Before it was democratized into everyday denim, indigo, also known as “blue gold", was eagerly sought by royals and the elite; it was as covetable as coffee, silk, sometimes even gold. The rare pigment, extracted from the Indigofera plant species by a lengthy fermentation process, was grown in large quantities in India since the 1600s. By the 1800s, to meet rising demand from international markets, colonial rulers pressured farmers into replacing their food crops with more profitable indigo cultivation. This period of oppression finally culminated in the Indigo Revolt of 1859.

At the second edition of the London Design Biennale, which kicked off earlier this week with more than 40 participating countries and territories, the India Pavilion is showcasing a multichannel installation that recalls the brilliant hue’s problematic history. Curated by Priya Khanchandani and commissioned by the Gujral Foundation, State Of Indigo is an immersive look at the production process of natural indigo dye. Visuals of violent thrashing at a trough, extracted from a film commissioned by Auroville-based charity The Colours of Nature nearly two decades ago, stretch across the walls and are accompanied by loud, rhythmic sounds of manual labour, and a whiff of diffused indigo.

In an email interview, Khanchandani explains the genesis of the installation, the politics of indigo production and the creative value of the hue. Edited excerpts:

What vision did you have for the India Pavilion at this year’s London Design Biennale?

I was keen to present an aspect of Indian design that moved away from stereotypes conventionally associated with India. Indigo was as desirable in the 19th century as a luxury pigment as it is today, albeit in synthetic form, in the denim that everyone wears. We chose it as the subject of the Pavilion because it has such a compelling story and one that is rarely given adequate limelight as being part of India’s identity.

In addition (to the multichannel installation), there will be a textile installation by Rajesh Pratap Singh and another by Alaiia Gujral, which show the tangible application of indigo.

How does the installation tie in with the theme of London Design Biennale 2018, ‘Emotional States’?

During India’s colonial rule, it was once said that no indigo box dispatched to England was without a smear of blood. Resistance to that tyranny led to the two-year revolt, which brought an end to the mass cultivation of indigo in India.

In the installation, our use of the colour indigo is a reflection of India’s emotional plight. It represents a process of emotional catharsis for a nation whose invisible histories are being unravelled.

Why do you think it is important to address the politics of indigo production today?

Indigo is unquestionably bound to India’s design history. It has been used to dye fabric, repel insects, treat ailments, disinfect, ward off spirits and even decorate an entire city (Jodhpur).

The politics of labour exploitation that once existed in the production of indigo continue to exist in the manufacture of denim. Today, indigo-dyed jeans are produced in immense quantities in South Asia and distributed globally by international brands, at huge cost to India’s environment and often under harsh labour conditions. The Gujral Foundation has plans to present the project as part of a series of roundtables across India with design thinkers and professionals, so that the conversation may continue.

What has been the creative appeal of indigo, especially in design?

Colour is a crucial element of design, yet we rarely reflect on how much it shapes our environment. Indigo may be a pigment but it is also a mood in (Duke) Ellington’s lovelorn blues and the dying stages of a bruise. It is an evocative and alluring colour, an inky blue with a deep, night-time tone. It appeals subconsciously to our desire for the earthy tonalities and raptures with an inimitable intensity.

How do you think the Biennale will impact Indian design?

International biennales are an important counterpoint to museums, allowing for a more elastic development of ideas. Despite India’s rich design history, it is all too often absent from such platforms; for example, India does not officially take part in the Venice Architecture Biennale.

When I worked at the V&A (in London), I was struck that the Middle East and China had dedicated contemporary design exhibitions, but not India. Forums like the London Design Biennale (can) enable India to form part of an evolving international design discourse.


The biennale is on till 23 September at Somerset House, London. For more details, visit Londondesignbiennale.com

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