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Rangeen: colours of life.

The madder-dyed cotton excavated at Mohenjodaro of the 3rd millennium BCE is indicative of the early history of cotton cultivation and colouring in the Indian subcontinent. In addition to exceptional proficiency in weaving, the finest skill of the Indian craftsman was dyeing and patterning fabric in brilliant fast colours. Techniques ranged from simple dyeing to the skilful manipulation of a complex range of processes--from resist- and block-printing to precise control of mordant-patterning with different combinations of dyes. Metallic salts were used as perfect binding agents in the pattern-dyeing of silk and cotton fabrics.

Indian textiles excelled in showcasing red and black--two elusive colours, made from madder and iron filings respectively. In association with other substances, these provided the base for pinks, violets and maroons. The technique for creating brilliant and lasting reds was perfected in India, and is thought to have been carried on to East Asia by Muslim traders at a later period. Mordant techniques were known in India by the 2nd millennium BCE. The pure, flawless colours used in patterning yarn-dyed and -printed cotton in India had a quality of fastness unknown in other parts of the world. Some of the earliest examples of Indian patterned textiles were excavated in Fostat in Egypt, the capital established by the Arabs after their conquests in the 7th century CE.

Indian textiles for the courts found their richest expression under the Sultanates and the Mughals. An extraordinary fineness of texture, design and colour developed within the great craft schools around the Mughal courts of Delhi and Agra and the imperial courts of Golconda. More than 300 tints were in constant use during the Mughal period, with sources as varied as madder (Rubia tinctorum), sappan (Caesalpinia sappan), lodh (Symplocos racemosa) and lac, saffron and pistachio, cochineal and fungus of mulberry. Indigo was much prized for the blues and greens favoured by the Muslim rulers. Royal patronage stimulated experimentation which enabled the craftsman to establish multiple substitutes for each of the primary colours--red, yellow, blue and black. They developed different shades of pink, purple and other tints, using varying combinations of dye ingredients. Names like Fakhtai, Sandali, Kafuri, Jilani, Dilbahar and Aquilquami evoke Persian and Arabian influences on the emergence of this new collection of dyes.

Various products like jainamaz (prayer mats), palangposh (bedcovers), parde (drapery) and the magnificent tents reflected the roghan (red dye made from wild safflower seed oil) process of the Mughals. Kalamkaris (hand-printed or painted textiles)--especially the exquisite temple hangings--belonged to a similar genre of fine workmanship and mastery of dye colours.

Many of these fabrics swept the world markets; the most highly prized merchandise of important trade routes were the woven and printed textiles of India. The Indian craftsman's ability to respond to the tastes of a specific market enabled him to capture a large proportion of the export trade. Europe, Persia and West Asia, Armenia, Japan, Indonesia and a number of countries along the trade routes of the Arabs vied with each other for these textiles. European trade further stimulated an interest in natural dyes, so that along with textiles there was active competition for these, particularly for indigo.

What remains of interest is how the use of natural dyes was developed across continents and oceans, in societies as diverse as the Mayan Indians, the nomadic Yoruks of Turkey, the ikat weavers of Central Asia, the carpet-weavers of Persia and the traditional dyeing communities of southern India and the Gangetic delta. In the flat weaves of the Turkish kilims, the aftangs or seven-colour silk ikats dyed in the abrbandi (an Uzbek term for ikat that literally means "to tie a cloud") workshops of Bokhara, and the woven and printed textiles of India, the effectiveness of the designs was reinforced by the resplendent colours of organic dyes.

Centuries of knowledge and skill were lost in less than a hundred years with the discovery of aniline dyes in 1856. Their subsequent introduction into the captive colonial markets of British India led to a rapid decline in the commercial production and use of natural dyes (figure 5). It was only a matter of time before natural dyes--especially indigo, exploited for decades by the British--were replaced by these chemical alternatives. By the time India gained Independence in 1947, the use of natural dyes had been all but eliminated there, surviving only amongst some isolated rural communities. Since then, much progress has been made in India to re-establish their use, though sadly many dyers use chemical alizarin and indigo instead of madder and natural indigo.

Historically, Bengal (today's West Bengal and Bangladesh) was famed for its woven textiles rather than for printed fabrics. In the early 19th century, Buchanan Hamilton found dyeing of yarn, rather than printing of cloth, to be the major process for the production of turbans, sashes and woven cloth. He noted turmeric, safflower, the kusum flower, polas (fivndosa mushroom) and lobbongo (clove) among the local dye plants. In his report of the late 19th century, Dr N.N. Banerjee refers to the dyeing and weaving centres of Dacca (Dhaka), Rajshahi and Bogra. He makes special reference to the colourful fabrics of the tribal communities. Indeed, before natural dyes were reintroduced in the 1980s, the only people who used them in Bangladesh were indigenous tribes.

