The last trustee of indigo

With the death of Yellappa, the last of a family of great indigo dyers in Andhra Pradesh, a way of life has faded away

November 25, 2014 01:31 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:36 pm IST

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

I often work as a historian of science, an ethnographer of social battles, seeking to capture the story of an age. I sometimes play storyteller, but often I am a mere munshi , a recorder of movements, who keeps their archives, their memories, alive. The other day, a friend of mine told me in the middle of a lecture on weaving, “Yellappa died.” The announcement was so matter-of-fact that it took my breath away. In the world of indigo dyes, Yellappa was a master craftsman, the last of the great dyers. It was as if a Picasso or Mozart had died. A genius dies in India and the news is met with silence. For me, as an anthropologist who is perpetually writing on the history of loss and erasure, it was as if Ishi, the last Indian of the Yahi tribe, had died. When Ishi died, a language died, a way of life died, and a set of dreams faded away. Today, ways of life are perpetually dying and there seems no way of remembering, recovering or redeeming them. I realise how the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber might have felt as he wrote Ishi’s story. There is no Yellappa story, just a few fragments of recollection, but I thought I would put them down. There are a few who knew him and this is what they told me. I am not the storyteller; just a cassette tape mourning the loss of a genius.

The death of a natural dye

Yellappa was the last of a family of great indigo dyers in Andhra Pradesh. Indigo was a legendary colour, a natural dye, which died when the organic chemists synthesised an artificial dye. Yet, the natural colour was not the same as the synthesised colour. It was like saying that the glass windows of Chartres Cathedral are the same after we recreated the stain glass windows. When natural indigo died, a way of life began fading away. In India, however, nothing dies fully. People keep it alive in little silent pockets which struggle invisibly.

In recent times, the story of Yellappa started up as a rumour, a fragment of a National Institute of Design (NID) thesis by Padmini Balaram. The dyer had invited Yellappa to come to NID and set up a vat, paying him a professor’s salary. Yet Yellappa was unhappy. He felt no one really wanted to learn and that his colours were being insulted. He left NID and worked as a paid labourer in a chemical dye house. Yellappa was secretive about his skill and suspicious of outsiders. He was a scrupulous trustee, contemptuous of dabblers. He cropped up again literally when Uzramma, head of Dastakar Andhra, persuaded Guruppa Chetty, a kalamkari artisan, to bring him back. Uzramma could be persuasive in a way NID could never be. She knew that her group of weavers were different. Uzramma realised that for indigo to be authentic, one had to have the right soul, the right soil, the right climate, but also the right people to listen, hear, and tune in. As Yellappa complained, “his indigo, was a delicate child: treat her harshly and she withdraws and swoons.” A colour has to be enticed to be redeemed.

Colour, any colour, contains the hues of dedication and sacrifice. Craft in that sense is a ritual of understanding. Yellappa was the last trustee of indigo as an indigenous form of knowledge.

Uzramma enticed Yellappa to teach the weavers of Chinnur. Chinnur was more to Yellappa’s liking. It was a community of weavers, friends, and collaboration was not in an antiseptic professional institution. The weavers invited him to set up his vats, his large pots, in the village.

But things were not easy. Nothing suited Yellappa in the beginning. He grumbled about food, the water, the charpoy that wouldn’t fit him. Yet the villagers played to his every whim. Yellappa’s very intransigence was a part of the initiation rituals of indigo. Redeeming a colour was redeeming its rituals of memory, its practices, its craft and toil.

There were technical problems as the vats were set up. The local potters had a different style. They made smaller pots and they refused to make the large vats Yellappa needed. Finally an old potter agreed to make them. As the vats were built, old memories came alive, old routines thawed and hummed. Old fragments, discarded rituals, throbbed to life.

Building a vat is an art. To make a vat ‘flower’ was to create a cycle of fermentation. Each vat has a ruthless time cycle of its own. The vats arranged in Chinnur became a symphony of orchestrated time, where half of them were always at the right stage of dyeing. Yellappa felt at home. He had security, a salary of Rs. 3,000. He invited his younger son to come and join him.

Teaching a craft such as dyeing was like recreating a miniature civilisation. The body was the site of memory. One carried knowledge in one’s fingertips. As Shakti, a NID designer from a craftsman’s family, explained, “The hand knows. If you want to gauge temperature, the hand will tell you.” Shakti once asked Yellappa, “How do you measure pH value” and he replied, “I smell it.” Smell is an index of pH.

Salim, one of the later dyers, explained that the colour indigo is not extracted; it has to be coaxed. You cannot force a vat to reveal its secrets. It whispers them to you when it is ready. Uzramma explained that Yellappa is a trustee of indigo. One is grateful one met him, and today one has a community of natural indigo dyers in Andhra Pradesh. She remarks sadly that the old red, the madder red, is lost forever. The art historian and geologist Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote one of his classic papers on synthetic red, contending that a standardised red is an inadequate red, and red comes alive in each village; each craft community adds its own quality of redness to it. The colour indigo would be lost without Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, without Uzramma, Yellapa, Jagada and Salim.

Honouring the Yellappas

Colour and indigenous dyes owe a moment of tribute and reverence to Chandramouli. Uzramma explained that if natural dyes had a master craftsman, a storyteller, it was Chandramouli. He was not a usual scientist but a chemist who spent his life among craftsmen. An India would honour a C.N.R. Rao, a Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, but that same India needs to honour a Yellappa, a Chandramouli. Chandramouli was a walking folklore of indigenous recipes. He was a government chemist who, after retirement, repaid the gift of indigenous knowledge. He and Uzramma became a duo who revived indigenous colour. He recreated natural dyeing, keeping it alive while “teaching Kalamkari artists and taxi drivers with equal enthusiasm.”

The sadness is that Chandramouli died in 1997, just as Uzramma was going all out to trace Yellappa. There is a poignancy to this search as an older generation fades away silently. I admit that a newspaper article is a tokenistic act of redeeming memory. India needs to honour the Yellappas and all its great custodians — its trustees of colours.

(Shiv Visvanathanis a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)

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