Magic that gives birth to blue

What makes Indigo one of the most mysterious colours in the natural colour spectrum? May be the fact that it comes from the green leaves of Indigofera Tinctoria. This plant goes through an industrious process of oxidization and reduction to yield the colour blue. How mankind figured this secret of turning green into blue is unbelievable, especially when one is exposed to the process.

The journey of Indigo from fields to dyers workshop

There are primarily two methods for Indigo extraction from the leaves. Traditionally the method that has been followed in India and many other countries from ancient times is known as the wet method of Extraction. Sukumo is the dry method using compost followed in Japan.

Dr. Ismael Khatri, the patron of Ajrakhpur village in Kutch explains it thus. In Olden times, Indigo that got used were the ones that would grow abundantly in the wild. It used to grow on its own in waste lands. During the rains, the entire family would go into the forests to harvest Indigo. The pink flowers bloomed in the rains and was an indication for harvest time, when the richest concentration of the colour could be obtained from the plant.

They would bring it into the river bank and put it into a tank that was built on the rocky terrain. They would then press the leaves to the bottom with rocks and stones and pour river water into it. After leaving it overnight, the leaves and stones were taken out from the tank to obtain the residue liquid which would be slightly yellow.

This liquid got beaten for 4-5 hours to ensure oxidization and lime water added to this, again to be left overnight. Next day, black micro-crystals starts forming which looks similar to dirt in water and settles at the bottom of the tank. Water at the top is drained out and the Indigo paste collected at the bottom gathered in a cloth to be dried in the sun.

This long process of making Indigo is nothing less than a craft by itself. The shade of Indigo thus procured could vary depending on time of the harvest, soil and climate in which it grows. Unfortunately, it is also a craft that is getting lost. A secret formula that is handed down from generations have almost become extinct. Most of the traditional dyers now depend on synthetic dyes that opens for them the possibility of mass production or they source natural Indigo cakes from other suppliers in the market.

Finding Indigo

So where does all the natural Indigo come from? Is there still a place in India where this ancient craft of Indigo extraction is practiced in all its purity?

Asian Paints team traveled to the South and discovered a small district called Villupuram in Tamil Nadu where around 1000 acres of Indigo is cultivated and harvested. Many families of Planters have been cultivating it for generations right from the time of the British or even before.

Mr.Anbalagan

Here we met up with Mr. Anbalagan who is the founder of KMA Exports, one of the biggest suppliers of Natural Indigo located in Tindivanam. Mr. Anbalagan is a third generation farmer. His grandfather got into Indigo farming and colour extraction at the time of the British. Starting with just 5 cents of land inherited from his grandfather, the family now owns 135 acres, growing mainly Indigo and sugar cane. Indigo is an intercrop grown along with a variety of beans. It was initially used by farmers in making bio manure as it is an excellent source for nitrogen fixation.

Nurturing Indigo - working with the vat

The second part of the process is converting the Indigo cake into liquid dye.

Dyers vat is a very interesting place. It is 3- 4 ft. long pot, often dug and kept under- neath the ground. The key to maintaining a vat is temperature control. Indigo can survive in tropical climates needing almost 25-30 degree celcious.

- An Indigo vat covered with a baby blanket in Uttarakhand to maintain the temperature

The process starts when the pot is filled with water and the various Ingredients added-Lime, Dates, overnight soaked Indigo. These ingredients vary depending on the geography. For example, there are certain cultures which use pineapples instead of dates. This pot is then left for 15 -20 days, post which the indigo starts leaving its colour in the water to make it yellowish green. Till this happens, water remains to be blue. Once the fabric or yarn is dyed in this yellowish green water, it is kept for drying and slowly turns blue with exposure to oxygen. After one round of dyeing, the vat has to remain idle for a few hours for the indigo to become soluble again and to leave its colour in the water for dyeing.

The recipe for making and maintaining a live Indigo vat is not as easy as it sounds. One has to work with it for many years to get the proportions right. Every morning, the Indigo maker looks into his vat- smells it, touches it and sometimes tastes it to ascertain the health of the vat and the colour inside.

There is no measure to the indigo that need to be added subsequently. It is an intuitive sense, one that is developed through many failures.

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