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Colour of Freedom

Sparking protests during the Independence movement, indigo has left its imprint on art, theatre, music and fashion.

Written by Shiny Varghese , Dipanita Nath , Vandana Kalra , Suanshu Khurana |
Updated: August 15, 2015 12:00:11 am

Theatre: Act of Oppression

A scene from Arvind Gaur’s Ambedkar and Gandhi A scene from Arvind Gaur’s Ambedkar and Gandhi

Before every show, theatre director Arvind Gaur finds himself waiting nervously for one important piece of paper. “It is the police approval,” he says, “that means we can go ahead and stage our play.”

Like him, theatre makers are bound by a draconian British-era law. The Dramatic Performance Act (DPA) was meant to “prohibit Native plays, which are scandalous, defamatory, seditious or obscene”. Even today, performers say, it empowers the state to control the arts.

DPA had started with a play, Nildarpan. Written by Dinabandhu Mitra, Nildarpan had lashed out at the British for forcing farmers to turn their rice fields over to indigo, a commercially viable crop. When protagonist Goluk Chander Basu cries, “We have nearly abandoned all the ploughs; still we have to cultivate indigo. We have no chance in a dispute with the Sahibs. They bind and beat us, it is for us to suffer,” the stage is set for a confrontation between the ryots and the Raj. DPA was passed on December 16, 1876, and allowed the police to “arrest and seize scenery, dresses etc”.

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In The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre, author Ananda Lal writes, “Curiously, after Independence in 1947, the DPA remained in effect, most states introducing their own amended versions, some of which, like the Bombay DPA (1950), actually gave more power to the administration.”

“To this day, we have to go to different departments to get licences and approvals,” says Gaur, “Sometimes they send the approval at 5 pm for a 7 pm show. We can’t sell tickets.” In political plays such as Ambedkar and Gandhi, in which two great icons of the freedom struggle stand face to face but cannot see eye to eye, “getting an approval is very difficult”. “Our adaptation of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist was refused permission in Ahmedabad citing DPA,” he adds.

DPA has been invoked several times to ban plays such as Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder, about a man who offers shelter to destitute women in exchange for sexual favours, and Malayalam playwright PM Anthony’s Christhuvinte Aaraam Thirumurivu, which showed Jesus as human rather than the Son of God.

-Dipanita Nath

Fashion: Do or Dye

“When artisans brought their products into our store, their hands were dyed blue from the colour of vats,” says Bissell. “When artisans brought their products into our store, their hands were dyed blue from the colour of vats,” says Bissell.

Known as “blue gold”, the indigo dye was India’s largest export in the mid 1800s. “The Greeks called this coveted and valued vegetable dye ‘Indikon’ after India, one of the world’s oldest and biggest centres for its production. This then evolved into the universally understood ‘Indigo’,” says William Bissell, Managing Director, Fabindia.
Farmers in 19th century India may have protested against its imposed plantation, but over the years, indigo plant species have been cultivated in various parts of the country and designers and organisations are rediscovering the ancient fermentation process.

“When artisans brought their products into our store, their hands were dyed blue from the colour of vats,” says Bissell.

Bangalore-based designer Deepika Govind talks of purity in dyeing with indigo. Having worked with indigo for more than a decade, she says, “The dye is one of the purest. Indigo will only hold on threads with no artificial blends. The fibre has to be pure and the dye is prone to fading. It waxes and wanes, depending on the way light hits the fabric. Seldom do you see it in its original colour, maybe in a temple mural or in old forts where little light trickles in,” says Govind.

Bissell seconds that mystical quality about the colour. “When the fabric dipped in indigo vats is exposed to air, the drama of the blue appears almost magically. This property has created a number of unique dyeing traditions, including resist patterns on fabrics such as dabbu, ajrakh and shibori. The elements of chance that mark the resist dyeing and printing processes often lead to unexpected and unique mutations, quite like indigo itself, which has a truly rich and fascinating heritage,” says he.

