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Jaipur’s new house of blues

  • Nila House, a new centre of excellence for sustainable design and crafts in Jaipur, shines the spotlight on the natural blue dye of indigo
  • It is housed in a traditional haveli from the 1930s, restored and refurbished by architect Bijoy Jain and his team at Studio Mumbai

The dyeing room
The dyeing room (Photo courtesy: Nila House)

It’s on the bustling Prithviraj Road in Jaipur—with rambling houses on one side and busy malls on the other—that one comes across Nila House. Opened last month, it is the latest addition to the list of craft and culture spaces in the city—some of the existing ones being the Anokhi Museum, Amrapali Museum, Jawahar Kala Kendra and The Sculpture Park at Madhavendra Palace. It is a striking building, with a pristine white façade and visible pink tinges on the pillars. Touted as a centre of excellence focused on the preservation of handwoven textiles and natural dyes, Nila House is housed in a traditional haveli from the 1930s, restored and refurbished by architect Bijoy Jain and his team at Studio Mumbai.

The building has been restored by architect Bijoy Jain and Studio Mumbai
The building has been restored by architect Bijoy Jain and Studio Mumbai (Photo courtesy: Nila House)

The design is very much in line with Jain’s belief in creating architecture that breathes. There is a wonderful play of light, air and shadows within the building—stairs, imbued with a grainy Tancha texture typical to forts across Rajasthan, open up to the sky; sash windows flood the store, studio, workshops and library with natural light, changing the look and feel of each room as the day progresses; a central courtyard, paved with sandstone, allows you a glimpse of the activities within.

The Nila Home collection
The Nila Home collection (Photo courtesy: Nila House)

True to his style of creating an equation with the landscape which is “nourishing as opposed to one that is depleting", as he mentioned in a recent interview to Kinfolk magazine, Jain has drawn on local resources and age-old techniques to create a contemporary space. Jute has been used on walls; the mortar is a mix of jaggery, fenugreek and guggal gondh (a type of gum) to increase the molecular strength of the walls. Natural materials such as lime plaster and local marble have been used in restoration, with a small amount of indigo added as a natural repellent against termites and mosquitoes. The architecture ties in with the overall mission of Nila House, which is to promote sustainable design processes and break the barriers between art and craft. Through its workshops and artist-in-residence programmes, the not-for-profit organization hopes to foster collaborations between researchers, craftspersons, artists and designers across the world.

Founded by the Lady Bamford Foundation, a charitable arm of JC Bamford Excavators (JCB), Nila House hopes to touch the lives of 5,000 artisans in the next three years. “Craft should not be treated as a commodity. Rather, one should recognize it for the significance it has in our culture and the value it adds to our lives. Artisans shouldn’t be taken for granted—they are the true connoisseurs of our living heritage," says Anuradha Singh, head, Nila House, who was previously part of the Jawahar Kala Kendra team in Jaipur. “We are also looking at a training programme wherein the artisans will be the trainers," she says.

The retail space
The retail space (Photo courtesy: Nila House)

As one watches the artisans converse with visitors, one hopes that Nila House won’t be just another flash in the pan effort. The city has seen many initiatives, such as the Jawahar Kala Kendra, which opened with strong, well-conceptualized exhibitions, only to lose steam. It might be a good idea to gauge the impact of Nila House a year from now, in terms of the difference it has made to the lives of artisans.

These days, however, there is an indigo story playing out within this fluid space. The store features creations from the inaugural collection by UK-based designer Anna Valentine, ranging from silk kantha stitch jackets to handloom linen trousers, all in shades of blue. In another room, a vat of indigo is being stirred by artisans from the Chhipa community, hailing from Bagru in Jaipur.

Each year, Nila House hopes to focus on a different colour. But there is a reason it has chosen natural indigo, extracted from indigenous Indigofera tinctoria, for its launch collection and exhibition.

Around 800-1,000 varieties of the plant grow across India but only two varieties yield colour. Indigo is the oldest natural dye, its use dating back 4,000 years. It played a significant role in India’s freedom struggle, with farmers in Bengal rebelling against the British planters in 1859-60—forced to abandon the cultivation of food crops and grow indigo to meet the growing demand for the blue dye in Europe, they were trapped in a vicious cycle of debt and mortgage.

In the 19th century, mills began producing fabric on a commercial scale with the help of chemical dyes and production of natural indigo dye decreased, eventually coming to a halt. “Today, the indigo dye in India is almost entirely synthetic in nature. The usage of such chemical dyes has a huge impact on the artisans, polluting the soil and water around them, and affecting their health," says Juhi Pandey, technical head, Nila House, who is looking at ways of integrating natural dyes like indigo back into the production process.

At the moment, Nila House is getting natural indigo from a family in Tamil Nadu, which has been growing the plant on a large scale for over five generations. “Indigo used to grow widely in Rajasthan. We are hoping that once the artisans and producers recognize merit in the usage of natural indigo, they will go back to cultivating the plant. It’s a myth that indigo makes the land barren. One needs to rotate its cultivation with other crops," says Pandey.

One of the biggest issues facing artisans in Rajasthan today is fast-depleting groundwater—they buy it on a daily basis because chemical dyes require huge quantities. By helping them return to natural dyes, Nila House hopes to help them create a sustainable way of living. Pandey says: “It is important to be a listening organization. It is not just important to give them access to the market or improve their business efficiency, but also make it sustainable for the artisan to pursue a particular process."

The process of working with indigo is a specialized one. The dye doesn’t dissolve easily in water, says Pandey. It needs a reducing agent. Traditionally, natural agents such as raw banana, jaggery and dates have been used, and these are being tried at Nila House as well. “The beauty of a vat of indigo is that, if maintained properly, it can stay on for years. All you need is a little bit of water to keep regenerating it. Compare this with the hundreds of litres of water needed to make new batches of chemical dyes every time a few metres of cloth needs to be dyed," says Pandey.

At Nila House, one can see the life cycle of the indigo plant from seed to dye. For the dye to ferment, a temperature of 30-32 degrees Celsius needs to be maintained. But the most important factor that leads to that gorgeous blue is the pH balance of water, which should ideally range from 11-13. As of now, one can see eight shades of indigo at Nila House. “Indigo works best on silk. Cotton is the toughest as absorption is less," says Prajakta Baride, studio manager at Nila House.

Research has already started on other dyes, extracted from sources such as the babool tree bark. The team is also looking at a yellow dye made from the harsingar flower. “But yellow can be extracted from many sources—turmeric, marigold. Blue comes only from one source, which is indigo," Baride says.

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