It is not just a seasonal forecast that makes indigo the colour of the moment. You could call it coming full circle but there’s something more here. The new story dilutes indigo’s rich history during colonial oppression—its association with Mahatma Gandhi’s Champaran movement in 1916 that upheld the revolt of Bihar’s indigo farmers—and, instead, repositions it as a colour that’s global and modern.

Indigo is now the poster pigment of ecological responsibility and the crafts revolution; the flagship shade of the natural dyes movement that runs parallel to eco-friendly fashion and organic style. Interest in natural indigo has been scattered in the past decade but the revival is now visible everywhere.

Last month at Colours of Nature, an international conference on natural dyes organized by Sutra, a Kolkata-based non-profit society that works to preserve our textile heritage, global experts spoke on the resonance of organic dyes.

“There has been an amazing revival of indigo all over the world. It is in keeping with the bigger thinking of what we are doing to the planet. It has also put pressure on the chemical industry to clean up its act," Jenny Balfour-Paul, author of Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans and Indigo in the Arab World, said.

An indigo dyeing workshop at Colours of Nature, an international conference held recently in Kolkata. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Catwalk collections or craft bazaars, accessory exhibitions or décor and design fairs—there is a hyper availability of indigo-dyed products. From blue Dhakai saris woven with jute to Kalamkari garments painted in organic pigments; from the woven indigo pashminas of Kashmir to the Ajrakh fabrics (the word Ajrakh itself is derived from azarukh, which means blue in Persian) of Kutch; from indigo Bandhinis to blue Shibori creations.

It is no coincidence that Dastkar Andhra makes natural-dyed fabrics in indigo with newer technical interventions or that we find numerous indigo-dyed garments in non-ethnic silhouettes in stores like Anokhi, which sustains Rajasthani traditions of block printing.

An outfit from Rahul Mishra’s Spring/Summer collection ‘KISS’. Photo: Rajesh Kashyap/Hindustan Times
An outfit from Rahul Mishra’s Spring/Summer collection ‘KISS’. Photo: Rajesh Kashyap/Hindustan Times

Her garments were also displayed at The Grand Bazaar at the recent Kolkata conference. As were those by Urvashi Kaur, whose Spring/Summer 2014 line Semah intermixes a lighter shade of indigo fabrics in easy prêt—long layered dresses, harem pants and wrap tunics included. Aditi Prakash, the founder of Pure Gehe Designs, which makes fabric bags, has two indigo collections, Allika and Urban Indigo. The former was made from indigo fabric from Dastkar Andhra and the latter includes the blue Ajrakh of Kutch.

Cross over to the crafts sector and Jabbar Khatri, a Bandhini craftsperson from Bhuj, elatedly talks about his new ombre line of indigo scarves, dupattas and saris, all natural dyed and tie-dyed in delicate Bandhini dots.

A Pure Ghee indigo cotton bag

Shantanu Das, the founder of Maku Textile, who only makes indigo-coloured products, says his interest in indigo started when he began working for a New York-based company during his course at National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad. “The project was on handmade products that challenged machines. I proposed an indigo collection, where every dyeing attempt brings out another shade of blue, unlike machine-made standardization," says Das, who curated an exhibition at the Colours of Nature conference. “Everybody was initially sceptical about me using just one colour for my product range but I continued to be intrigued by it. When indigo ages, the colour fades from garments. We try to design in such a way that textures emerge once the colours fade. Indigo has been like an underground movement and an interesting journey for me," he adds.

An indigo-dyed scarf, top and jacket by Aneeth Arora. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
An indigo-dyed scarf, top and jacket by Aneeth Arora. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Indigo is derived from the plant Indigofera tinctoria, and neervel, which is found in Kutch, and dyeing is enabled by a natural fermentation. The yarn or fabric is dipped into a bath or dye vat and is then aired thoroughly before washing off the excess dye to reduce rubbing upon use. The depth of the blue shade depends on the number of times the yarn is dipped into the vat. “A skilled dyer would know from the smell when the solution was ready for dyeing. Sometimes, the dyer tasted the solution by putting a drop of it at the back of his tongue to check the intensity of the dye," writes Archana Shah in her book Shifting Sands: Kutch Textiles, Traditions, Transformation.

It is this matrix of anecdotes, a green-blue colour card, crafts traditions and organic dyeing that makes indigo products exceptional. So when a designer makes a sari or a handloom scarf from an indigo textile, a winter jacket from indigo wool, or turns the fabric into an everyday bag, you find a rare churn of history, contemporary innovation, human skill and relevance. True and blue.

Shamik Bag contributed to this story.

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