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The Cost of Indigo

Updated: Sep 5, 2021

Hassan Tahir Latif

Author's Note: I began my curatorial fortnights this year by looking at the past that became a foray into the distant past. After ruminating on the ruins of Mehrgarh to establish the importance of clay and ceramics, I wanted to explore similar objects that have stood the test of time, or have shaped the way our world is. In this piece, I look at a blue dye, coveted by all, yet one that became a bane for many, even as it was a boon to others. I also speak to Pakistani artist Saba Khan whose work allowed me to connect this dye to our own colonial past.

The dawn of human civilisation and the lives of even our direct pre-modern ancestors seem so removed from us that we often forget our proximity to them in the grand time-scale of our planet. Our technological advancements and alleviated living standards obscure the link that many of our present day activities share with their lives.

However, this connection with the pre-historic past has led me further towards ideas that reinforce this concept. Whether its Robert Macfarlane tracing pathways and travel patterns from eons ago and bringing them starkly to the modern day, or understanding myth-making and storytelling as the cornerstone of modern humanity (Harari and Armstrong helped there), or even Edmund de Waal’s incisive look into personal archives and exiles as an entry point into the greater concept of human migration, I am in thrall of how many of our modern day practices and ideas are connected to the earliest humans.

What I aim to bring to the fore is an appreciation of concepts that have defined human civilisation—practices such as ceramics that have survived several millennia and exist even today—many of which we take for granted. A closer look allows us to truly marvel at their place in our past and their sustained longevity.

Diving into this anthropological history, the second object that stood out for its ubiquity throughout the last few thousand years is: indigo.

Indigo Cake by David Stroe

Indigo is intricately linked to not only our pre-modern past in the Indian subcontinent and beyond, but also to our near past in the British colonial era. This alluring blue dye has links with slavery, uprisings, exploitation of labour and even with the vernacular; it is deeply embedded within the history of this land. Considered a rare commodity, indigo was often referred to as ‘blue gold’ during the colonial heyday and was arguably as important in creating global colonial trading patterns as tea, coffee, silk and spices. However, the use of indigo goes further back and even the trading routes are entrenched in a much earlier era.

This alluring blue dye has links with slavery, uprisings, exploitation of labour and even with the vernacular; it is deeply embedded within the history of this land

Primarily produced from a plant called Indigofera Tinctora, indigo dyes were widely found in the tropical zones around India, China, Africa and even South America. Although experts believe that this practice goes back to the Neolithic era, the earliest surviving piece of fabric employing indigo dyeing was found 6000 years ago in Huaca Prieta, Peru. Ancient civilisations ranging from the Incan, to the West African, to the Mesopotamian, Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Indian were partaking in indigo dyeing. Each region had its own crop variations, but it was the Indigofera Tinctora plant that eventually domesticated in India and subsequently found its way to the Greco-Roman empires, where due to its rarity, it was considered a luxury reserved for the aristocracy.

In fact, the Indian region’s association with indigo trading in the earlier civilisations became the reason behind the name itself. The Greek word for this dye was indikón, which later went through a process of Latinisation, becoming indicum and ultimately the English word indigo. A whole trade route was set up to export indigo from the Indian Subcontinent to the Mediterranean with the help of Arab merchants, most likely passing through the Mesopotamian neo-Babylonian settlements, where evidence shows the presence of such a dye.

Fast forward a few centuries and Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea routes to India and the Far East, indigo trading, along with other commodities, became easier. Eventually, the European colonies established in South America, particularly in Haiti, began producing the indigo crop as well, leading to the enslavement and exploitation of indigenous populations. Other plantations were set up in South Carolina during the 18th century. The demand for high quality indigo persisted and many lives were lost in the process of satisfying Europe’s desire for this regal dye. The importance of it during the time can be gauged by Newton including indigo as one of the primary colours of the rainbow in his Lectiones Opticae, 1675.

Circling back to the Subcontinent, the British East India Company generated vast quantity of indigo, particularly in the South Punjab and Bengal regions. The latter was one of the more productive sites and became the scene of a revolt in 1859. The Indigo Revolt was an uprising in the Chaugucha village of Nadia in Bengal, where farmers stood up against the indigo planters, due to the dire conditions in which they were kept. It is to be noted that this area was not originally producing indigo, but was introduced to it by a Frenchman, Louis Bonnaud, in 1777. Farmers were convinced to plant indigo instead of food crops, forced into indentured slavery and debt, and entirely unprotected from the wrath of the ruling classes. The revolt was eventually crushed through brutal force and the massacre of many peasants, but it had a profound effect on the region and the future of the industry. Consequently, the Indigo Commission of 1860 was set up and the report noted: “not a chest of Indigo reached England without being stained with human blood.” The cultural impact of the revolt included a play, Nil Darpan (or Indigo Mirror) by Bengali writer Dinabandhu Mitra.

