In each of the world's great civilizations people discovered independently how dyes could be made from local natural resources, but it is generally acknowledged that the "home" of dyeing was the Indian subcontinent, where this art was already advanced in the Indus civilization (around 2600 BCE) and from where dyestuffs, dyed textiles and knowledge spread east and west via trade routes.
How fitting, therefore, that it was in India that an extraordinary discovery was made in 2009 that ignited great excitement among all those in the field of natural dyes. "Only connect," wrote E.M. Forster in Howards End. And that's what happened when scholars, dyers, historians, conservators and botanists converged on Kolkata in February 2010, largely thanks to the determination of the remarkable Amrita Mukerji. Herself a passionate believer in connections, in 2002 she formed the not-for-profit organization named SUTRA after a Sanskrit word that literally means "connecting threads". SUTRA arose from Mukerji's desire to raise awareness in India, and particularly in her native Bengal (including the eastern part, now Bangladesh), of the incredible richness of its textile traditions, so beloved by the rest of the world.
The first SUTRA conference, held in Kolkata in 2003 and coordinated by Rosemary Grill of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, focused on the history of India's traded textiles and included an exhibition, loaned from the Tapi Collection, of fabulous textiles from the 13th century onwards, all executed in brilliant natural colours. Out of this event sprang the realization that although the subcontinent is renowned for handcrafted textiles, its textile treasures are in urgent need of preservation. 'This requires not just awareness but also practical training; so in 2008 SUTRA conceived, with conservators from the V&A, a seminar and workshops on conservation.
However, the planning of this event was hijacked when news reached Mukerji early in 2009 that Dr Himadri Debnath, joint director of the Botanical Survey of India (BSI) in Kolkata, had found in a forgotten corner of the building some unique long-lost 19th-century volumes of natural dye samples, along with a rare set of textile samples compiled by John Forbes Watson.
Mukerji had long been influenced, as had I, by a book, by Mattiebelle Gittinger of the Textile Museum in Washington DC, called Master Dyers to the World. It highlights the Indian subcontinent's extraordinary mastery of the skills of dyeing. This book heightened Mukerji's appreciation of natural dyes and realization that collective knowledge, handed down the centuries from generation to generation, was seldom recorded and much of it lost when the 20th century embraced synthetic dyes. However, it was known that Thomas Wardle, master-dyer for the great British textile craftsman and artist William Morris, had conducted assiduous research into India's raw textile materials which had resulted, incredibly, in the production of several sets of 15 volumes each, each set containing over 4,000 samples of dyed cloth as well as threads of different natural fibres. At least one set was known to have been sent to India while others remained in Britain, but none had reappeared until the BSI discovery, by coincidence in the year when scholar Brenda King had already created exhibitions in UK to mark the centenary of Wardle's death.
Excitement about these volumes led the organizers of SUTRA 2010 to divide the event already named "Raksha"--which means protection--into two parts: textile conservation now came under the banner Vastra (meaning garments), while Vriksha (meaning plants, trees and shrubs) aimed to promote awareness of natural dyes by paying particular homage to Wardle's records but also covering many other aspects of the subject. A beautiful exhibition, curated by Pramod Kumar, displayed the newly discovered BSI historic volumes and contemporary watercolour illustrations from the Roxburgh collection in the herbarium of Kolkatis Botanic Gardens, along with gorgeous textiles from old Bengal loaned from private collections. The Raksha event was opened by noted filmmaker Sandip Ray.
In recognition of the urgent need to share and disseminate knowledge of natural dyeing held by the last practitioners of the Indian subcontinent and also by researchers from other countries, as well as to encourage others to take up the cudgel and spread awareness, SUTRA will follow the success of Raksha 2010 with practical workshops on natural dyes, along the lines of those organized by Charllotte Kwon and her team at Maiwa. These will target diverse groups, including artists who might be inspired by the paintings of Ajit Das, and teachers.
Natural dyes provide an ideal model for interdisciplinary education because they span the arts and sciences and provide hands-on experiences today's children often lack. Working with natural dyes opens the eyes to the bounty and fragility of nature's colours and teaches the value of diverse histories and cultures in a homogenized world while at the same time underlining global links. The success of such teaching has been proven by the "Silk Road Connect" programme conceived at Harvard by cellist Yo Yo Ma and his Silk Road Project team (with outside partners such as myself) in 2009 and piloted, using indigo as the model, in selected schools in New York City. In the words of Ma: "Indigo presents endless possibilities for learning across various disciplines...its incredible story is a gateway to connect the personal experiences of our everyday lives (for example our own ubiquitous blue jeans) with the history, geography and culture of the whole planet."
Experience and resources developed for this project could be adapted for any other natural dye and also for fibres and textiles.
