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Indigo: The politics and the timeless appeal of ‘blue gold’

An ongoing show investigates the history and significance of the natural indigo dye in fashion and design

Textile designer Shelly Jyoti with a work on display at Chicago’s South Asia Institute
Textile designer Shelly Jyoti with a work on display at Chicago’s South Asia Institute

Over the past two decades, textile designer Shelly Jyoti has been studying the natural indigo dye, one of the world’s most ancient dyes, with roots dating back to the second millennium BC, exploring its history and relevance in the present day. She’s given shape to her understanding in the form of textiles and installations, among others—all reflecting themes like forced labour and sustainable practices.

About 40 of the works, created between 2009-23, are currently on display at Chicago’s South Asia Institute, as part of her show, The Blue Gold, A Captivating Exploration Of Indigo Dyeing Traditions And Colonial Trade. The show is travelling to India early next year.

The show delves into how, in ancient times, indigo was cultivated in India, Egypt, Peru and East Asia, for use in textiles and paint, but the dye in the subcontinent was considered more superior and longer lasting. In fact, the Greek name for indigo, derived from the Indigofera tinctoria plant, translates to “Indian dye”, highlighting its historical association with India. So high was the dye’s quality that in the 18th century, it became a sought-after commodity by the Europeans.

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Intended to focus on the history of the dye, the exhibition starts with an installation, Homage To The Farmers Of Champaran, which assembles hundreds of indigo textile discs printed on Khadi. It depicts how during the colonial period, the British strong-armed the farmers to grow indigo instead of food crops and then bought the dye at low cost, leading to impoverishment and soil degradation.

A few metres away is a piece of textile art, depicting the charkha, marking the year 1917, when Mahatma Gandhi visited Champaran (indigo farmers were spread across states like Bihar and Bengal) to meet and document the issues of the indigo farmers, a meeting that led to his first non-violent Satyagraha movement.

In between, there’s also textile art commemorating the indigo revolt of 1859, when farmers refused to grow indigo for the British. It became one of Indian history’s most remarkable peasant movements. “The English East India Company began large-scale cultivation of indigo in Bengal and Bihar by the mid-18th century to meet European demand. While this brought wealth to English traders and Indian businesses, it had detrimental effects on the farmers,” says Gurugram, Haryana, based Jyoti. “Indigo cultivation became a focal point of anti-colonial resistance in India.”

In other pieces, featuring printed and dyed ajrakh (Jyoti worked with 10th-generation ajrakh craftsmen in Bhuj, Gujarat), embellished with zardozi and mirrorwork, she shows 18th century ships and nautical routes to map the journey of indigo.

There is also a contemporary touch. Her kaftans and gender-neutral indigo jackets, made using traditional woodblock motifs and indigo dye, emphasise the timelessness of India’s diverse textile arts traditions and explain why designers, from Issey Miyake to Anita Dongre, have long made the deep blue part of their moodboard.

“Innovations in dyeing techniques, such as shibori, bandhini, ajrakh, offer ways to experiment with natural dyes’ rich colour palette, ensuring its prosperous future,” says Jyoti. “Synthetic indigo dye has gained popularity due to its consistency and cost-effectiveness. But given the conversation around sustainability, there’s a tremendous interest in tapping into ancient indigenous wisdom on natural dyeing. It’s a way to preserve cultural heritage while exploring a new design and fashion vocabulary.”

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