Dyeing for life: intermediaries, artisans and the natural-dye revival in historical context in India and Bangladesh

2017-10-10T05:41:32Z (GMT) by Oley, Elizabeth
Indian artisans are renowned worldwide for their ability to produce a diversity of decorative and vibrantly coloured textiles. Their skills, refined over many generations to suit local conditions, were passed down through families for millennia. Prior to the development of synthetic dyes, cloth was coloured exclusively from natural sources, predominantly plants. The adoption of synthetic dyes precipitated the demise of artisans' knowledge systems concerning natural dyes. In the 1990s, health and ecological concerns led European countries to ban the importing of handicrafts made with chemical dyes, stimulating a return to natural dyes. In my research, I document how this revival of natural-dye practice has developed in South Asia. The groundwork had been laid in newly independent India when efforts to revive "traditional" handicrafts, as a livelihood option and reclamation of national identity, led to concerted efforts to retrieve and document knowledge about natural dyes. More recently, intermediaries encouraged artisans in natural-dye use in response to market demand stemming from increased global awareness of eco-friendly products. My fieldwork came to focus therefore on forms of mediation by intermediaries who aim to provide artisans with market linkages. These case studies enabled me to examine the revival of natural-dye practice in India and Bangladesh through field trips and interviews with key intermediaries working with a variety of raw materials and textile techniques. To begin this thesis, I consider the historical context of cloth in South Asia and introduce the progenitors of the natural-dye revival to show how Gandhi's philosophy and ideas have continuing relevance. In documenting and investigating the role of intermediaries, I focus on four specific products: indigo and three key textile types with different production techniques: double ikat (pato/a) from Gujarat, painted textiles (ka/amkan) from the Coromandel Coast and blockprinted textiles from Rajasthan. For each of these products, I note technical characteristics and trace historical use and significance, then examine the interventions that intermediaries are making in their collaboration with artisans. By comparison with the past I show how "traditional" forms and uses of textiles are transformed to cater for a contemporary market. Finally, I situate handloom artisans within the complexity of the textile industry in India. Through these case studies of intermediaries and their work with artisans, I examine the activism of individuals who seek to enhance the ability of rural artisans to compete in a market from which they are socially, culturally and geographically distanced. Themes that emerge include: the struggle to retrieve traditional knowledge systems; the desire and determination to restore these knowledge systems to the artisans who are their rightful owners; the motivation to search for alternative systems to western "development', more suited to India's prevailing conditions; and a sense of "selfless service" to contribute to the socio-economic uplift of artisans. My research reveals and documents a variety of creative ways in which intermediaries provide artisans with design advice and crucial market linkages that enable viable livelihoods and consequent socio-economic empowerment.