The year is 3,300 BC, Bronze Age begins in the Near East. The passage tomb of Newgrange is built on the north side of the River Boyne in Ireland. The Ness of Brodgar is built in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney in Scotland. The Harappan Civilisation of the Indus Valley dawns in the Punjab province of British India now in Pakistan, and the events of the World’s oldest epic the Mahabharata continues to unfold in the ancient Indian subcontinent.
The Harappans had just mastered cultivating cotton as a fabric, while in the far Far-East the Chinese were refining the art of producing silk. Ancient West was gradually connecting with the mysterious East through the budding silk route cutting across wild Central Europe and the vibrant Middle East.
Amongst all the things traded, cloth happened to be one of the most sought-after commodities, which stitched the very fabric that connected men and far off regions during this iconic epoch in human history.
At this ancient moment in man’s journey on Earth, on the eastern flank of India somewhere along the banks of the river Hoogly in the present-day Nadia district of West Bengal, an Indo-Aryan ethnolinguistic tribe had just settled. With time they would become what we know today as the Bengali race of people, the third-largest ethnic group in the World after the Han Chinese and Arabs in the present day.
Akhi was lost in a world of his own. The forty-year-old energetic man was considered a loner and a bit weird by other tribesmen. While most of the members of his clan dedicated their time in agriculture and other chores important to a settling tribal community during the 3rd century BC, Akhi was lost in an unexplored world of colours searching for hues in everything and everywhere he went.
Dried Earth, powdered rocks, fruit and plant extracts, fungi, moss, and even animal dung, Akhi experimented with it all. He spent hours preparing a particular colour and then applying it on various surfaces.
Cotton as a fabric had just arrived in their village through the trade routes from Indus valley in the West. Somehow even silk had reached their settlement, and a white piece of it was gifted to the village chieftain by some travelling tradesmen. All the clothes stitched out of cotton were, however, white and dying them in permanent colour was an undiscovered science back then.
On one pleasant summer evening five thousand years ago when most of the Bengali tribesmen had finished their day’s work and gathered as a community to sit in a circle and socialise, which was the clan’s usual practice, a man covered in blue came running towards them.
It was Akhi, he was filled with the elation of some sudden discovery. His whole body was covered in a unique blue colour which no one had ever seen before. Maybe the result of one of his wild colouring experiments. “What the hell happened to you,” shouted the angry chieftain. Like the rest of the clansmen, he too was both wonderstruck and scared.
Kneeling in front of the chieftain, Akhi presented him with a most beautiful piece of blue cloth that the clan had ever seen. The chieftain took the fabric in his hand and was lost in the beauty of its colourful radiance. No one had ever seen such vibrance, all they were used to seeing, was white and nothing else.
This was the same piece of white silk that the chieftain had received as a gift from the Far East. Akhi had stolen it to give it this beautiful colour. As a result of one of his experiments Akhi accidentally discovered, that cloth could be permanently dyed blue when soaked in a solution of water and dried extracts of the Indigofera Tinctoria plant that grew wildly in the region. He took the Chieftains silk cloth to prove his point and convince the Bengali’s to cultivate this crop, extract its dye and trade with far off regions.
The dye, its colour is what we have come to know as ‘Indigo’ today. Though endemic not only to India but also to the tropical zones of Africa and China, the name Indigo is a clear indication of its origin, which simply means ‘the Indian’ or ‘from India, and the ancient forefathers of the Bengalis were the first people to cultivate this plant and invent Indigo on the fertile banks of the river Hoogly in the Nadia district of the Bengal region.
Over the next five millennia, the art of dyeing cotton, silk, linen, and wool with the dried extract of the Indigofera Tinctoria plant invented in India spread all over the world. First, it reached East Asia, then became popular with the ancient Egyptians and even landed on the steps of the Mayan civilisation.
Gradually, however, the Bengalis grew other interests and forgot that one of their earliest tribesmen had invented dying clothes blue. With the passage of time, Indigofera Tinctoria continued to be cultivated in other parts of the world, while the Bengalis abandoned growing the crop, and the plant in the Bengal region slowly got lost in the wild, where it thrived without human interference.
