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Colours of nature

  • Demand for eco-conscious products has led to the revival of natural pigments and dyes
  • Craftspersons and artists are now experimenting with locally-grown herbs, roots and flowers

At Pracheen, in Mumbai, craftsmen create block prints using natural dyes
At Pracheen, in Mumbai, craftsmen create block prints using natural dyes (Photo: Getty Images)

It’s a scalding morning when we reach Bagru in Jaipur’s Sanganer district. For 500 years, generations of craftspersons have practised hand block-printing and natural dyeing here. Metres of cloth in ochre and yellow hang from terraces, while some women steam the dyed cloth to ensure that the colours are pucca (fast).

In one such household, Hari Narain Chipa and his family are bent over five-six tables, block-printing on chanderi and mulmul with natural dyes and pigments made with local fruits, vegetables and herbs. Chipa points to the tamarind seeds which have been finely powdered. This is mixed with water infused with iron and jaggery to get a rich, dark black hue. “In one jar, we use 35kg of iron. Gud aur loha jab milte hain toh jung karte hain. Ussi se rang ubhar ke aata hai (There is a conflict when iron and jaggery meet. And that struggle gives rise to a lovely colour)," says Chipa, going all poetic for a moment.

The ancestors of these artisans in Bagru used to work with a wider array of local ingredients, resulting in a more elaborate range of shades. Over the years, this knowledge has been lost. The current generation is able to create only five-six shades. The competition from chemical dyes and the demand for faster production has prevented them from experimenting with more local ingredients—after all, the process of creating natural dyes and pigments is lengthy and expensive, with a longer turnaround time.

However, the rise in conscious living has prompted initiatives such as Project Utpal, set up in 2018 by the Lady Bamford Foundation, to step in. The project is supporting the revival of natural dyes and pigments within the traditional artisanal sector of indigo dyeing and hand block printing. It also helps craftspersons avail of government welfare schemes, works for occupational health and safety, enhances production and business efficiency, and enables environment friendly production processes. “We hope to target 5,000 households and 100 production units in four clusters in Jaipur—Bagru, Jairampura, Jahota and Kaladera—and one in Chittorgarh district called Akola," says project head Javed Anwar, who also states that natural dyes is just one of the numerous interventions of Project Utpal, some of the others include work on a mini-effluent treatment plant.

It has conducted workshops on natural pigments with 35 master artisans so far—these are voluntary and interested artisans are encouraged to join. Ganesh Narayan Chipa, another artisan from Bagru who attended these sessions, has expanded his repertoire to include 15 shades. “For instance, I work with patang ki lakdi (sappan wood), in which I mix water and gond (gum). It results in a lovely peach colour. Pomegranate peel can also be mixed with copper sulphate and ferrous sulphate to get a greenish tinge," he says.

In India, the art of using natural dyes and pigments is perhaps as old as civilization itself. Published in 1987, Natural Dyeing Processes Of India, a unique volume by B.C. Mohanty, K.V. Chandramouli and H.D. Naik in the Calico Museum Of Textiles series, documents the disappearing traditional processes that use natural dyes. It cites the example of a fragment of coarse madder-dyed cotton fabric in a plain weave, found during the excavation of ancient Harappan sites, indicating that even the people of Mohenjodaro (3000 BC) used natural dyes extracted from barks, flowers and fruits.

The book also mentions regional examples of natural ingredients used in dyes—for instance, the use of kasumba (safflower) flowers in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan to extract a red dye for turbans. In Manipur, this is known as the kusumlei, and is used to impart a rose colour. “In the Sibsagar district of Assam, raspat leaves were boiled with yarn to be dyed red. Sometimes lemon juice or leteku (Baccuria Sapida) bark was added as a mordant (mixed with a dye to fix colours)," states the book.

The craftspersons are more open to going back to these age-old practices for several reasons. First and foremost is a greater demand for eco-conscious products which add to overall wellness.Project Utpal has been approached by several designers who would like to collaborate with these artisans for capsule collections. “When it comes to natural dyes, lab-testing is extremely important. The ones under Project Utpal have been tested at Nitra (Northern India Textile Research Association), the lab run by the ministry of textiles under the central government," says Anwar.

