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Ajit kumar das: using natural dyes in art.

The use of natural dyes is comparatively rare in contemporary Indian art. Perhaps this is because few artists today have a thorough understanding of the ancient knowledge of dyeing with plant and mineral substances, and this is reflected in their choice of materials. While working with natural dyes might seem an intuitive choice for an artist, it requires skills carefully cultivated over a lifetime, combined with a quiet mind and monk-like dedication. Ajit Kumar Das is an artist who has committed himself to the practice of working with natural materials on cloth, breathing out a sensitive art that resonates deeply with the viewer. Experiencing works that use colours derived from barks, leaves, roots and minerals is soothing to the eyes and this elicits a response that sets Das's art apart. Like a soothsayer from another time, this unusual artist who lives in Kolkata, West Bengal makes art that subtly imparts the significance of nature, using colours, imagery and symbolism that are deeply rooted in personal meaning and experience (figure 1).

Born in 1957 into a family of dyers and washerfolk in Tripura, northeast India, Das imbibed the techniques of bleaching and dyeing from an early age. He recalls his father using annatto (Bixa orellana) to dye the clothes of Vaishnav ascetics a traditional orange-yellow, and he also reminisces about making his own toys from discarded bamboo sticks and clay. Circumstances grounded him and made him aware of easily available natural resources. Financial constraints meant he never finished school, since he had to earn money to help his family make ends meet. His earliest job as a printer, however, taught him skills that eventually led him to the Weavers Service Centre in Ahmedabad. Here he worked closely with the artists Tonsuk Mahicha, Gautam Vaghela and a highly skilled block-printer called Manik Lal Gajjar. During his time in Ahmedabad, Das saw pieces created for the Festival of India's series of Viswakarma exhibitions held in London between 1981 and 1990. The great "Tree of Life" textiles, made in Andhra Pradesh with a combination of block-printing and hand-painting in natural dyes, inspired him to paint his own versions. Artist Riten Mazumdar's approach was another important inspiration, but it was Martand Singh who first encouraged Das to think like an artist. According to Das, Singh's gentle encouragement and advice proved to be a turning point in his development into one of India's rare natural dye artists.

The palette of colours obtained directly from nature makes Das's work immediately unique and arresting. His paintings are categorized into a number of series, each interconnected in their use of colour, subject matter and spiritual significance.

Rasi Chakra (Horoscope), one of the earliest of his Astrology series, drew inspiration from the Vedic horoscope as well as Tantric religious art (figure 5). Also inspired by his own natal chart drawn up by a local astrologer, Das takes symbols and calligraphy as a starting point for these works. Another painting, Nava-graha (literally meaning "nine influencers" in Sanskrit), refers to the outer cosmic influences that can affect living beings on earth. Also from his earlier series is Gabhi Kitnjan (figures 3 and 4). Reminiscent of cow images found on the pichhwais (cloth paintings) that hang in temple shrines, Das's cows are more abstract; fine black outlines and pure shades of natural colours. The cow paintings exude the simplicity with which he approaches all his work. Das pays tribute to the cow, revered as a holy animal in India, as a kind of mother (matri); she provides mankind with essential nourishment (milk, ghee, yoghurt) as well as fuel from cowdung. In Das's Bihakul (Birds, figure 8) and Mashagushti (Fish) series, we see family representations and likewise a specific reference to "mother and child" and fertility. Their depiction is both literal and spiritual. True skill in the art of natural dyes is revealed in this collection--in the range of colours Das chooses and in his fearless attempts to represent nature's magnificent details. In the Matri-shakti series, Das idolizes the feminine force and combines the ideal of the mother with the expression of divine female energy (shakti) to convey ideas of procreation, fertility and creativity. The triangle (known as the yoni yantra in Tantric worship) is found in these paintings as a central motif, often placed within the womb of a fish within another fish. In most of the works in this series Das has hand-scribed words in neat Bengali script taken from religious mantras, which encircle the paintings.

A more recent addition to the collection is the Padma (Lotus) series. The lotus flower is a significant motif in Hindu mythology. Spiritually the unfolding petals of the lotus suggest the expansion of the soul. In one painting, unopened lotus heads placed in the lower left corner sit graphically against a background of layered lotus leaves in water, suggesting that Das is once again conveying a spiritual perspective and not a naturalistic one (figure 2). The Prosthor (Stones) series is Das's latest and though in keeping with spiritual concepts of family and matri shakti, reveals a marked shift from the more literal symbolism of earlier work inspired by astrological charts and tantric symbols (figure 6). Very strongly connected to the earth, in this nonrepresentational series Das is exploring visual texture.

In his daily work with natural dyes, Das finds it impossible to exactly replicate colours. It is hard to secure a steady supply of pure dyestuffs all year round and ensure they are not contaminated by other plant material. He usually buys his dye materials from natural medicine sellers at wholesale city markets who supply the same roots and bark for healing common ailments. He grinds them into powder by hand at home, then boils them up to extract the colours. The whole process requires patience, commitment and a foraging nature, likening Das to a modern-day "hunter-gatherer". He finds the climatic conditions from January to May to be most conducive to working with natural dyes. Though not all natural dyes are colour- and light-fast, their intrinsic beauty and hues continue to inspire him to work with them.

