You’d imagine the indigo plant would contain a clue of what it’s capable of, but from root to leaf-tip, it gives little away. There are no blossoms like the vivid blue aparajita’s, for the indigofera tinctoria flowers in pinkish-purple. Its dye is made from its innocuous-looking leaves. When processed, they give forth a colour so potent that it tinges human skin, turns the hands and nails of those who prepare it blue-black like Kali or Krishna.
I read somewhere that ancient Egyptians wrapped their mummies in indigo-dyed cloth, and flicking through the accordion of hangers in my closet I can imagine why. To be buried in indigo, upright like a warrior. To be burned in indigo, so as not to wake suffocating within a grave (in indigo). To die in indigo. To arrive in the afterlife in indigo. The thought is so comforting.
When I see denim or a solid purple-ultramarine, I do not think “indigo”. I am technically wrong, of course. Indigo is what makes blue jeans blue. It has its place on the colour wheel. But to me, only blue fabric interspersed with white (sometimes an adulterated white, if the dye has bled) counts. Stamped repeatedly with a dabu hand block pattern. Swirled, achieved with batik wax. Or synthetic versions of the same – synthetic versions of everything, from the print to the dye. My eyes are fooled. My mind is calmed. The sight of indigo – that combination of soft blue and white – soothes me.
This is what Marco Polo observed about the production of Indian indigo in the kingdom of Coilum (present-day Kerala): “They have also abundance of very fine indigo. This is made of a certain herb which is gathered, and [after the roots have been removed] is put into great vessels upon which they pour water and then leave it till the whole of the plant is decomposed. They then put this liquid in the sun, which is tremendously hot there, so that it boils and coagulates, and becomes such as we see it.” European leaders of the 1600s were so envious of India’s monopoly on the trade that France had the death penalty for the use of indigo over woad, a yellow-flowered plant that also produces a blue dye. Germany spread a rumour that it was “the devil’s colour”. I touch my beautiful clothes and think of how neither threat would have persuaded me to give them up.
Then I think of the hands who plucked the leaves, who stirred the vats, who pressed carved wooden blocks onto the fabric, who measured and cut and stitched it (even if it’s not true indigo, it’s not without exploitation). I think of the Indigo Revolt of 1858-1859, and of the environmental effects of processing or synthetic pigments. I think of everything we know about the labour that goes into possessions we see as “the small things” or self-care. Even the way this textile comforts me comes at some cost.
How disquieting to know it is impossible to be in this world without somehow being violent. Contemplating this, I reach into the calm of blue and white undulations, a closet full of ocean.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 22nd 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.