M3 Features

Kolkata – a natural dye hub

March 1, 2014

Abundance of raw materials and a pool of skilled labourers have the potential to turn Kolkata into one of the biggest hubs of natural dyes. They will also help the city to bridge the gap between farmers who produce the resources and the processing industry, felt renowned dye experts present at an international symposium - Colour of Nature - organized by Sutra, a non-profit society for textile conservation, in association with the Indian Botanical Survey (BSI).

Wardle's 'Specimens of Fabric Dyed with Indian Dyes' provides an interesting peek into colours during the time when most of the world largely dressed in drab colours. "India's dye masters had perfected the art of using colourfast dyes to create clothing of myriad colours by using mordants (substance that makes dyes stick to fabrics)," said Amita Mukerji, Sutra president.

A natural dye industry

Over the years, this discovery has kept bringing the biggest names of natural dye industry to the city, be it natural dye scholar Dominique Cardon, Brenda King, an authority on Sir Wardle, Indigo scholar Jenny Balfour Paul or Chay Root scholar Bessie Cecil and Ruby Ghuznavi, a natural dye experts from Bangladesh.

"Interest in natural dyes has gained momentum worldwide due to greater environment consciousness and health issues. Majority of natural dyes have medicinal properties," said Dominique Cardon from France. Natural dye is the future and an integral part of the green economy, she added.

Jenny said that India, particularly Kolkata, has always been in the forefront with its abundance of dye sources and the exceptional skills of its dyers. Nineteenth Century experts like Wardle and Roxburg have much to teach us as they research across time with the meticulous records and works of the art and their legacy. They remind us of the potential that was unlocked in the past and also provide inspiration for the future.

Abundant skills and techniques

"We not only have the widest range of natural dyes and their sources, but also widest range of skills and techniques one can conceive. Move from one part of India to another and you will discover different dyeing techniques in practice. But it is high time a cohesive and intensified research works is commissioned to take forward our dyeing tradition," said Bessie Cecil. For example, she said, while there were a number of researches on natural indigo, yet more researches should be carried out on the Chay root's luminous red dye (using root of Oldenlandia umbellatra).

Supporting Cecil's views, exhibition coordinator Ujjaini Dasgupta added that there should be a definite government policy to turn sporadic dye-making and dyeing traditions alive in pockets of India into a cohesive industry. "It'll open a massive global market for naturally dyed clothes made in India," she hoped.


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