Natural Colour: A Bengal Story Part Two

by - Monday, May 28, 2018

Indigo on cotton. Charllotte Kwon stretches a skein taut to check the colour.

In November of 2017 Kolkata turned blue. Or, at least, it did in the minds of those attending the Indigo Sutra Conference — a conference dedicated to the study and use of indigo. As part of this conference Maiwa’s Charllotte Kwon and Tim McLaughlin presented a lecture, guided a panel discussion and gave a full-day workshop on how to build and maintain a natural indigo vat using a number of natural techniques.

Tim McLaughlin, Charllotte Kwon and Jabbar Khatri at Indigo Sutra.

A core concern of the conference was how synthetic indigo was being marketed (and costed) as if it were natural. There are a number of problems with this. The loss of livelihood of indigo farmers, the loss of skills needed to make traditional indigo vats and the loss of the network of connections which farmers and artisans create. These fundamental problems are only made worse when the buying public begins to loose confidence in the quality and the very nature of indigo. Indigo Sutra gave a forum to raise these questions and to begin talking about answers.

It was the practical workshop, however, that we were most anxious about. We knew a number of the artisans who were present at the conference and we wanted them to be front and centre in the discussion of making and maintaining a vat. We were among old friends. Dyers from the Living Blue project in Bangladesh arrived. Dyers and weavers from the village of Bhujodi in Kuchchh, were there. We reunited with Jabbar and Ismail Khatri. Jabbar was at the front of the class teaching with us; as was Bappa Biswas, Pankaj Shah, and Mahesh Dosaya.

Jabbar Khatri, Pankaj Shah, Mahesh Dosaya, Bappa Biswas and Charllotte Kwon teaching "The Vat Mechanic" at Indigo Sutra.

As is often the case in India, the workshop was a linguistic tour de force: taught in English, Gujarati, Hindi, and Bengali. We called it: “The Vat Mechanic” and the idea was that you could learn how to build, maintain, and correct an indigo vat made with a wide range of local ingredients. We countered objections about using local fruits (you use over-ripe fruits not suitable for eating). And we gave some criteria for determining the behavior of the vat.

We kept our eyes on a group of Bengal weavers who were extremely keen. They were all of the right age to have a hazy memory of natural dyes. These weavers knew about natural dyes in the same way that, for example, in a restaurant, a waiter knows the work of the chef. These weavers moved in a world where there were many ways to colour cloth and yarn, but they no longer had the recipes or skills to make a pot of colourfast natural dye themselves.

At the conclusion of our Indigo workshop they invited us to modify our itinerary and visit them in their village. We decided we needed to go.

On the road in rural Bengal: a Bicycle with baskets, the jute harvest stacked to dry, and an endless stream of transport trucks.

Rural Bengal is flat and lush. It is blanketed in a green quilt of rice paddies, sugar cane fields, and shallow ponds stocked with the fish that make up such a large part of the Bengali diet. Once out of Kolkata the roads are clogged with tractors, scooters and bicycles carrying whatever is in season - when we visited it was jute and cauliflower. The jute is stacked - teepee style - on the side of the highway to dry. The cauliflower is stacked on anything that will move in order to get it to market.

Once in the village we looked at the dyeing set-up. On this visit we would be working with indigo and reviewing the technique we taught in our workshop - but tweaked to suit the dye studio at hand. Our first assessment is usually looking at dye pots and what they are made of.

The dyeing setup when we arrived. Ideally the pot should be deep so as to minimize exposed surface area, and not be aluminum (as the aluminum oxide makes reducing the vat more difficult).

Unlike most dyes, indigo can be used cold. This is, in fact, key to some traditional techniques like the dabu mud resist, where the resist will not tolerate a long soak in a heated dye bath (such as you might use for madder). However, traditional indigo vats often depend on a fermentation or enzyme reaction to dissolve the indigo. These natural processes fail if the temperature drops too much — as it does during the winter night (November - February) in Bengal.

So our first task is really a rather simple one:  find a non-aluminum pot that can be heated or locate an immersion heater. Immersion heaters are quite common in India. They are simply a metal heating element with a special handle that hooks on the side of a pail. You plug them into an electrical outlet and you’re good to go. If you have a metal dye pot, you fill it with a portion of the mother vat, heat it, and return it to the mother vat to bring up the temperature.

The blue studio. The Indigo Sutra conference created a demand for indigo textiles and the motivation for artisans to reconsider the quality of their process.

Artisans who always use a chemical vat loose these tricks. All indigo vats can be, on occasion, temperamental. But the solutions used for a chemical vat usually involve throwing more chemicals at the vat (either a reducing agent or more indigo). Such vats can be expensive or inefficient to run. On our recent trip we were shocked when artisans told us how much indigo they were putting in the vat. A properly made vat is both economical and efficient. Moreover it does not have the disposal problems that some chemical vats have.

We left the village and continued north. We visited other artisans in ever more remote areas. This is one aspect of Maiwa that we have always been proud of — how far we are willing to go to do our site visits. In any part of the world, the only way to see what is actually being done is to see it with your own eyes. 

Sometimes what is waiting for you, out on the small roads and after several wrong turns, is worth the expense and time of getting there. Sometimes it is not what you had hoped for but it is just as important to find. A remote location with a reputation for ecological leadership dyeing with synthetic indigo in a plastic pan and dumping the spent vat in the gully was not what we had hoped for. But it did strengthen our resolve to help turn things around.

The long rainy road back to Kolkata.

On our way back to Kolkata we visited the first village again. There was progress. Better than the progress, however, was the flood of questions. Things were sinking in and being thought about and that always brings questions. Our time on this November trip had run out, but we would be coming back. Yes - we would come back again. Next time we would bring a larger team and plan a longer visit. Ideas were in motion - we wanted to return once again to rural Bengal.

Our story continues with part three
when we return to Bengal in 2018.


Indigo: A World of Blue was shot on location in southern India. The work features indigo use in Sindh, Pakistan; the Vientiane District of Loas; the island of Sumba, Indonesia; Yogyakarta, Indonesia, village Dhamadka, India; and Suleymanköy, Turkey. Featuring renowned indigo scholar Jenny Balfour Paul speaking about indigo's fascinating history, traditions, superstitions and lore.

Indigo a World of Blue is a zone-free SD DVD.
Available at a special price in our online store.

Natural Colour: The Bengal Story
Part Two

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