Studying the history of indigo, I was not surprised that its most tumultuous episodes were associated with the colonial era, but I did wonder why it was not as present in our collective memories as many other revolts, or even items (such as silk, spices and cotton) that are associated with colonial rule. To explore this further I turned to Pakistani artist Saba Khan, whose work ‘Neela Dharpan’ first brought the violent past of indigo to light for me.

Saba Khan is a visual artist whose work varies from painting, sculpture, photography to installation, used as tropes to comment on the emerging aspirational class, along with the ‘bad tastes’ in religious ceremonies, homes and the bazaar. Her residencies have been focused on ecology and the impact we have on our environment through development and mass tourism (especially with regards to Murree, where she founded the Murree Museum Artist Residency).

In 2019, Saba was part of a show entitled ‘Unmaking History’ curated by artists Laila Rahman, Natasha Malik and Saher Sohail. Her piece was indigo dyed cotton fabric (108 x 48 inches) with etchings using dust that she had collected during the Lahore Canal widening dig. The name ‘Neela Dharpan’ paid homage to the original Bengali play that highlighted the Indigo Revolt and the work signified the lost history of indigo workers and exploitative colonial practices.

Upon asking how she arrived at this project, Saba states, “I was researching the various uses of water, its treatment and distribution in the Subcontinent; naturally, crop irrigation came up and eventually I came across the indigo industry. Looking at the harsh conditions of indigo farmers back then brought to mind the similarly extractive practices we witness in the modern textile industry. In the past, local populations were exploited for the appetites of the Western upper classes, now they are exploited for the fast-fashion requirements of almost everyone. The dust is symbolic of the negative environmental impact of our industries, as well as the unhealthy working conditions that factory workers still have to bear.”

Neela Dharpan by Saba Khan

Remembering how Saba’s work stood out sharply against the rest at the show, I was curious to know more about her process and why she chose to highlight the indigo industry in the way she did: fabric pieces hanging from the ceiling, swaying ever so slightly. Walking around them one could see elaborate stencilled etchings offering an almost magical image that did not immediately evidence brutality. “I wanted to encapsulate the entire experience of us being viewed through a western lens. Historically this led to our exploitation; currently I believe the contemporary art-work is responsible for exploiting itself through self-fetishisation. That’s why I chose to present the work as tapestries or carpets. The effect is twofold: firstly, underlining the exploitative labour practices of the carpet industry and the violent experiences associated with it. Secondly, symbolising the oriental fantasies of the west,” explains Saba.

“The way the Subcontinent was seen as the ‘orient’, an exotic land for spices, cotton and other precious materials, its contemporary art is seen in a similar light,” she continues. “Recurring images of exoticisation of violence are produced to affirm the stereotypes perceived by the Western world,” she continues. I wonder if this means that in a way the suffering of indigo farmers and many others has continued and does a disservice to their revolts.

Curious about the documentation of these historic practices, I ask Saba why she thinks indigo culture is not that prominent in our imagination. She tells me that it is possibly because indigo farming was on a smaller scale in present-day Pakistan, only being practiced in and around the Bahawalpur area. In colonial Bengal, however, it was widespread and remains active in the cultural history of Bengali people to date. She informs me that there is a lot more archiving and documentation in Bangladesh about the indigo industry, primarily because of how prevalent the practice and its exploitation was there.

We both agree that a major reason can naturally be the politics of the region, where the histories of the ‘others’ are rarely focused upon. Saba stumbled upon indigo and its regional past as accidentally as I did and we echo each other’s thought that with our colonial past, everyone finds their own path. A lot is not taught, and that which is, is taught differently depending on where you are situated. As with history in general, it is a journey we take on our own.

Returning to ‘Neela Dharpan’ I was intrigued by a comment Saulat Ajmal made in her review of the show for The Aleph Review. Commenting on Saba’s work, Saulat proclaims, “Her fragile drawings made in dust on indigo dyed tapestries allude to the flying carpet of the East as seen through the Western lens and are not just reminders of a past not buried, but also of a present not fully realised.” The unburied past represented by Saba’s work was clear to me, but the unrealised present was not precisely visible.

