A priest’s coat belonging to the ethnic Miao tribe residing in South West China’s Guizhou, made entirely of Chinese cotton and dyed in Assam indigo, hangs from the ceiling at The Japan Foundation’s art gallery in Delhi. An integral component of the exhibition “Indigo and its Impact on India & East Asia”, the kimono-like coat is replete with designs depicting a shaman wearing a similar coat, tribesmen playing instruments at a procession (perhaps at a harvest festival), a dragon with a rooster face, along with a butterfly and a fish that symbolise fertility.
The show is a result of four decades of intense documentation by textile designer and researcher Padmini Tolat Balaram. She is displaying over 50 of her textile-based artworks in indigo, one of the oldest and eco-friendly colours, whose export and use can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilisation, and includes pieces she had collected during her research.
Balaram has documented 16 different tribes in South West China, who used indigo in their own designs and techniques, and shows how it spread from India to other countries through export. Having researched on Indian, Japanese, Korean and Chinese indigo over the last 41 years in the respective countries, Balaram, professor of design at Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan, says, “I realised that indigo from Northeast India had travelled to South West China. I wanted to compare what was happening with the tribes there. This was a tough travel, because in many of these areas in China, foreigners are not allowed. I had to get special permission. The language too is different and it was not easy to get translators.” Her tutorials in Chinese certainly helped Balaram.
“In Northeast India, in places like Manipur, Assam or Nagaland, people weave their textiles for indigo, they also use brocades. Every tribe has a different technique and design, some just dye plain textiles and embroider on it for decoration,” says the 62 year old. In 1995, Balaram lent the Japanese Yukata, a traditional kimono for daily wear, a blue makeover by using one of Japan’s oldest dyeing technique of shibori on Japanese cotton and dyeing it in Japanese indigo, thereby creating the effect of tie-dye. This features alongside A Moonlit Riverbank, where Balaram has created a painting by using Japan’s tsutsugaki technique or resist dyeing, that uses rice-paste designs on cloth. It mostly depicts creatures from Japanese mythology, be it a crane or a tortoise, on cotton and is typically dyed in Japanese indigo. The blue canvas shows the ripples of a river flowing under the umbrella of the moonlight, instantly bringing back memories of Vincent Van Gogh’s famous 1889 painting The Starry Night.
A 1995 painting Hotoru-the Fireflies shows Japanese cotton dyed 20 times in Japanese indigo as tiny white spots against a sea of deep blue depict a cluster of fireflies. There is also Balaram’s depiction of the universe and its vastness on Indian cotton, that has been wax painted and later dyed using Indian indigo. Balaram, whose first research in Japan was as a Japan Foundation Fellow on “Indigo and Its use in Japan: A comparative study with India”, says, “I was trying to show how India is connected from one place to another and how every country developed their own style of making decorations using indigo. Even tie-dye will have variations in every place. Everyone adds their own cultural bits, like in the case of Miao who have their own symbolism. The Northeast has its own symbols, such as cocks, tigers and deer, many of which depict headhunters.” The exhibition is at The Japan Foundation, Lajpat Nagar, till December 11