2016

Himalayan Indigo

Avani Society

Indigo has come a full circle. From it's rich ancient history to becoming a means of colonial exploitation and now, once again becoming a symbol of sustainability and empowerment

At a time when color was still a luxury, the art of dyeing in India, had reached heights of excellence, unparalleled anywhere else. And Indigo, became the color most coveted around the world.

The color of the sea and the sky, Indigo has forever been attached with the country of it's origin. The name Indigo itself is quite a clear indication of that. It being derived from the Greek word ‘indikon’, meaning ‘from India’. Indigo cultivation is thought to have existed in the Indus Valley (present-day Pakistan and northwest India) more than 5,000 years ago. This knowledge of extracting blue color from green leaves of indigo was closely guarded within the families. It was processed and dried into hard blocks before being sent off on trade routes across Europe, where people devoid of the knowledge of how it was prepared, would think of Indigo as a mineral.

Polygonum tinctorium is the Japanese indigo variety. Was popular until the arrival of the indigofera tinctoria in Japan.

Another indigo plant from Northeast India and it's bordering countries.

While there are different types of Indigo plants that can be used for dyeing, it is the true indigo, or the Indigofera tinctoria, grown across India, that has been historically used for creating the best indigo dyes.

Cultivation
A famously tropical plant, Indigo grows well in ample sun and rain. Just before the monsoons, in June, is the best time to sow the seeds. 

Seeds of Indigofera tinctoria. Prior to planting them, they are soaked in cow urine for an hour or so, in order to make them pest and disease resistant.

Once the seeds are sown, it takes about a week for the first saplings to appear.

Basanti Devi of Chankana Village, taking the weeds out from the growing Indigo plants.

In about three months, just as they start flowering, the indigo plants are harvested.

As a member of the legume family, indigo forms a beneficial relationship with bacteria that fix nitrogen into the soil. It is, therefore, a great companion plant that improves soil quality for the surrounding plants. Farmers who cultivated indigo for Avani this year reported that the food crops they grew along with indigo come out much better.

The leaves start releasing the chemical Indican present in the indigo leaves once they start to ferment in water.

Processing
The leaves are pressed down with a stone to let as much color out in the water. The leaves are allowed to ferment in water, overnight, till bubbles start appearing on the top. Once the bubbles appear, the leaves are taken out, leaving behind greenish blue water. This color is from indican, the soluble chemical in the indigo leaves. 
Indigo is a unique pigment because of its chemistry. The indigo leaves only carry the precursor to the pigment - the water soluble indican. It is after this indican has been oxidised complelety that it changes to indigotin, the actural dye pigment. This pigment is itself insoluble in water and hence requires a special technique of dyeing as well. 

In order to set the right pH, before oxidation, lime water is sometimes added to the indican water.

Oxidation
Oxidation can be done either manually or using a motor. At first the water is slightly murky green with very little blue. After a while, on coming in contact with oxygen, the indican turns into indigotin and the water starts turning into a deep blue before eventually turning into almost black. 

The video shows two separate drums of indigo water being oxidised using a motor. The drum at the front shows the initial lighter blue color of indigo. The second drum shows the a much darker shade, indicating the oxidation is almost complete!

The water is left overnight for the indigo to settle down. The next day, the water is decanted and the indigo paste at the bottom of the drum is collected and filtered through a fine cloth.

Seiving and collecting the indigo paste in a fine cloth.

Indigo Vat
Since the indigo dye, when exposed to oxygen, is in an insoluble state, dyeing with indigo is not done in the traditional way. A continuously reducing vat is separately prepared using reducing sugars (like fructose, wheat bran, rice whiskey, et cetera) and pH balancing alkaline material (like soda, wood ash, lime et cetera). The sign of a ready vat is the presence of bubbles (that act as an oxygen barrier) and a metallic blue-green sheen on top. This can take about two weeks (depending upon the ingredients of the vat). The first dip in an indigo vat results is also a green shade that becomes blue as soon as it comes in contact with oxygen.
In the colonial history of India, Indigo had become the infamous crop, the desire for which led to the opression of countless farmers. It was also the crop that ultimately led to the country's first ever non-violent revolt, that brought together farmers across all the Indigo states. Today, the story is much different. The Himlayan Indigo is a project of empowerment. Indigo, like in the ancient times, is once again a respectable crop that is slowly leading to the properity of the people who cultivate it and the land that it is grown in. 
AVANI Foundation
Credits: Story

Kumaon-Earthcraft Co-operative
Text: Prachi Gupta
Images: Amrita Bhattacharya, Kailash Upadhayay, Smriti Bharti, Prachi Gupta, Avani archives

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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