The movement for the revival and promotion of natural dyes in India was initiated by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (1903-88) in the 1970s; she was also instrumental in inspiring their revival in Bangladesh. Here the programme was initiated as a Research and Development Project of the Ministry of Industries in 1982. It had four main objectives, keeping in mind the environmental, social and economic potential of organic dyes:

-to revive plant dyes which are eco-friendly and non-pollutant,

-to re-establish a traditional craft using indigenous materials,

-to generate increased employment opportunities to maximize use of human resources,

-to carry out research and develop techniques to make natural dyes more cost-effective and commercially viable.

The initial survey showed that Bangladesh has a rich repository of dye-producing plants; however, the technical skills regarding colour extraction, fastness and range had been lost over time. During the first phase of the project well-known Indian experts K.V. Chandramouli, Toofan Rafai and Mohammad Jamil provided training in six basic shades of dyeing and block-printing. Extensive research and experimentation over the next two years with innumerable plants--flowers, fruits, leaves, seeds, sawdust and extracts--led to the successful standardization of 15 colour-fast dyes (figures 3 and 4).

In the second phase, funded by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the emphasis was as much on extending the colour palette and training as on undertaking measures to ensure the future availability of dyestuffs. The colour range was expanded to 30 stable dyes that, singly or as compound colours, provided almost limitless options for dyeing and block-printing. This was also the period during which extensive training workshops were conducted for dyers, weavers and craft organizations across the country. Most importantly, a collaborative project with the Ministry of Forestry ensured the inclusion of dye-producing plants in their annual afforestation programme, securing the future supply of dye sources in Bangladesh.

The most exciting event in recent years has been the successful revival of the famous Bengal indigo, after a gap of more than a hundred years. The negative history of indigo in this area thwarted all efforts to revive indigo in the 1980s. However in the '90s, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), an international NGO, started the cultivation and production of indigo as a pilot project with the Garos, a tribe of India's Meghalaya state and neighbouring areas of Bangladesh who did not share the same history as Bengali farmers (figure 6).

MCC received technical support for their project from India, making it a commercial success in a fairly short time. So much so that within a decade farmers in north Bangladesh, who had been cultivating indigo plants as fertilizer for years, now wanted to revert to it as a cash crop for dyes (figure 7). MCC shifted its project to the north and was followed by CARE Bangladesh's Living Blue, a community development project. Presently Bangladesh not only produces enough indigo for its domestic requirements, but also for a growing export market. Today both organizations are using local Indigofera tinctoria, indicating that indigo had never been lost in Bangladesh, its use only having shifted from dye to fertilizer.

Although there has seldom been any difference of opinion about the beauty and intrinsic value of natural dyes, persistent questions have been raised in national and international forums about their cost-effectiveness and commercial viability. In the '90s, a number of craft NGOs and private organizations in the region started working on the development and commercial production of natural dye textiles with Aranya, a Bangladeshi fair-trade enterprise that was at the forefront of the revival movement (figure 8).

Over the years Aranya developed new techniques to reduce fuel and labour costs without affecting the depth and fastness of the colours. It established that bright colours could be extracted from dyestuffs by boiling them for half an hour, dispelling the common belief that they required boiling for two or three hours; also that deep colours could be obtained perfectly by dyeing material in a boiled dye solution off the fire instead of on the stove. Other cost-cutting measures included sourcing dyes from waste materials like peel, leaves and petals, and extracting more than one shade from each dye solution. These measures have made natural dyes more cost-effective and competitive today.

Another important role Aranya has played in promoting natural dyes has been through the regular training workshops it has conducted for organizations and institutions in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Malaysia, Bhutan and Turkey. These organizations in turn have held similar training programmes in their own countries.

As the lead organization in the Natural Dye Programme of the World Crafts Council--Asia Pacific Region (WCC-APR), Aranya recently hosted the first ever Training of Trainers Workshop in the region, with master-dyers and other experts from nine Asian countries attending, to share traditional and contemporary dyeing techniques, particularly the use of natural mordants. In spite of their experience and extensive knowledge, each participant learned something new. Plans are underway to organize similar workshops in the other regions of WCC-APR--especially in West Asia, where the traditional desert colours of natural dyes have been lost altogether.

Ecological concerns worldwide have generated a growing demand for organic foods, fibres and colours. As a result, there has been a resurgence of interest in natural dyes. This is reflected in the series of international workshops and conferences organized in the last decade. These events have brought together multidisciplinary participants including researchers, scientists, dye experts (traditional and contemporary), marketing specialists and others, to share the diverse wealth of knowledge and experience across the globe.

