunil Sethi, president, Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI). “Delhi also has a special connection with indigo as Nila Gumbad in Nizamuddin has dazzling blue tiles on its dome.”
Mechanised textile production has led to a big boom in clothing and accessories by big international brands. But rather than succumb to the competition, Indian designers are still creating the indigenous dye in the traditional way, and generating jobs for village-based artisans.
Outfit created by Kavita Bhartia | Photo Credit: Special arrangement
As designer Payal Jain says, “Since the Indus Valley civilization, India has been the forerunner in dyeing techniques. In those days, natural colours were extracted from plants, vegetables, roots and flowers. Indigofera tinctoria, a plant from bean family, is extremely difficult to procure and expensive. Only a handful of families, mostly in Gujarat and West Bengal, know the technique of creating indigo dye from this plant.”
Extracting natural indigo is a lengthy process and the dye is used for block printing, resist printing, dip dyeing and yarn dyeing. “This ancient technique is on the verge of extinction. So as designers it is important for us to continue patronising the native industry,” adds Jain.
Indigo has a special place in Indian textile history. In West Bengal, the tyranny of European planters led to the ‘Blue Mutiny’ between 1859 and 1862. It wiped out indigo plantations. In 1908, roughly 30,000 acres of land was engaged in cultivating indigo but, today there are only a handful of families in India who do indigo farming.
Has commercialisation diminished the importance of issues concerning crafts and artisans in India today?
Jain says, “I feel the Indian handloom and textile industry have suffered a lot since Independence. However, in the past few years, there have been a series of conscious and collective efforts by designers, media, NGOs, corporates, political leaders to revive this sector.”
Spotlight on technique
Inspired by a trip to Kolkatta, Payal Jain has a ‘blue line’ that uses tie-and-dye, Japanese Shibori, selective dipping into indigo to colour only parts of the garment (using a resist to protect the other parts) and complete dyeing. The fabric is then embellished with hand embroidery, pin-tucking and pleating.
Jain’s biggest problem was in making the indigo colour-fast. “When you buy a couture creation, you don’t expect the colour to bleed. We worked with textile designers in Kolkata to explore variations of designing a collection which would address this issue. For this reason, historically in India, indigo was usually the last colour to be applied to prevent unwanted colour from permeating into rest of the fabric,” says the designer.
For couturier Anita Dongre, indigo is one of the strongest colours in her design story. “It is natural, eco-friendly and locally produced, making this expression intrinsic to what I do and believe in. Indigo is easier and cleaner and can be partnered with other naturally dyed fabrics. I love how it works with hand-embroidered pieces and intricately woven fabrics,” says Dongre.
Anita Dongre | Photo Credit: AFP
The designer gets her artisans to retain most of the old indigo dyeing techniques unchanged. “Rather than looking at new ways to explore this technique from a design perspective, we encourage practising this craft as our artisans’ forefathers did. Hand-woven fabric from Bhagalpur is sent to Bagru, a region known for its Dabbu printing. In this method, artisans carve intricate patterns on wood with their chisels, drills and hammers. After preparation of a mud paste and tracing resist pattern, these carved wooden blocks are then used to stamp natural indigo dyes onto fabric to give birth to beautiful block printed stories,” says Dongre.
For Dongre, the artisans are the real heroes. “We work with artisans who have done this for generations. This is a way of life for them that doesn’t change irrespective of the change around them. Indigo does not damage fabrics and yarns. But you must be experienced enough to ensure the right hue without affecting the strength of the yarn,” she says.
Designer Kavita Bhartia, who likes to wear a lot of indigo, says this colour has always been a significant part of her collection. “I have experimented with indigo using various indigenous techniques. Though it is slightly tricky to follow the traditional method because indigo bleeds, we have utilised it in prints and tie-and-dye. We have experimented using brocade in indigo and gold. The label is also coming up with a collection next season on this theme.”
Synthetic indigo is used extensively, especially for dyeing denim.
“Few people use natural indigo to dye denim,” says designer Pallavi Mohan. “Denim is made in huge quantities in India, Pakistan and Italy where a lot of indigo dyes are not natural. However any chemical, used ethically and judiciously, is better for the environment.”