India was the earliest major center for the production and processing of indigo and was valued as a luxury product. Because of its high value as a trading commodity, indigo was often referred to as blue gold. In the 19th century the demand of indigo was so high, that many farmers were forced to cultivate indigo in Bengal which led to exploitative working conditions. At present the demand of natural indigo has increased enormously.
Indigo was also one of the commodities for the Western market. The historic revolt by indigo cultivators popularly known as Indigo Revolt is an important chapter in the history of colonialism. It was a mass uprising against the European planters in the sixties of the 19th century.
Indigo planting became more and more commercially profitable because of the high demand for blue dye in Europe. Hence, the European indigo planters persuaded the Indian peasants to grow indigo instead of food crops on their own lands. This caused problems as the peasants had to take loans against very high interest rates and once a farmer took such loans he remained in debt whole his life. Moreover the farmers could not make any profits growing indigo, as the planters paid only 2.5% of the market price. The farmers were totally unprotected from the indigo planters. This resulted to the Indigo Revolt in the 19th century.
The revolt led to the rebellion against the planters in Bengal, 1859. The indigo depots were burned down and many planters fled to avoid being caught. This led to the temporary halt in indigo production in many parts of Bengal. The historian Jogesh Chandra Bagal describes the revolt as a non-violent revolution.
Artist Swarna has made a song on the history of the indigo revolt which you can watch here in her traditional artform, called Pata Chitra.
Present-day indigo demand
The demand of natural indigo had completely disappeared in 80s, whereas now the demand is ever-increasing. People are becoming more aware about the polluting dyeing industry of textiles and are slowly shifting to natural dyes. Hence, the demand of indigo is resurfacing. There are only limited pockets in India who make natural indigo.
One of these pockets is in South India, run by Balachander. My conversations with him led to him, sharing his family history, that his great-grandfather started processing indigo during colonial times – when the naturally sourced dye was a valuable commodity. His family has been perfecting the patient craft of extracting natural indigo dye from Indigofera plants, using the same century-old, colonial-era cement tanks their relatives used before them. Every day the workers at the plantation offer their prayers to their deity Neel Atha before they begin extracting indigo. Indigo is perceived as the Blue Goddess.
In the film Neeli Raag (True Blue), the story of indigo, follows among others, Odhelu a weaver who learnt the indigo dyeing technique from K. Yellappa (1939 – 2014). K. Yellappa was one of the few remaining indigo dyers, who learnt to work with indigo from his forefathers and was asked to revive the natural indigo by Uzramma from Dastkar – Andhra Pradesh. When I talked with the film director, Swati Dandekar, she explained that bulk production is not possible with entirely natural indigo, unless you set up 100-200 vats and have many people working at a time. The problem is that it is almost impossible to know and differentiate real plant based indigo from chemical indigo other than lab tests.