Two fabric artistes bring to light the Raj history of indigo oppression and their present engagement with the world’s oldest of natural dyes, says Poonam Goel
Think Indigo and what comes to mind is a deep blue colour, synonymous with denim world over. Today, indigo no longer has an oppressive connotation as the dye is now manufactured in a synthetic lab using chemicals. But delve deeper and the history of Indigo does not paint a pretty picture. Forced to produce the dye in subhuman conditions under the British rule, Bengal’s indigo cultivators were a downtrodden lot and it is this history that Baroda-based Shelly Jyoti and Chicago’s Laura Kina bring to light, evocatively through a body of work titled ‘Indigo: New Works by Shelly Jyoti and Laura Kina’ that will be exhibited at Nehru Art Centre in Mumbai from January 12 to 18.
The exhibition comprises of around 40 new works (including five site specific installations) in mediums like hand embroidery on khadi, acrylic on fabric, hand stencilled Sanskrit calligraphy and textile embroidery on canvas. Not surprisingly then, both their work draws upon migrant histories and communities, through their experiences of displacement and adaptation, disruption and continuity. While Kina tells about the multi-ethnic Chicago neighbourhood she calls home, Jyoti shares her work on the ninth generation Azrak artisan communities in her home state of Gujarat.
Using indigo dyed thread on khadi fabric (two materials long associated with Mahatma Gandhi and symbolic of India’s freedom struggle) embellished with tribal embroidery and produced in collaboration with fair trade women’s collectives in India, their project is appropriately trans-national, engaging the rich and storied past of this oldest and most treasured of natural dyes. Their collaboration acknowledges not just indigo’s supposed roots in the Subcontinent but traces some of the many routes that have carried it around the globe through centuries. It revisits its painful histories of colonial expansion, exploitation and the spirited resistance to these injustices especially during Gandhiji’s Champaran movement.
Shelly Jyoti’s work, titled ‘Indigo Narratives’, uses indigo colour vegetable dyes, traditional heritage symbols of Sanskrit calligraphy and hand embroidery of the coastal Gujarat region. Explains Jyoti, “I worked with ninth generation Azrak artisans in Bhuj in the interiors of Gujarat on khadi fabric using ancient indigo resist printing technique while utilising contemporary prints and ideas of 2009. The process is used by Khatris, immigrants from Sindh and Baluchistan during 1600 CE. Through this process I examined the implications of personal, political and cross-cultural choices of these communities.”
She tries to depict the politics of indigo between the period 1600-2009 through a myriad of work using sculptures, installations and paintings. For instance, one corner of the gallery features the installation titled ‘Ballad of Blue Farmers: Ryots of Champaran’ that displays 10 human structures, each 15 inches in height, corded in twisted indigo cotton rope with metallic chains perched on black acrylic painted wooden buttons, conveying how native farmers were oppressed for Eurocentric needs by colonisers in eastern India.
Another one, titled ‘Homage: Ballad of Woeful Tales’ displays printed disks of seven inches diameter with sets of 15 different contemporary indigo prints. These map the story of ryots of Champaran suggestive of their sorrowful tale inscribed in each circle. The installation consists of 86 hanging disks installations attached to one another suggesting hundreds of years of subjugation.
Laura Kina’s Devon Avenue Sampler series, on the other hand, focuses on imagery from her immigrant neighbourhood — Devon Avenue, which is a Chicago South Asian/Jewish corridor which boasts two honourary street titles — Gandhi Marg and Golda Meir Blvd and is lined with Islamic and Jewish books stores, jewellers, ethnic grocery stores, spice shops, sari shops, among other similar establishments. Raising issues like labour and authenticity, her work is created using indigo dye and khadi fabric along with a generous dose of Gujarat-style mirrored bling and Jewish crafts inspired tassels. Also, her samplings of Chicago’s Devon Avenue poly-cultural street signs have been hand embroidered by artisans from ‘Market Place: Handwork of India’, a fair trade women’s collective based in Mumbai.
Explains Laura Kina, “In a cumulative work of the same title as the series — ‘Devon Avenue Sampler’, I sewed a patchwork canvas of dark blue fabrics and denim reminiscent in form to Edo and Meiji period and Japanese boro quilts that were made from mended patchworks of indigo fabrics. On this collage-like construction, I hand-painted the iconography from the hand embroidered works along with additional imagery from street signs in my neighbourhood.”
She explains further, “My family is Okinawan, originally from Hawai, and my great-grandparents used to wear indigo kasuri fabrics while working in sugar cane plantations. This series reminds me about indigo in relation to my family’s past agricultural life and my present life as an urban artist.”