In this connection, the International Natural Dye Symposium 2006 organized jointly by UNESCO and WCC-APR and hosted by the Crafts Council of India in Hyderabad (India), and the ISEND Conference 2010 at La Rochelle (France), were outstanding events. They provided an excellent combination of informative lectures and interactive workshops conducted by some of the best practitioners in the field. These meetings provided invaluable opportunities for traditional artisans--who often work in isolated rural communities--to exchange and upgrade their skills through direct interaction with others from similar backgrounds. Though they may not share a common language, their hands speak for them. A classic example of the long-term benefits such events can provide is the fillip Bangladesh's indigo revival programme received from Dastkar India's specialized workshops, which enabled it to progress from MCC's pilot project to their successful indigo production and marketing organization, Nilkomol.

The engagement of iconic fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood, Calvin Klein and Jean Paul Gaultier in using natural-dye textiles for haute couture products has given these textiles high-profile visibility and an invaluable endorsement (figure 9). Simultaneously, a new generation of young designers, concerned with ethical and environmental issues, has been sourcing quality naturally dyed fabrics and accessories for upmarket high-street stores. International organizations have also encouraged natural dye colours for use in beauty products such as lipstick and foundation, promoted by the prestigious companies of Dior, YSL, Shahnaz and others. These developments have supported the upgrading of plant dye products from a niche market to a mainstream one, a prime objective of the natural dye movement.

The last decade has witnessed the mobilization of a worldwide movement for the revival, development and promotion of organic dyes, and international craft networks like WCC, International Symposium and Exhibition of Natural Dyes (ISEND) and World Eco-Fibre and Textiles (WEFT) have pooled their resources to create a common platform to lobby state agencies and policy-makers. The idea is to persuade them to adopt positive measures to promote natural dyes and raise awareness of the general public about their ecological and financial merits. Some of these networks have undertaken special programmes of research and documentation on the status of natural dyes in member countries--including the availability and cost of dyestuffs, and the new dyeing techniques developed in recent years--in order to disseminate the information across borders.

While commendable progress has been made in taking natural dyes forward, it is essential to formulate sustainable strategies and programmes in order to build on the achievements so far. Only the concerted effort of all stakeholders--state entities, craft networks, institutions, artisans and practitioners--can realize the full economic, social and environmental potential of these dyes. The staying power of organic dyes will be tested by the challenge of unequal competition from synthetic dye multinationals entrenched in the furthest corners of the world today. However, the magical colour palette of natural dyes has a universal appeal that could return it to a central place in our lives again one day (figure 10).
 Indigo, colour of the Hindu god Krishna and associated with ritual
 and magic, is the world's most widely used and best-loved dyestuff'
 (figure 1). It is an ingredient in paints and medicines. Indigo was
 exported from India to the West from antiquity and had an
 extraordinary impact on textiles and arts worldwide for thousands of
 years. From 1600 the European East India Companies competed fiercely
 for India's indigo, and it was in great demand for dyeing the exotic
 Indian fabrics that took Europe by storm. In the 19th century, Bengal
 became the world's main source of indigo. However, unjust production
 methods caused civil unrest and a "Blue Mutiny" that had widespread
 political ramifications, culminating in agitation at Champaran in
 Bihar, Gandhi's first step on the road to India's Independence. A
 surviving, hitherto unpublished, eyewitness account of Bengal's
 indigo industry in the mid-19th century lends colourful detail to the
 story.


Caption: 2 Kashmir shawl, c. 1840-60. Pashmina, or possibly a mixture of pashmina and local goat hair; warp 324.5 cm, weft 136 cm. Photograph courtesy Tapi Collection. 97.1419.

Caption: 3 Cotton scarves dyed in madder, myrobalan, cutch, indigo green, raintree and indigo blue, using different mordants (except for the indigo which requires no mordant). Photograph: Ismini Sarnanidou.

Caption: 4 Natural-dyed yarn, block-printed scarves and dyestuffs. Photograph: Ruby Ghuznavi.

Caption: 5 "Indigo Cultivation in Tirhoot, Bengal". A print from The Graphic, February 12, 1881.

Caption: 6 Drying indigo extract--Nilkomol, MCC. Photograph courtesy Mennonite Central Committee, Dhaka.

Caption: 7 Oxidizing indigo-dyed silk yarn. Photograph: Ruby G huznavi

Caption: 8 Aranya's colour chart of natural dyes. Photograph: Shamsuzzaman.

Caption: 9 Local designers in Bangladesh have been working with natural dyes as seen in these block-printed saris. Photograph: Shamsuzzaman.

Caption: 10 Natural-dyed silk-yarn. Photograph: Ruby Ghuznavi.

Caption: 1 "The Gopis Beseeching Krishna to Return their Clothing", detail of a page from a dispersed Bhagavata Purana manuscript, Delhi-Agra area, c. 1560-65. Painted in natural colours; 19.2 x 25.7 cm. [c] The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY. 1972.260.
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Title Annotation:Ruby Ghuznavi
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9BANG
Date:Dec 1, 2013
Words:2624
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