-Shiny Varghese

Music: To the Beat of the Blues

Shelly Jyoti’s The Ballad  of Woeful Tales; Ryots  of Champaran Shelly Jyoti’s The Ballad of Woeful Tales; Ryots of Champaran

The indigo planters come like a needle, But go out like a ploughshare; And are devastating Bengal like swarms of locusts; The king looks on while the subjects are drowned…Our souls are burning in the strong flames of pain

This folk song, written in the winter of 1859 in West Bengal, was first heard in the neel (indigo) farms. Chanted by the farmers while they planted the “death crop” in their farms, it prised open the pain they had lived with for decades. Translated by Reverend James Long — a popular missionary in West Bengal — the doleful cry became the beat to the ‘Blue Mutiny’ which was to follow. As the British forced farmers in West Bengal and later along the river Gandak in Champaran to grow the more lucrative dye instead of traditional crops, the helplessness of the farmers found a vent in music. The blues, they say, are always sown in the greens. So it isn’t surprising that it originated under the blazing sun in the delta fields and were sung by Afro-American farm workers.

“Whenever there is any kind of social oppression, folk music emerges,” says Kolkata-based musician, composer and commentator Debojyoti Mishra. “Most songs were inspired by the fakiri tunes and became the pivotal spirit in songs of revolt. Music went beyond the speeches,” says Mishra, who says that the famous Bengali song Neel bano re shonar Bangla, which referred to the imprisonment of Long, too, came around the same time. Folk music that emerged during this revolt, he says, inspired many IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) songs that followed, many of which, such as Hey shamalo dhan ho, were composed by Salil Chowdhury.

Jasim Uddin, a Bengali poet, wrote a poem almost half a century later, describing the anguish, which was turned into an HMV recording and is still popular: We who bring out food, From the depth of earth/ Why can’t we eat can any one tell us? My wife has hanged herself, She could no longer bear hunger/ Now I plough deep into soil, In hope of seeing her again.

Indigo still reverberates in music. Delhi-based band Indigo Children got its moniker from the song of the same name by the American band Puscifer. But the subtext in most of their songs was of rebellion and anti-establishment. “Like those farmers, we felt like slaves of the corporates,” says Sanchal Malhar, founder of the band.

-Suanshu Khurana

Art: Rooted in Indigo 

Detail of Shelly Jyoti’s triptych An Ode to Neel Darpan Detail of Shelly Jyoti’s triptych An Ode to Neel Darpan

The hawks with lotuses in their beaks rise over a ground infested with worms. The 34 inch x 72 inch triptych (pictured) covers a huge wall; incomparable, though, to the expanse that the British ruled over the indigo farmers.
The hawks here are the British. The lotuses signal planters who acted as intercessors between the British colonisers and indigo farmers, who are the “under appreciated” worms.

Artist Shelly Jyoti picks up threads from history to depict what she calls the colour of colonialism: indigo. “The revolt against indigo planters by the peasants in the 19th century was the forerunner of the freedom movement,” says the Delhi-based artist.

She universalises the setting, where there have always been the rulers and the ruled, whether it be Dinabandhu Mitra’s popular play Nildarpan or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She refers to James Long’s translation of Nildarpan, which was sent to prominent Europeans to acquaint them with the atrocities in the plantations.

The domination, Jyoti feels, continues. She has given it different colours in her works — including the celebrated series Indigo Narratives (2009) — all still soaked in indigo and its history. Jyoti chronologically moves through the macro history of indigo brought to Bhuj in the 1600s, to the colonial exploitation of indigo farming and craft and the subsequent intervention of Mahatma Gandhi.

The artist frequents Bhuj to work with the ninth generation Azrak artisans to give form to her sculptural textiles in vegetable and mineral dyes, with indigo as the base. “They are descendants of migrating communities from Sindh and Baluchistan and represent a history of interchanges within communities,” she notes.

-Vandana Kalra

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