Indigo grown again in Bengal after 150 years!
• Why did you feel the need to grow indigo again in Bengal? Were you influenced by the historical significance of the product?
I have always loved the colour blue and I love nature. I lived in Nigeria between 1993 and 1998, where I encountered exquisite indigo textiles made with composted leaf indigo and also saw the dye vats they used. When I returned to India, I felt the need to grow indigo to be able to colour with the natural plant-sourced dyestuff. In the past, Bengal produced some of the best indigo of the world and I knew it was possible to grow it here again. It was already being revived across the border in Bangladesh, since 1980s.
• How and where did you grow indigo after 150 years? Did you take help of any scientist?
We acquired some land near Santiniketan in 2002 and a friend gave me indigo seeds. In 2003,I planted these as an experiment and was successful in getting a good crop. However, due to other commitments, I did not have the time to try extraction of the dye. I found how it could be done by watching documentary films that explained the process clearly.
• There is a say that land where indigo grows becomes infertile. Is it a myth?
This is absolutely not true. Indigofera tinctoria, the plant commonly grown in India for the dye is a leguminous plant which fixes nitrogen in the soil, thus enriching it. In the 19th century exploitative indigo planters, brainwashed local farmers into thinking that nothing could grow on their land, if indigo is planted. This was because Bengal then produced most of the world’s indigo and the planters were making great fortunes trading in this lucrative crop.
I encountered problems when I tried growing indigo in 2003 as my farmhands told me that indigo was ‘bad’ and that nothing else would grow where indigo had been planted. I was shocked that after almost 6-7 generations, this negative mindset is still prevalent and I felt the urgent need to reverse it.
• How do you wish to take this forward? Will you commercially cultivate indigo?
Sutra textile studies is a non-profit organization, whose focus is to create awareness about our textile heritage. Its core aim is education through various programmes, such as seminars, workshops, demonstrations, publications and exhibitions. We try to promote further research, conservation and production, to impact the grassroots. Sutra is a non- commercial enterprise. However, we look forward to agencies like the Ministry of Agriculture, universities, producers and farmers to take this forward. Sutra could connect such agencies to experts who could guide them.
• Considering the literature we have on Neel Chashi and the cruelty with which they were dealt with, does growing indigo again in Bengal bring back those horrific tales?
It is high time we change this negative mindset regarding indigo and inform all about this much maligned plant which is so beneficial for the health of the soil and therefore for the environment. It also produces the most popular colour in the world for more than six millennia. If it was not a beneficial plant with commercial value, farmers in South India (eg. tindivanam) would not be growing it and supplying it throughout India and abroad. They use it as a valuable intercrop between legumes and other grains.
• How has your association with Indigo Sutra helped you in this endeavor?
Indigo Sutra has brought together top scientists and researchers on indigo from India and across the globe to discuss issues related to cultivation, production, various methods of fermentation, indigo vat making, questions of synthetic versus natural vats, and marketing. Practical workshops have given hands-on experience to eager practitioners and a vibrant marketplace selling indigo textile products have helped the artisans and craftsmen. Our recent exhibition in Kolkata showcased aspects of indigo, both historical and contemporary, ranging from a model of a former indigo factory to a wide range of textiles and art works. Sutra’s constant and ongoing focus on awareness and education attracted people from six continents, to share in a common interest and goal.