Throughout the world there are encouraging commercial revivals of the ancient but still viable and sustainable art of producing dyes from nature, such as the fair-trade organization Aranya in Bangladesh, founded by the indefatigable Ruby Ghuznavi. The Indian subcontinent has a headstart, with such a richness of dyes and fibres on its doorstep and so many places to visit and collections to appreciate. Kolkata's fabulous BSI Industrial Section is one gem, with its instructive and entertaining exhibits of a kind largely lost from comparable museums such as that at Kew Gardens in London; the Kolkata exhibits include fascinating models that illustrate fibre and dye production from start to finish--for example how a famous crimson dye and its by-product shellac, the world's first plastic, are derived from colonies of lac insects. The BSI is fortunate in having its collections championed by Kasturi Gupta Menon who works so tirelessly for the revival and preservation of handloom textiles.
This issue of Marg is devoted to these renowned glories of the Indian subcontinent, including intriguing stories, recounted by Bessie Cecil and Rex Cowan respectively, of chay-root dye and dyestuffs recovered from shipwrecks. However, one issue, based around papers presented at Raksha and focusing on the Indian subcontinent, can only touch on such a rich subject of significance to the whole world. More work needs to be done elsewhere in the subcontinent and in the world, studying and documenting the various traditions of dyeing with natural colours, before they are lost forever.
Just as many synthetic foodstuffs are poisoning our bodies, so the production of synthetic dyes is often toxic to the environment, whereas most natural dyes do not pollute land or water. For this reason the revival of interest in natural dyes--and not just for textiles but also for cosmetics, hair dyes, food colouring, medicines and paint--since I began my own research in the early 1980s, has been significant.
Enthusiasm for international natural dye symposia is heartening: 700 participants attended the first ISEND symposium, held in Hyderabad in 2006, organized by UNESCO and the Crafts Council of India, in cooperation with Dastkar Andhra, and coordinated by world renowned natural dye expert Dominique Cardon. More scientific and technological research is still required in order to scale up to industrial levels the sources and uses of sustainable dyes and pigments that do not damage the environment or indigenous populations.
Meanwhile, we can all do our part by taking greater consideration of nature in our choice of clothing and textiles. When it comes to the dyes that colour them it is not just a case of "Buyer Beware", but also "Buyer Be Aware". The potential is there--let us hope that producers, advertisers and consumers will in future celebrate and champion those colours derived from the natural world as if by magic.
For more than 120 years an amazing archive of over 3,500 samples of India's dyestuffi remained undiscovered in the Indian Museum, Kolkata. Over the decades the samples had been moved to various sites around the museum but were virtually unrecognized for what they were. That is until Dr H.S. Debnath of the Botanical Survey of India took the trouble to examine them in detail in 2008.
I have spent over 15 years researching the lift and work of Sir Thomas Wardle of Leek, Staffordshire, England. He had thoroughly researched India's dyestuffi and silks in the 19th century, and thousands of cloth and yarn samples had been produced by him as a result. Through my years of doctoral and post-doctoral research I had searched for, but never found them. All lines of inquiry in England had turned up nothing, and I never thought they would have endured the extremes of India's climate. It was, therefore, all the more thrilling when I heard that the samples had been discovered. I received the information early in 2009, the centenary year of Thomas Wardle's death, just at a time when I was organizing a number of exhibitions to celebrate his remarkable achievements. Jenny Balfour-Paul, the internationally renowned expert on indigo, tracked me down, although we had never then met, to pass on the astonishing news that thousands of dye samples had come to light in Kolkata, as she thought I might be interested. How right she was. After many emails were sent flying across the globe about this extraordinary discovery, I was invited to take part in an exciting symposium in Kolkata in February 2010, arranged by the organization SUTRA to celebrate the find. On my first day in Kolkata I went to view the long-lost volumes of samples and met Dr Debnath to give what information I could to the Indian Museum authorities. Later I presented a paper on Thomas Wardle, the man responsible for the encyclopaedic work of producing samples of India's dyes.
Caption: 1 Embroidered muslin "chikan" in a page from one of the John Forbes Watson 1866 sets of Textile Manufictures and Costumes of the People of India unearthed by Dr Himadri Debnath at the BSI Industrial Section. Photograph: Jenny Balfour-Paul, courtesy Botanical Survey of India, Kolkata.
Caption: 2 Signboard of the BSI at its Industrial Section, Kolkata. Photograph: Jenny Balfour-Paul, courtesy Botanical Survey of India, Kolkata.
Caption: 3 Displays at the Botanical Survey of India Industrial Section in Kolkata showing products derived from lac insects: dye, lacquerwork, shellac and the first gramophone records. Photograph: Jenny Balfour-Paul, courtesy Botanical Survey of India, Kolkata.
Caption: 4 Dr Himadri Debnath at the BSI Industrial Section with a rediscovered volume from Thomas Wardle's 1880s Specimens of Fabrics Dyed with Indian Dyes. Photograph: Jenny Balfour-Paul, courtesy Botanical Survey of India, Kolkata.
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|Publication:||Marg, A Magazine of the Arts|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2013|
|Next Article:||Recalculating colour: thomas wardle's remarkable dye experiments.|