Colour me indigo
There is a renewed demand for natural indigo across the world.
A hundred years ago, indigo symbolised colonial oppression. Now it marks high-end fashion products. Though the natural blue dye never lost its sheen, its production in India under the British saw a tremendous decline after the development of synthetic indigo dye by German chemist Adolf von Baeyer in 1878.
Farming of indigo was at its peak in the late 19th century. India produced nearly 19,000 tonnes of indigo in the 1850s and almost all of it was sent to Europe where the textile industry was experiencing a boom following the industrial revolution. The demand for natural indigo declined after German chemical company Badische Anilin und Sodafabrik started commercially producing synthetic indigo. Unlike natural indigo, the colour of which depends on the climate of the area where the plant grows, the synthetic dye gave uniform results which were of benefit to the industry. By 1914, the production of natural indigo had reduced to 1,100 tonnes.
The synthetic indigo still rules the market. But there is now a renewed demand for natural indigo worldwide as people are becoming more health-conscious. This has prompted farmers to once again embrace the blue gold.
Its revival is particularly evident in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka, where hot and humid climate is conducive to the crop. In fact, during the Colonial period the kurpah (Cuddapah) indigo grown in the Madras region was quite popular in the international market because of its high colour content. S Kamalnathan from Vellupuram district, Tamil Nadu, is one such farmer who shifted from moringa, a major cash crop, to indigo two years ago. He makes a profit of around Rs 2 lakh per season from his 3.6 ha farmland. "The leaves, which are processed to extract the dye, can be harvested two-three times a year. Besides, it requires less water and inputs," says Kamalnathan.
Indigo belongs to the leguminosae family of plants. Their root nodules fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil and thus do not require nitrogenous fertilisers. After the initial profits, Kamalnathan now plans to take 16.4 ha on lease so that he can grow indigo on a large scale.
In the absence of any official figures—the government has little information about indigo despite the fact that the cash crop has been cultivated and used in India for 4,000 years and 16 indigo species are endemic to the country—Kamalnathan says thousands of farmers in Vellupuram have shifted to indigo from other major cash and food crops in the past five years, and that the state produces 300-500 tonnes of indigo a year. However, he says, procuring good quality seeds remains a concern as the crop is neither grown by many nor promoted by the government. Most indigo farmers in Vellupuram procure the seeds from Andhra Pradesh, where the crop is witnessing a revival of sorts.
The enthusiasm around indigo is spurred by the fact that the farmers do not have to make an extra effort to sell the produce. "Almost 70 per cent of our produce is bought by textile designers in Delhi and Hyderabad, and the remaining are procured by traders who supply indigo to Rajasthan and Gujarat, the traditional dyeing centres of the country," says Kamalnathan.
Shiv Keshav Rao, co-founder of Hyderabad-based design studio Creative Bee, is one such designer. His studio works with nearly 400 handloom weavers of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and produces 2,000 metres of textile dyed or printed with natural indigo. Rao, who exports 50 per cent of the fabric, says demand for such products has doubled in the last decade. "It is a class symbol. People conscious of their status buy the fabric where natural indigo is used," he says.
Agrees Mamata Reddy, founder of Hyderabad-based designing firm Kalam Creation, which uses natural indigo for preparing intricate kalamkari, a hand-painted or block-printed cotton textile. She says when she set up shop two decades ago, the demand for indigo was negligible. Now, it has grown by 100 per cent. "Everyone involved in the sector seems to be noticing the charm of this colour," says Reddy, who buys indigo from Chennai. Of late, the market has been flooded with products that claim to contain natural indigo. Rao and Reddy say such a trend only indicates the rising demand for natural indigo. Reddy offers a trick to separate the real from the fake: "Once oxidised, natural indigo dye turns green, which is not the case with the synthetic one."
Chippa Yaseen, a block-printing artisan from Pipar city in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, says the demand is so high that they cannot meet it despite working round-the-clock. Yaseen's family has been doing indigo printing for generations. "There was a time when 105 families in Pipar were engaged in block-printing. But synthetic indigo forced them to quit the business," he says. Yaseen could continue in the business because of a chance meeting with people from Fabindia, a chain store retailing garments. Today, he receives orders for hand-block printed and natural-dyed dupatta, sari and fabrics not only from India but from countries like Japan.
M Sanjappa, an indigo expert who was former head of the Botanical Society of India, says the demand for natural indigo products has particularly increased in the past five years. This is because people have become more health-conscious and want to use natural products. Some non-profits working with farmers and artisans are also spreading awareness about indigo through seminars and workshops, he adds.
There has been an amazing revival of indigo all over the world, says Jenny Balfour-Paul, an indigo researcher and author of Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans and Indigo in the Arab World. "This is majorly because the younger generation is more aware of environmental concerns. They will have fewer clothes but of better quality and made using sustainable products. Natural indigo is the perfect sustainable product as it can be grown along with rice. Farmers also use it as green manure," she says, adding that the surge in indigo farming is being witnessed in Bangladesh, El Salvador, the Caribbean, and the US.
The revival is particularly interesting in Bangladesh, where indigo has been a symbol of pain and struggle for thousands of farmers during the Colonial period and remained almost erased in people's memory till the early 2000s probably for this reason. In 2004-05, Tushar Kumar, a Bangladesh-based textile designer, spotted some indigo plants while passing through Rangpur division and inquired about it. But no one could recognise the plant. Tushar managed to extract dye from the plants. "It motivated us and we decided to work with local farmers," says Mishael 'Mika' Ahmad of Nijera Cottage and Village Industries (NCVI), a worker and artisan-owned social enterprise in Bangladesh. In 2008-09, NCVI worked with farmers of Rajendrapur in Rangpur Sadar upzila (sub-district) to grow indigo and is now helping them market the produce under the brand name "Living Blue".
"The indigo we produce in Bangladesh has some magic, richness," says Ahmad. Today, at least 3,000 farmers associated with NCVI are growing indigo. Most of them are landless. NCVI provides them land and seeds so that they get employment during monga—the lean period between two crop seasons. "There is a growing market for products prepared using natural indigo. But cost is a major hurdle. For instance, the denim prepared using synthetic indigo is much cheaper," says Ahmad. Almost halfway across the world in Guatemala, indigo is making a comeback after a similar tumultuous past. The use of indigo is known in the country since the Maya civilisation, says Olga Reiche, a textile designer who has been promoting natural indigo for the past three decades. In fact, the Mayans are known to have used natural indigo to develop the Maya blue, a unique azure blue pigment. In the 16th century, when the Spaniards introduced the foot loom, women wove skirts using threads dyed with natural indigo. But natural indigo started losing its appeal across Central America with the introduction of synthetic dyes in the 1880s. Farmers again started growing the crop almost after a century. That was the time when organic farming, natural medicine, and natural healing therapies were in vogue.
"I began working with natural organic indigo in the 1990s and immediately realised that people were interested in it," says Reiche. "It is now in high demand among people in Europe, Japan, and the US. But there are countries that never stopped using it, for example, China, Laos, and India."
But the plant, which has been the cause of atrocities on farmers and uprisings, cannot be revived without government patronage. Consider Champaran, where soil and climate are suitable for growing indigo. "No one talks about indigo here," says Arvind Mohan, senior journalist from West Champaran. "While the demand for indigo is growing worldwide, people here are not aware of its commercial importance. They still consider it a taboo."
(With inputs from Vibha Varshney. The views expressed are personal.)