"Indigo is the world’s only natural blue dye" - Jenny Balfour-Paul

Jenny Balfour-Paul, Honorary Research Fellow at Exeter University, UK, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Royal Asiatic Society and  the Explorers Club and President of the UK Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, is author of two books on Indigo. She is a partner in ‘Silk Road Connect’, an educational initiative launched in 2009 by cellist Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, was consultant for the Whitworth Art Gallery’s 2007 UK touring exhibition ‘Indigo: A Blue to Dye For’ and the American 2011 documentary ‘Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo’. She researches dyes in shipwrecks, promotes revivals of natural dyes worldwide and is author of a forthcoming book about a nineteenth century traveler and indigo planter in Bengal.  She guest-edited the special issue of the Indian quarterly arts journal MARG, on natural dyes of the Indian subcontinent. Abhijit Ganguly spoke to Jenny.
How did you develop your passion for colours?

I had a childhood yearning to go to India. As soon as I left school I travelled there overland on the 
hippie trail. I spent six months altogether away from home, aged eighteen and alone in India and Sri Lanka. I didn’t have much money, and travelled in third class train carriages among Indian women who looked beautiful in their colourful saris. I marvelled that poor people could look so gorgeous, and relished the colours of India. That trip left a deep impression on me.
Back in England, I went to university but really wanted to go to Art College, so I went to classes in the evenings. I always had a love of craft, painting and colour. I planned to get a job back
in India, but actually ended up working in Jordan. In the Middle East I found colours of the desert, bedouin weaving, embroidery, Palestinian costumes and so on which I liked very much. I also learnt batik from an Egyptian artist when I was living in Jordan and became a batik artist. So I was working with dyes and colours but not natural dyes then. When I was later exhibiting and teaching batik fabric printing and dyeing back in UK I met an influential teacher, the late Susan Bosence, a renowned block-printer and dyer. I learnt block printing from her and used to help her with her indigo dyeing.  She loved indigo and encouraged me to return to Yemen where indigo traditions were dying out. That's how my indigo journey started. I ended up going all over the Arab world to record all I could about indigo there before it vanished. Then I travelled worldwide for my second book on indigo, which brought me back to India again.

What makes indigo so unique?

Indigo is the world’s only natural blue dye.  Today it’s needed, whether the source is natural or synthetic, to dye denim blue jeans. This is because no other blue dye has the qualities that indigo has. It never loses its blueness. It may be 3000 years old and it may fade but it’s always blue. Other dyes change colour as they age. It has a better future than many of the other natural dyes because it is a green crop. It is renewable and good for the land and therefore has great prospects.

How important have dyes been throughout human history?

Huge. I think the textile industry is the biggest industry in the world, for clothes and furnishings and so on.  Many cultures didn’t really have furniture, they just had cushions, hangings and carpets. Until 1850 (1900 in the case of indigo) they were all coloured with natural dyes. Dyes were carried across the world in camel caravans or ships and that made them valuable. For example indigo was traded from India to London via markets like Baghdad, Alexandra and Venice. It was one of the plantation crops using slave labour in the European colonies. When colonial powers reached the Caribbean islands, for instance Jamaica, indigo was the first crop grown there before it shifted to sugar. It has a sad association with Bengal in the past because it also used forced labour then.
Please elaborate the relationship of indigo with Bengal?

When the colonial powers lost their hold of the West Indies in the late 18th century, demand for indigo was huge. It was needed for all blue clothing, whether for fashion, working or service clothes, for the armies of Europe or for the navy blue of the British Navy. So where was the indigo going to be grown to make all this dye if it was no longer coming from the West Indies?  Clive had conquered Bengal in the mid 18th century and its land is perfect for indigo. Cultivation started in a small way in the early 1800's and it quickly shot up. By the 1840's indigo formed half of all exports through Kolkata. Then in the 1850's there was a series of bad years and the workers got even more discontented as they were forced to grow it and were underpaid, when what they wanted to do was grow rice. The indigo planter I have written a book about said " Now we are  going to kill the goose which lays the golden egg".  He was proved right by a serious uprising on the indigo plantations in 1859. Indigo was always a problem in Bengal because the rival crop, apart from rice, was opium and there were a lot of vested interests in opium because it was for needed for trading with China.

What are the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge is that the world consumes over a billion pairs of jeans each year and there is no way we can cater to all that with natural indigo. I think that, as with organic food, we can’t make everything organic but at least some of it. And highlighting organic cotton and dyes creates awareness of the polluters who are using heavy pesticides on cotton, and toxic chemicals to produce synthetic dyes, with waste that contaminates soil and rivers. Raising awareness of the toxicity of non-organic cotton and dyes leads to developments to make non-organic ones less polluting.
Whats your take on the use of technology in this regard?

A lot of research is going on in many areas, including the field of biotechnology.  For example the bacteria that make an indigo vat work have been discovered. One day we might even be growing ‘natural’ indigo in a lab.
How was your experience at the Sutra?

The Sutra organisation does an amazing job and the 2014 meeting was a great success.  It combined the past and future of natural dyes and the launch of Marg Vol 65, No.2, ‘Colours of Nature: Dyes from the Indian subcontinent’.  The exhibition, talks and round-table discussions about unique dye sample books and other archives in Kolkata, especially at the BSI, show how important it is to preserve and conserve such records. The exhibition on sustainable fashion, the bazaar with its naturally dyed products, and the dye demonstrations on the rooftop of ICCR were really well organised and showed how natural dyes can be used practically in textiles and fashion today and in the future. I  was very encouraged by the excitement and interest Sutra aroused among the delegates, participants and outside visitors, including many from overseas. It was also wonderful to see students and schoolchildren involved, because educating the young is where it all starts. India – and especially Bengal – has such a richness of textile history and present day skills. Sutra draws attention to this both within India and worldwide.

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