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Indigo: The Colour of India 

The Singh Twins tell us about the artwork from their Slaves of Fashion series. The featured piece references the history of the colour indigo as well as jeans, an item of clothing that is commonly dyed that colour.

Image: singh twins art colour indigo jeans

This artwork explores stories around the blue dye extracted from the leaves of the Indigo plant. It is believed to have originated in India, where it has been used for thousands of years.

Indigo dye and textiles became highly desired across the globe – from the Far East and Africa to Europe, North America and the West Indies. Determined to seize control of the market, knowledge about how to cultivate Indigo was eagerly sought by European traders.

The artwork depicts the 17th-century Indian queen, Mumtaz Mahal, wife of Emperor Shah Jahan (depicted in her pendant) who placed the monopoly on the trade of Indigo.

She wears blue denim jeans commonly associated with modern western fashion and values. She thereby presents a challenge to this perception regarding the cultural ownership of denim fabric – the true origins of which go back to 16th century India, in the port town of Dongri where this tough fabric was used for sails and ‘dungri’ (later ‘dungarees’) worn by sailors. 

Bedecked with jewels, Mumtaz also represents the fact that Indigo dye was once rare and very expensive – a luxury commodity associated with royalty, political power and authority. Known as ‘blue gold’ it was so valuable that, when prices were high, it was used as currency to purchase slaves who were worth their own weight in indigo.

The Taj Mahal (depicted in the vignette top right) was built in Mumtaz’s memory at Agra, India. This city was a main centre for production of highquality indigo known as ‘Bayana, or ‘Agra’ indigo which was most sought after in the West.

Another high-quality indigo was ‘Sarkej’ which was produced in the city of Ahmedabad which is represented by the gateway to one of its famous landmarks (‘Shah-e-Alam Roza’) seen in front of the Taj Mahal. To the left, the Marigold and Flame of the Forest flowers represent the Indian States of Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh in which Ahmedabad and Agra are situated respectively.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, England and Europe passed laws banning the trade and use of Indian Indigo, which threatened to replace their home-grown blue dye (woad) industry. To discourage its popularity, it was officially condemned as “the false and pernicious Indian drug”, “poisonous”, “deceitful and injurious”, “the devil’s blue” and “food for the devil”!

Pictured bottom right is the Portuguese explorer, Vasco Da Gama (1460-1524) who is credited as the first European to discover the sea route to India in 1498 – although, he was actually guided there, from Malindi on the West coast of Africa, by an Indian navigator from Gujarat! Nevertheless, this event is hugely significant to the story of indigo because it enabled European merchants to trade directly with India rather than relying on middlemen in the traditional marts of the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean region). With greater control over indigo prices and quality, this once expensive, the luxury item became affordable to the common man.

War and conflict also had a significant impact regarding the supply and demand for Indian indigo. For example, during the Anglo-French wars of the early 19th century (represented by the figures of Napoleon and Nelson in the top corners) demand for indigo increased as it was needed for the uniforms of both the English and French troops.

Likewise, the Haitian Revolution of 1791 (denoted by the pattern in the background inspired by the coat of arms of Haiti) – a slave led rebellion that virtually ruined the lucrative indigo plantation industries established by the French and English colonies in the Caribbean – contributed to the rise of Bengal, (by then an Indian territory governed by merchants of the English East India Company) as a major centre of indigo production.

The immense human suffering caused by global demand for indigo is symbolised by the figures of the African slave (representing the indigo plantations in the New World) and the starving Indian peasant seen at the feet of Mumtaz. Under British Rule, Indian peasants were forced to grow indigo and other cash crops, instead of food.

Meagre crop prices, crippling loans and high taxes imposed by the British kept them impoverished and in servitude.

This exploitation, particularly during times of crop failure, resulted in a famine that killed millions. Bengal, an important indigo-producing region of Eastern India, was one of the worst to be hit. Above the starving figure is a sprig of Night-Flowering Jasmine.

As the state flower of West Bengal whose tree is often called the ‘tree of sorrow’, it symbolises the suffering endured by indigo peasants. The continuing exploitation of human and natural resources connected to Indigo production in the modern world is represented by a small image (bottom right).

‘Jallianwala: Repression and Retribution’ by the Singh Twins is on exhibition at Manchester Museum until 2nd October.

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