Colour that changed the world

Colour that changed the world

Follow the colour that journeyed across the world and still changes the lives of many

Bagru natural indigo vat unit

I became hooked by indigo one summer’s day,” says Jenny Balfour Paul, a historian and an indigo expert. “I was in an old Devon farmhouse and fed a white cloth into an indigo dye-vat, pulled it out minutes later, and watched its colour transform from yellow through turquoise to midnight blue,” she adds, in response to questions about where the particular interest in indigo comes from.

She resolved to discover more about this universal dyestuff, first used over six millennia ago and still widespread today, notably as the dye of blue jeans.

A few decades ago, in the depths of the British Library, she came across journals of the Victorian adventurer and fellow indigo-lover, Thomas Machell. Inspired by his voice, and the selfsame draw towards indigo, Jenny interwove her own memoirs, sketches, photos and recollections of travels with Thomas Machell’s tales and intricate drawings in her book Deeper Than Indigo: Tracing Thomas Machell, Forgotten Explorer.

First ever auction that sold indigo via auction.
Photos by Jenny Balfour Paul

The book opens with a map of the Indian subcontinent. As the pages turn, a reader sees how Jenny, inspired by Machell’s detailed journals, follows his trail by land and sea around the world from the hills and dales of Northern England to the Middle East, Asia and Polynesia.

The dye’s name comes from the Greek ‘indikon’, meaning ‘a substance from India’, as it was already being traded from India to the West along the Silk Road. On the discovery of the maritime route to India by Vasco da Gama in 1498, indigo was the first ‘spice’ to be exported across the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope by Portuguese traders.

Jenny travelled to India in Machell’s footsteps many times, often to rural Bengal and the great trading city of Kolkata, where indigo was the major export, fulfilling the bulk of global demand, when Machell was there as eye-witness in the mid-19th century.

However, once synthetic indigo hit the global markets in 1900, following the breakthrough discovery of its formula by a German chemist, Adolf von Baeyer, in 1878, the natural indigo market rapidly dwindled.

It never vanished in India, however, due both to local demand and to politics. During both of the World Wars the production of synthetic indigo was affected, which led to spikes in demand for natural indigo from Indian plantations. Indeed, ‘Bengal indigo’ was still being imported by the last drysalter of London in the 1950s. The manufacture of natural indigo in Tamil Nadu too never ceased and is now on the increase as more textile manufacturers are seeking sustainable dyes.

Jenny visited Kolkata in November 2017 as the main consultant for ‘Indigo Sutra’, a special event organised by the NGO Sutra Textile Studies founded by Amrita Mukerji in 2002, to raise awareness of India’s textile heritage and promote textile traditions.

Jenny Balfour Paul, historian and indigo expert
Jenny Balfour Paul, historian and indigo expert 


During Indigo Sutra, the first indigo auction for over a century was held. “The event was so groundbreaking that it headlined the business section of the UK Times. Bidding was fierce for ten chests of indigo going under the hammer of auctioneer Arijit Das Gupta from J Thomas and Co Pvt Ltd, the world’s oldest and largest tea auction house, whose offices are still named nilhat, which means ‘Indigo market’, she says.

“Since travelling together from 2000, seeking Machell’s former indigo factories, Amrita and I have been encouraging natural indigo revivals and ‘slow fashion’ worldwide but most notably in India with its long indigo history and existing farmers and producers,” Jenny says, detailing her most recent efforts towards encouraging reverse-trends like natural indigo.

“In this country, indigo has overcome its negative 19th-century history and today, provides excellent employment for thousands of farmers and practitioners,” she adds. “Today’s increasing global awareness of the advantages of using organic products has turned the spotlight back to sustainable natural dyes, the king of all being indigo, which is produced from soil-enriching plants with many environmental benefits. Synthetic indigo, by contrast, is made from toxic petro-chemical derivatives damaging the environment.”

At present, the mass cultivation of select species of plants like indigofera, from whose leaves indigo is extracted, is not economically attractive considering the labour-intensive processes. The industrial production of synthetic indigo is easier and quicker. It is, therefore, up to the scientific and agricultural communities to make large-scale cultivation and extraction of natural indigo feasible so as to push it as an alternative to the hazardous synthetic dye.

“Above all, it’s up to the consumer to reject the profligacy of fast fashion that is ruining the environment, and instead to treasure textiles and clothing made from organic fibres dyed with natural dyes, including choosing to wear ‘green jeans’ that are already commercially available,” she notes. Indigo’s colourful and significant story has now attracted the attention of a mainstream UK television channel, and a broadcast fronted by Jenny is currently in the pipeline.

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