Jio MAMI 20th Mumbai Film Festival: Documentary True Blue tells the story of indigo in India
Swati Dandekar, the director of True Blue, speaks about the craftspeople who are keeping the tradition of using natural indigo alive
“If it turns out right, it can go on for years on end. But if it goes bad, it can ruin you,” says a man featured in Swati Dandekar’s documentary True Blue (Neeli Raag), which tells the story of indigo in India.
This man’s words sum up the complicated relationship indigo has shared with the country. In the same breath it can be said that indigo stands apart from other colouring substances when it comes to the craftsmanship and commitment of the dyers who use it, and this is what drew the filmmaker-teacher towards the subject.
Several years ago, Dandekar read about an elderly man called Yellappa, a dyer who worked with indigo using traditional methods. “I've always been interested in the rich variety of Indian textiles. Each time I touch, feel, see the textures, colours weaves of a saree or a piece of fabric, made in some village in India, I am filled anew with wonder. I think of the hands that would've made it, the mind that thought up the colours and the patterns,” she says.
She also fears that years down the line, these textiles may not be produced anymore, because of the alarming rate at which many craftspeople are abandoning their art, citing the reason that it is too difficult to keep it going.
“In this context, I find Yellappa's story particularly moving. It is his complete faith in his own craft that makes me dwell upon and explore the relationship between craftspeople and their craft,” she says. Sadly, the elderly dyer passed away before she could begin filming. So overcome was she by feelings of guilt and dejection over not being able to tell his story the way it deserves to be, that she almost abandoned the project.
“But then, the film became the story of Yellappa's legacy, through the stories of the people he taught, and how they practice it today. As a film practitioner and teacher, we keep talking about our craft, and how craft is not a separate entity, but something that stems from who we are and our approach to life and the world, and I cannot think of a better example of this than indigo craftsmen,” she says.
Indigo is native to India, and it has been used since ancient times. Though dyeing practices existed in other civilisations, craftspeople in India learnt how to dry the extracted dye, so that it would keep. This product – which acquired its name because of the place it came from – was exported along the caravan routes to Greece and Rome, where it was highly valued, explains Dandekar.
When the British colonised India, they established large plantations of the crop in fertile areas of Bihar and Bengal, taking full control of the trade and disallowing Indian farmers from growing anything other than indigo – not even food grains. “The farmers gained nothing from this lucrative trade, nor could they feed themselves. The region saw waves of protests by farmers, which the planters suppressed through violence. The once naturally growing indigo plant became the most ‘feared’ crop,” she says. It was support from Mahatma Gandhi and the indigo satyagraha at Champaner that brought cultivation to a halt, she adds.
Dandekar calls current practitioners of this craft “stubborn dreamers”. “The indigo makers and dyers I met were not one among many, they were almost the only ones working with this colour, and if it weren’t for them, a colour craft that was native to this land, that had been honed and developed over centuries of practice, would have been lost forever.”
Glimpses from the trailer itself reveal how meticulous the whole process of making indigo is. Dandekar explains how leaves that have been harvested must be soaked within a certain time, fermentation must happen, and all the processes must follow a fairly strict schedule.
This process lends itself well to creating cinematic visuals, whether it is the stirring of blue-coloured water in pots, or the coils of deep blue yarn, hung up to dry. “The main cinematic inspiration for me was the materiality of this colour as it passes through myriad transformations to take its final avatar – from a green leaf to a deep blue fabric. That, and the meditative nature of the craftsman’s work – completely in tune with the tools, immersed in the process for long hours.”
She says she has tried to capture these two aspects through “slow-paced, static shots of the making process, dwelling on colour, texture, skin, surfaces, and of course, sounds – trying to match the shot taking to the intrinsic rhythms that we sensed and experienced.”
Dandekar weaves together different perspectives in the film. One woman interviewed in her home talks about how for generations, her family has been in the business of indigo. “She says it with a certain degree of pride; theirs was the only family in the region that continued to dye with natural indigo,” the director explains. Subramani, a mestri featured in the documentary, says that the work must go on, even if someone is injured or dies.
"The colonial legacy of indigo is certainly one of exploitation, and legacies never disappear completely. So indigo dye makers tend to think of themselves primarily as labour. They are well aware that their work requires talent and skill, but hard labour is what defines their lives. Since this work requires experience and commitment not many take to it. This puts additional burden on the few who are there, like Subramani the mestri at the indigo processing unit," explains Dandekar.
Of note are the varying stances towards tradition; while those in the city who wish to buy indigo products may campaign for the adherence of tradition, those who form that tradition (craftsmen) may think otherwise. “Making indigo demands a huge commitment, and economics can never be the only driving force for that. It comes from a different place. We, who want the tradition continued, do not necessarily value that commitment, nor even understand it really. So, there's an inherent problem in this situation,” Dandekar explains.
She calls it a capricious colour, because all the time and effort put into it can come to nothing, should the vat of colour go bad. “Apart from the wealth, power, greed associated with its history, it’s a capricious colour. It needs to be coaxed gently, and so many things can go wrong if one is not careful.”
True Blue premiered at the Jio MAMI 20th Mumbai Film Festival on 27 October. It will alsoo be screened on 31 October.