Natural Indigo


eaving the tumultuous Jaipur road behind me, I arrive at the entrance courtyard to Nila House. White flowers and delicate lights hang in the khejri and temple trees in the garden. A flautist sits cross-legged, surrounded by dozens of candles. A fountain gurgles in the evening stillness. Climbing the steps of the porch, past marble columns and cool corridors of white stone, I find the central atrium. Guests are packed about its edge, looking intently towards the centre. The moon rests above the lip of the open roof, small in the square of dark sky. Below, a robed Sufi dancer whirls across the floor, a blur of white robes, accompanied by the light jingling of bells from her ankles and wrists. Behind her, a diaphanous sheet gently ripples from her movements; the words ‘Nila House’ are stitched into the fabric, a line of indigo thread trailing from the final letter in a sweeping ‘U’ up to the needle, which has been left in place.

The performance marks the opening night of Nila House, a retail space, gallery, and design platform that upholds traditional Indian weaving and dyeing techniques. Founded by Carole Bamford, it is part of the Lady Bamford Foundation – one of three non-profit organisations that together make up the charitable wing of J. C. Bamford Excavators (JCB). Nila House and the Lady Bamford Foundation support disadvantaged communities in India – particularly in the handloom sector – and are working to revive traditional indigo natural dye. Nila in Sanskrit means ‘blue’.

Guests mingle with members of the Nila team, dressed in swathes of indigo-dyed cloth. Flowing around the atrium are open studios, workshops, galleries, artist residences, and a library, all encased in walls of lime plaster, local stone, and marble. Bijoy Jain, of Studio Mumbai, designed the space and renovated the 1940s bungalow, stripping back the interiors and excavating the basement level. I look inside the nearest open studio, where a Gujarati family are demonstrating the production of khadi, a traditional Indian textile, using a charkha wheel to hand spin the yarn, and a loom to weave the fabric by hand. In the adjacent workshop, two men dip sheets of fabric in a terracotta pot filled with indigo dye. The cloth is lifted out, dark and dripping and tinged with green, before it gradually oxidises and lightens to blue. Around the corner and into a backroom, dozens of leafy indigo branches are soaking in a raised marble bath. After a few weeks, the green leaves will ferment and turn the water blue, which will be dried into cakes of powdery dye. These particular indigofera tinctoria plants were grown in Ranthambore, although the species was once found all over the subcontinent. It was in India where the plants were first used to make dye: the name ‘indigo’ is derived from the Greek, indikon, meaning ‘of India’.

The inaugural Nila Collection specifically focuses on natural indigo, informed by the Nila Studio team’s three-year research into the technique. In the first of Nila House’s two retail spaces, shirts and dresses in handwoven cotton and linen are arranged, all in shades of white, cerulean and deep indigo, while ceramic homewares are decorated with the emblem of an indigofera branch. The collection is to rotate annually, and other natural dyes will be added in future iterations.

In the second gallery, the Nila Platform, large blocks of local limestone, incrementally dyed blue, sit in a row along the floor. Rails suspended from the ceiling support rows of shirts and blouses in handwoven fabrics, from feathery silk to rugged cotton. This space is where international designers are invited to develop and display their own collections. Nila’s role is to connect them with the Indian artisans who live in highly skilled craft clusters across the country – such as indigo dyers in Gujarat, hand printers in Rajasthan, and kantha artists in West Bengal. London-based Anna Valentine has developed the first Platform Collection, fusing her contemporary silhouettes with traditional Indian techniques. Jackets are sewn in layers upon layers of heavy kantha stitch, creating an intriguingly rich and intricate texture; when held up to the light, a star-shaped pattern of stitches reveals itself in the depths of the fabric. Light, voluminous dresses have been clamp-dyed – a technique known as Bandhani, similar to Japanese shibori – creating an imperfect grid of blue tints across the white cloth.

I meet Alexis Barrell, Nila’s creative director, dressed in a flowing, Bandhani-dyed dress. “These are process-based collections,” she tells me. “It is not so much about the products themselves. We want to showcase the height of possibility in craft, and to help preserve endangered techniques.” Use of natural indigo has declined since the late 19th century in favour of chemical dyeing, a more water-intensive and polluting process, which can contaminate waterways and agricultural land. “Working with artisans, we have discovered that their fathers and grandfathers always used natural pigments, but at some stage, a client has requested the reproduction of an exact shade, in a stringently uniform way, so the artisan has had to adopt chemical dyeing. We want to celebrate the magic of natural dye: how the colour can change in unpredictable ways, how it can run, or fade over time, and how beautiful that is. We want people to fall in love with the process, as we have.” Nila is planning to open a dye works in Bagru, around an hour’s drive outside Jaipur, where thousands of families are involved in textile making and block printing, as they have been for over 500 years. The local artisans will then be able to experiment with natural indigo, without the financial risk of purchasing the vats and other equipment.

Nila is in the process of developing an extensive textile archive. Large, white hardback books line a stone bench, and in each one, swatches of fabric – particularly khadi – are numbered and marked with varying weights, colours and yarn counts. “This is one of my favourite elements of the project,” says Barrell. “As a designer, it is such an exciting resource. It is completely transparent. We record who the makers of the fabric are and where they are based, so a designer can come to Nila, look through the books, select the weight they are interested in, find out who the weaver is, and connect with them directly to source the fabric. When I first arrived in India three years ago, I knew I wanted to work with khadi, but I didn’t know where to go – these things are so often undocumented. The archive is a work in progress, and always will be.”

WORDS: Ollie HornePHOTOS: Prarthna Singh