A close-up of Saba's piece

Saba explains, “I believe Saulat was referencing to my artist’s statement regarding the work, where I focused on the persisting conditions in the textile industry. More specifically, I can say that even though traditional indigo dyeing practices died out, the synthetic practices took over and remained as brutal across the textile industry. In Bangladesh, for example, the Rana Plaza collapse exposed the deplorable conditions of factory workers. And it is no secret that these conditions are prevalent across the region. We are still in the same cycle of oppression left behind by the colonisers. We haven’t unshackled ourselves. Instead of colonisers, we’re now bound to local industrialists who perpetuate damaging capitalism.”

Synthetic production of the indigo dye first goes back to 1865, after the German chemist Adolf von Baeyer began work on it. In a couple of decades, scientists had perfected the formula and the millennia old practice of natural indigo dyeing phased out, leaving thousands if not millions of farming households without a livelihood at the time. This synthetic production is still widely used and forms the basis of the denim industry. In fact, the blue indigo dye is the only plant-based one that remains permanently on cotton and flax, giving rise to the term ‘blue collar worker’ after the ubiquitous blue denim worn by workers and labourers everywhere.

I wanted to know if traditional indigo dyeing still exists and Saba informed me that there is a resurgence in the practice, with the aim of making it sustainable. A WWF initiative is endeavouring to reignite the practice in Bahawalpur. A 2019 annual report of WWF states, “WWF-Pakistan established 15 plots, covering 28 hectares in Keenjhar Lake, Chotiari Reservoir and Nara Canal. In collaboration with the Sindh Agriculture University, Tando Jam, research on the agronomic aspects of the plant are underway to understand the nitrogen fixing value of the crop.” It was a surprise to know that indigo dyeing is used in traditional clothing such as ajrak, jandi and kashi and that farming it creates better soil conditions. I also came across another organisation, the ‘International Center for Indigo Culture’ that is engaged in similar practices of preserving indigo heritage on a global level.

However, Saba informed me that many local dyers are unaware of the traditional practices, including a dyer she met with in Bhit Shah, as part of her Pak Khawateen Painting Club collective. Incidentally, he had provided her with dyed fabric for her artwork, claiming it to be traditionally done, but in their meeting he recanted his previous statement, declaring that he had no knowledge of the natural dyeing process, and had used chemical dyes.

“Should indigo dyeing be revived, considering its sad history in our region (and other regions)?” I ask in conclusion.

“We need to be cognisant of how we revive anything that has such disturbing roots in recent memory. If there is sustainability and protection of labour, I believe it’s fine to bring back these methods,” replies Saba.

I agree.

Uncovering the truth about indigo was a fascinating. Little did I know that a simple dye had such a riveting history. We often neglect to see how many of our everyday items have travelled through millennia, establishing international trade routes and shattering communities. Indigo may have undergone a synthetic evolution for a while, but I am glad to see there is a revival of and interest in the traditional method beyond it being an object of historical interest. Indigo’s legacy, though, remains tainted with colonial atrocities and with the behemoth of capitalist industries. This unfortunate legacy continues in the synthetic sector, as the pernicious chemicals employed in the process continue to damage the lives of workers, many of whom are part of the modern slavery complex in the garment industry.

While organisations that seek to preserve historical practices in a sustainable manner are crucial to our shared global heritage, it is also important that artists, such as Saba, continue shedding light on the more unsavoury practices involved in their production, practices that often slip from our collective consciousness due to politics and ‘victor’s history’.

Correction: An earlier version of this essay inadvertently misquoted Saba Khan stating that indigo production used vast quantities of water. The statement has been retracted in this amended version, as the details of water usage for indigo production at the time are uncertain and were not the focus of the interview discussion.



Feeser, Andrea (2013) Red, White, and Black Make Blue: Indigo in the Fabric of Colonial South Carolina Life

Hentschel, Klaus (2002). Mapping the spectrum: techniques of visual representation in research and teaching.

Kriger, Colleen E. (2006) Cloth in West African History

Richardson and Richardson (2016), Asian Textile Studies: Indigo

Splitstoser, Dillehay, Wouters and Claro (2016) Early pre-Hispanic use of indigo blue in Peru

St. Clair, Kassia (2016) The Secret Lives of Colour

WWF Pakistan (2019), Annual Report


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