Politics of Indigo and Other Natural Dyes

Advocacy, Craft, Handloom, Art

Politics of Indigo and Other Natural Dyes

Jain, Gunjan


It is believed that the Indian subcontinent was one of the oldest centers of indigo dyeing. It was a primary supplier of Indigo to Europe as early as the Greco-Roman era (332 BC to AD 395)


In the late fifteenth century, the portugese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India. This led to the establishment of direct trade with India. The import and use of Indigo in Europe rose significantly leading British planters to force more and more farmers to plant indigo instead of food crops. They provided loansat a very high interest. Once a farmer took such loans he remained in debt for whole of his life.

The price paid by the planters was meagre, only 2.5% of the market price. The farmers could make no profit growing indigo. They were totally unprotected from the indigo planters, who resorted to mortgages or destruction of their property if they were unwilling to obey them. Government rules also favoured the British planters.

Even the zamindars, money lenders and other influential persons supported the planters. Out of such severe oppression unleashed on them, the farmers resorted to revolt which is popularly known as the The Indigo revolt of 1859 (Nilbidroha), a farmers’ movement in Bengal where thousands of Indigo farmers refused to grow indigo anymore and protested against the atrocities unleashed by British planters and Zamindars.

EWL Tower, who held the office of a District Magistrate testified in front of the Indigo Commission 1860 that ‘Not a chest of indigo reached England without being stained with human blood’and ‘such a system carrying on indigo, I consider to be a system of bloodshed’


Meanwhile, with Indigo so much in demand in Europe, Germany started working on cheap chemical alternatives of producing Indigo. And this did not happen overnight. It was part of a meticulous and sustained process – over seventy years, spanning most of the nineteenth century.

Indigo was first synthesized by Adolph von Baeyer in 1880, it was not till ten years later that it was produced from naphthalene, which was available in large quantities enough for commercial production. Synthetic Indigo began to be produced by BASF in 1897. It immediately affected the export of indigo from India into Europe and within few years this industry collapsed. By 1900 the amount produced was equivalent to that grown in a quarter of a million acres in India and the 19,00 tons exported from India in 1897 fell to 8000 tons in 1901 and to 1000 tons in 1914. This replacement of indigo by a synthetic substitute was the culmination of 30 years of research by German chemical companies.


Inspite of chemical indigo taking over european markets, British continued with their colonial monopoly over Indigo in India.

Indigo was also a popular crop in fertile north Bihar specially in the region of Champaran.

Indigo- growing peasants were forced to block 3/20th part of their best lands for Indigo under oppressive supervision of the British.

The synthesized substitute of Indigo brought down the price of Indian indigo and the profitability of its European plantations. World prices of plant indigo fell, and the British planters put the burden on the farmers.

The high-handedness of the British became even more oppressive as they tried to cut and transfer their losses on to the peasants: physical assault, punitive fines, forced grazing of fields, forcible affixing of thumb-impressions on to blank pieces of legal paper. It was a remarkable heightening of oppression in the villages. Even the richer peasants of Champaran began to feel the oppression of the british as an everyday occurrence. This was the time when a young Gandhi arrived in Champaranin 1917 to do some independent fact-checking. Gandhi collected testimonies and despositions from farmers on the atrocities and submitted to court since he believed that any revolt or movement against oppression can be successful when the voices of the affected communities are heard out.

What mattered in Champaran in 1917 and enabled Gandhi to gain victory for the indigo peasants, was that thousands of peasants defied the British Planters to seek justice.

The seed of Civil Disobedience was sown.


Now that we are aware of our political history of Indigo, lets talk a bit about how do we see natural dyeing as a practice today?

Is there a need to preserve and promote natural dyeing in mainstream fashion.The obvious answer is Yes since natural dyeing would help in reducing water pollution and offering a healthy sustainable alternative to clothing – surely natural dyeing seems to be the only way forward.

But what is the future road map for working with natural dyes. Do we want to keep it as a niche product or do we want to take it to the masses – as both options require different approaches.

Dyeing practices in India vary from region to region. It is the art of combining dye yielding plants – with locally available adjunctive materials, plants or minerals used for mordanting, colour fastness or brightness. It is this regional specificity, rather than generalized principles, that we should look to re-establishin natural dyeing in order to avoid homogenization. Such regional specificity is the most important aspect of biological and cultural diversity in India.

Though this may be difficult in the present market of globalisationwhich is geared towards mass production. Various NGOs and designers have attempted to revive back natural dyeing as a niche practice – Maiwa in New York, Aranya Natural in Bangladesh, Dastakar Andhra in Andhra Pradesh, Desi trust in Karnataka etc.

But if we are looking at natural dyeing for the masses, we have to ensure we do not repeat history.

With the examples of Indigo Revolt of 1859 and Champaran Movement of 1917, we have seen that intensive mono – cash crop farming can result in oppressive system of production which results in exploitation of farmers which could also lead to mutiny.

There is a huge farmer crisis in India today and we are witnessing more and more farmers moving away from agriculture. So first we have to look into the producer’s interest which is the farmer in this case if we are at all thinking of making natural dye cultivation a practical reality.

It should not be another experiment at the cost of the lives of the farmer as we have already seen in many unfortunate incidents like Jatropha plantation for bio fuel, eucalyptus plantation for paper and BT cotton for textiles.


The second concern is how are we going to protect natural dyes from competition against chemical dyes in the market?

Here I’d like to take the example of India’s Handloom Industry which is the 2nd largest employment generation after agriculture in our country.

Today handloom weavers are facingstiff competition by cheap mill made and powerloomreplicas which are sold in the name of handlooms. The powerful powerloom lobby remains the biggest threat to weavers and allied workers

Handloom textiles are woven manually on looms that do not require electricity. It is a largely rural practice, with 87 percent of household units engaged in handloom activities lying in rural areas. Making one product, such as a sari, involves work by at least six to ten people (sometimes an entire family).

Handloom provides employment to 43.32 lakh weavers wherein 77 percent are women. The women are the main stakeholders in the sector, which empowers them and allows them financial independence.

The government had the foresight of predicting that machines will soon take over manual industries and in order to protect our handloom industry,passed the Handloom Reservation Act of 1985 wherein 22 textile items were reserved to be produced exclusively by the handloom industry. Ten years later, this number was reduced to 11 which includes all your basic clothing needs – cotton and silk lungi, dhoti, gamcha, saris, bed covers, towels etc. As per this Act, powerlooms and mills are banned from producing these items.

But powerlooms openly violate the Act by means of corruption. What will happen to the highly skilled population dependent on handlooms when you merge their products with those created by machines operated by a largely semi-skilled workforce?

We know that the enforcement of the Act would do a great deal to support the handloom industry. But in reality, the attempt to resolve this problem has been by cutting or controlling the wages of the weavers.

I’d like to quote Uzramma, founder of Malkha. She has worked extensively on different aspects of the handloom industry including natural dyeing. She says ‘Natural dyeing is a double-edged sword. Linked to its local users it can be a powerful tool to regenerate local flora. But if it is separated from user communities through commercial intermidiaries it can be an equally powerful force in the depredation of the resource base. Society’s management of the natural forest deals with competing claims by the different occupations that use and protect the local soil, water, plant growth. This relation between nature and society must be mediated not by a powerful state claiming to act in the name of an abstract entity called ‘the people’ but by the self regulatory mechanisms of local-governance’.

Natural Dyeing is a practice of society in tune with nature, and has to be part of a gamut of environmentally sensible economic activites, that would intergrate the lives and activities of agricultural producers, pastoralists and others dependent on natural resources, in a web of mutually supportive rather than competitive professions.

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