Like his father, Das uses a cowdung and leaf-ash mixture to bleach and prepare the cloth for dyeing. The cloth has also to be soaked in pure cow's milk before Das can draw on it with his handmade kalam or pen, made from bamboo wood wrapped with jute. The cow's milk prevents the drawn lines from bleeding into the cloth and enables him to achieve the manicured script characteristic of his work.

Das first dyes the cloth with myrobalan (haritaki/ Terminalia chebula) to give each painting a base colour. The only mordant he uses in his paintings is alum (potassium aluminium sulphate). The outlines and lines of his animal paintings are done in black--made from a mixture of iron dust, jaggery, betel leaf, mahua flower and horsegram powder that has first to ferment for 25-30 days. Pomegranate rind (Punica granatum) and turmeric (Curcuma longa) give yellow, while catechu (khoyer or katha--Acacia catechu), babul bark (Acacia nilotica) and arjun bark (Terminalia aljuna) yield varying shades of brown. For orange, Das uses annatto (Bixa orellana) and for all shades of red (light red to maroon) as in Surya (Sun, figure 7) he uses Indian Madder (manjisthai Rubia cordifolia). Dried indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) cakes provide intense blues and for unique shades of green, Das mixes indigo with turmeric or pomegranate rind.

The finished paintings are rinsed and fixed in an alum solution then given a final wash with ritha (Sapindus mukorossi), an indigenous soapnut that when wet lathers up like shampoo and is used by rural Indian folk even today to wash their hair.

Das's art has found a serious following wherever he has exhibited. His natural dye paintings have been collected by revered institutions around the world, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the World Bank, New York and the UNDPC, New Delhi as well as numerous embassies and private collectors. One particularly fine example of a horoscope painting (Rasi Chakra) even became the starting point for the transformation of "Babur'', a Zagat-rated contemporary Indian restaurant based in Dulwich, London. In his youth, Das exhibited at such galleries as Gallery Ganesha and Lalit Kala, New Delhi; Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai; Nandan Gallery, Santiniketan; and Galeries Lafayette in France. More recently Das was invited to exhibit at ISEND, an international symposium and exhibition on natural dyes held in La Rochelle, France, 2011, and at the WEFT forum in Kuching, Sarawak, 2012.

Das, however, remains a humble artist and continues to work at the Weavers Service Centre in Kolkata. On meeting him, it is apparent that he holds a reverent affection for natural dyes. Painting obsessively in the little free time his working life allows him, Das nevertheless imparts his knowledge generously to those who show interest. Today, he teaches a few people he has selected to work alongside him in his studio--this also allows further experimentation and expansion on an art he has personally nurtured, developed and made his own. He has moved into areas such as yarn dyeing and working with khadi (handspun and handwoven cotton). This results in a limited production of natural-dyed, hand-painted stoles that allows him to freely experiment with natural dyes while providing his few assistants with a much-needed livelihood. Only recently has he realized the urgent need to teach the art of natural dyeing beyond his own studio. In collaboration with SUTRA, Das has committed to various projects that will help disseminate his knowledge, including teaching the art of dyeing to a group of disadvantaged women and conducting natural dye workshops. By passing on dye methods and recipes, Das is preserving them for future generations.

Caption: 2 Padma (Lotus), by Ajit Kumar Das. Painting in dyes of pomegranate rind, myrobalan, turmeric, black, catechu, madder and indigo with alum as mordant; 124 x 105 cm. Private collection. Photograph: Michael Hsien.

Caption: 1 Artist Ajit Kumar Das at work. Photograph courtesy Tania Karmakar.

Caption: 3 left Gabhi Kunjan (Cows), by Ajit Kumar Das. Painting in dyes of pomegranate rind, myrobalan, turmeric, black, catechu, madder and indigo with alum as mordant; 178 x 129 cm. Private collection. Photograph: Michael Hsien.

Caption: 4 Gabhi Kunjan (Cows), by Ajit Kumar Das. Painting in dyes of pomegranate rind, myrobalan, turmeric, black, catechu, madder and indigo with alum as mordant; 170 x 224 cm. Private collection. Photograph: Michael Hsien,

Caption: 5 Rasi Chakra (Horoscope), by Ajit Kumar Das. Painting in dyes of pomegranate rind, myrobalan, turmeric, black, catechu, babul bark, goran bark, madder and indigo with alum as mordant; 158 x 194 cm. Private collection. Photograph: Michael Hsien.

Caption: 6 Prosthor (Stone), by Ajit Kumar Das. Painting in dyes of pomegranate rind, myrobalan, turmeric, black, catechu, madder and indigo with alum as mordant; 186 x 120 cm. Private collection. Photograph: Michael Hsien.

Caption: Surya (Sun), by Ajit Kumar Das. Painting in dyes of myrobalan, black and madder with alum as mordant; 59 x 82 cm. Private collection. Photograph: Michael Hsien.

Caption: 8 Bihakul (Birds), by Ajit Kumar Das. Painting in dyes of pomegranate rind, myrobalan, babul bark, black and madder with alum as mordant; 72 x 50 cm. Private collection. Photograph: Michael Hsien.
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Title Annotation:Kanika Mukerji
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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