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Reincarnation of a lost heritage

  • Published at 05:00 pm May 19th, 2019

History of natural dyes

Man, inspired by the ambience of varied hues of nature have expressed their creative zeal in many ways. One such endeavor is the invention of vegetable dyes from vegetal and mineral origins. The history of dyed textiles in this region goes back to Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa of the Indus Valley Civilization. The madder dyed cotton of Mohenjo-Daro and later, the fragments of patterned cloths excavated at Fostat present the evidence of not only the heritage of dye but also of the expertise of Indian craftsmanship. Classics like the Mahabharata and the Code of Manu had referenced coloured fabrics interpreting specific social and religious connotations. There exists multiple accounts of dye use in early literature too. Colour, linked with our cultural heritage is an expression of our emotions and moods; red has become the symbol of a Bride’s ‘Suhag,’ white represents widowhood. Similarly, yellow is the colour of spring, saffron the colour of earth etc.

Use of dyes in rituals and functions has led to this skill being considered as one of the Classic Arts of ancient times. Evolving out of the original single colours of red and black the Indian dyer has meticulously reached up to the perfection of processes of bleaching, mordanting and dyeing by the fourth and fifth century AD. Historical records testify the use of compound colours of black, purple, red, blue, green, various shades of pink and gold as early as the tenth century. The major dyes belonging to this thousand years-old craft were obtained from madder and indigo plants, together with Tyrian purple, extracted from mollusks. Historical manuals have revealed over 300 dye producing plants. Thus, vegetable dye has attained its position as an element of our heritage and tradition. Remarkable development of indigenous textile industry and use of natural dye is seen during the Mughals in India. Extensive indigo plantation took place here during the colonial period. Indigo was one of the most sought after material after the English traders (17th century) gave it “the place of honour among possible exports”. Yet, this craft heritage began losing its power after the first synthetic dyes were invented in 1856 and was introduced in India by the British.                            

In Bangladesh, the revival of natural dye formally began in the early 80s when BSCIC sponsored the Vegetable Dye Project. This age-old craft since then has been gaining popularity day by day since they are non-pollutant, non-allergenic and speaks in harmony with today’s eco-friendliness. In present day scenario when organic foods, natural fibers, or colours, against the effects of non-organic, synthetic and intoxicating materials are getting preference and global attention, the revival of natural dye as a heritage craft in our country is no doubt a light of hope. However, with its more prosperous growth and continuity it will become a footprint of the long lost heritage of colour technique and craftsmanship that the world once valued; mankind would witness a glorious reincarnation of an age-old craft…

Information support: Rangeen (Natural Dyes of Bangladesh) by Sayyada R Ghuznavi