The use of natural dyes is healthier for the artisan as well. “No matter how many times you wash your hands, the chemical dyes don’t come off easily. Imagine eating food with chemicals on your hands. But natural dyes have no ill-effects on our health," says Ganesh Narayan Chipa.

At Aavaran, only local ingredients are used to make dyes
At Aavaran, only local ingredients are used to make dyes (Photo Courtesy: Aavaran)

Today, several ateliers are creating pigments and dyes in-house as well. For instance, at Aavaran—an Udaipur-based label which offers a range of garments, furnishings and accessories that are hand-dyed and block-printed or made using the ancient dabu mud-resist technique—a team of technicians and craftspersons creates natural dyes. “We use only local ingredients such as the Indian madder grown in the Aravallis," says founder Alka Sharma, a textile graduate from the Indian Institute of Crafts and Design, Jaipur, who has opened her second outlet in Bengaluru. “In our lab, we mix pomegranate peel with indigo and ferrous sulphate to get a green hue."

Customers are educated on the properties of the dyes and are informed that each batch might be different depending on the weather and the pH properties of water. Also, the way the pigment reacts varies with the nature of the fabric. “Indian madder will give you a light pink in mulberry silk and a slight pinkish tinge with chanderi. We do a limited range as one needs to be conscious of the environmental implications of using these ingredients excessively," says Sharma.

The use of handcrafted dyes and pigments is not confined to the craft sector alone—it is being employed by visual artists as well. Delhi-based Tanya Goel makes her own pigments from an array of materials, including charcoal, fallen bark, concrete, glass and graphite, many sourced from demolition sites.

Then there is Ahmedabad-based Ruby Jagrut, founder of Abir Charitable Trust, who uses only natural dyes on canvas, but steers clear of bottled earth pigments. “Natural dyes make use of resources in the vicinity, and that’s the reason that every region has a different palette. But when it comes to bottled earth pigments, not only are these expensive but they have gone through a long process—from being made to getting bottled and being transported to you. You are just adding to the carbon footprint. It is best to make these on your own or source them locally," she says. Jagrut creates ink from black volcanic ash—she initially got the ash from Bhutan but now sources it from Bhuj.

Renuka Reddy creates hand-painted resist-and-mordant dyed chintz
Renuka Reddy creates hand-painted resist-and-mordant dyed chintz (Photo: Courtesy Redtree Textile Studio)

One of the most unique uses of natural dyes can be seen in Bengaluru-based artist Renuka Reddy’s work at her studio RedTree Textile Studio. She has brought this ancient practice together with the historic art of chintz making—or hand-painted resist-and-mordant dyed cottons. From her lab-studio, she creates contemporary chintz for museums and private collectors.

It was in 2010 that the idea of exploring this field occurred to her, after she read Chintz: Indian Textiles For The West, written by Rosemary Crill and published by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. At the time, she was working in the field of automotive textiles in the US and was hoping to get back to the craft sector in India. Chintz allowed her to combine technical expertise with craft. She went looking for craftsmen in places like Machilipatnam and Srikalahasti but couldn’t find anyone with the appropriate skill set. So, she decided to paint these herself using natural dyes, as had been done historically. “For black, I used iron and tannin—the same formula used for writing ink in Europe until the 19th century. The red comes from madder and the blue from indigo," she says.

The use of madder was a departure from the historic practice, which made use of chay or chayaver, a plant grown wild on the Coromandel Coast. Today, however, this particular plant is no longer widely available. “For yellow, there are various options available, such as the myrobalan flower, turmeric and pomegranate rind. I use the latter as it gives a muted yellow," she says.

All her shades come from the combination of four basic dye ingredients. Reddy is currently researching ways to get the wider range of colours, such as delicate purples, used historically. It all depends on the kind of mordant used and the pH level of the water and the dye bath. For instance, if iron mordant is used with madder, it gives shades of purple, brown and burgundy. Alum mordant in an acidic dye bath gives orangish reds while an alkaline dye bath gives maroonish reds .

“There is so much magic that happens in the world of natural dyes. Every day is a revelation," says Reddy.

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