Now the year is 1777, five thousand years have passed since Akhi had discovered the blue dye. Louis Bonnard, a Frenchman comes to the same Bengal region and reintroduces cultivation of the Indigofera Tinctoria plant. He starts cultivating in the Taldanga and Goalpara villages near Chandannagar.
For the next eighty-eight years until 1859, indigo plantations engulfed nearly every piece of cultivatable land in the Nadia region. With the Nawabs of Bengal under British power, indigo planting became more and more commercially profitable because of the demand for blue dye in Europe. Slowly the plantations crept into other regions in Bengal like Burdwan, Bankura, Birbhum, North 24 Parganas, and Jessore in present-day Bangladesh.
Over the years the foreign plantation owners gradually persuaded the Bengali peasants to plant indigo instead of food crops in their fertile fields and plains. The exploitive planters started providing loans colloquially know as ‘dadon’, at very high-interest rates. Once a peasant took such a loan, he would fall in a vicious debt trap, which was inherited for generations by his children and their children. The profiteering planters paid a mere 2.5% of the market price to the farmers, and this atrocity of exploitation gradually led to the rebellion that would go on to rewrite the history of British rule in the Indian subcontinent.
“Either we die of hunger or we die fighting,” cried out Bishnucharan Biswas, addressing a mass of farmers gathered in an indigo field in the Gobindapur village of Nadia district. Armed with sickles and other farming tools modified into weapons the group was at the brink of the ‘Indigo Revolt’ of 1859, one of the most iconic revolutions in India against the British empire and its forced colonisation during the day.
“Today we shall stand against our oppressors, who beat and loot us, crippling us for generations with their ruthless exploitation,” shouted Digambar Biswas another key figure in the revolt. That night the peasants of Gobindapur and Chaugacha villages turned against the tyrannous indigo planters of the region.
Thus, began the revolt and rapidly spread to the districts of Murshidabad, Birbhum, Burdwan, Pabna, Khulna, and Narail. During the course of the revolution, several indigo depots were burnt down, many planters were given a public trial and mercilessly executed. Zamindars (Landlords) who had been supporting the planters for monetary gains were also targetted. Though not all of them were bad, like Zamindar Ramratan Mullick of Narail who supported the movement.
Though the revolt had gained momentary success, it was mercilessly suppressed. Large forces of police and military-backed by the British Government and the zamindars went on a merciless rampage. They slaughtered a number of helpless peasants and hanged key leaders, like Biswanath Sardar alias Bishe Dakat in Assannagar, Nadia after a show trial. The Biswas brothers of Nadia, Kader Molla of Pabna, and Rafique Mondal of Malda were among the other popular leaders who were executed.
Though at a first glance the revolt seemed to be fuelled by violence, however, in general, it was non-violent, as affirmed by the famous Bengali historian Jogesh Chandra Bagal. That’s why perhaps the revolt was more successful when compared to the Sepoy Mutiny two years prior in 1857, as expressed by another famous Bengali historian and former Sheriff of Calcutta R.C. Majumdar in the book “History of Bengal”, published by Dacca university, which he had edited. This form of non-violent passive resistance later successfully adopted by Gandhiji ultimately got India its independence.
Another reason for the ‘Indigo Revolt’ to be successful was the fact that it was widely supported by the Bengali middle classes – intellectuals and influencers of the day. Harish Chandra Mukherjee the famous journalist and patriot, played a crucial role through a brilliant string of articles in the Hindu Patriot news daily, which helped to bring global awareness about the inhuman atrocities by the Britishers on the Indigo farmers of the Bengal region.
The revolt went on to inspire a famous Bengali play ‘Nil Darpan’ by Dinabandhu Mitra first published in Dhaka in 1860, under a pseudonym of the author. It was translated into English by Michael Madhusudan Dutta the famous Bengali poet, writer, dramatist, and pioneer of Bengali drama, and published by Reverend James Long, the famous Anglo-Irish priest of the Anglican Church, missionary to India, humanist, educator, evangelist, translator, essayist and philanthropist.
Though Nil Darpan was banned by the East India Company to control agitation among the Indians, the play attracted much attention in England, where the common English populace was stunned at the savagery of their countrymen. The British Government sent Rev. Long to a mock trial and punished him with fine and imprisonment.
As a result of all the events of the revolt, sacrifice by so many people from various rungs of society both Indian and English and especially through the final initiative of Nawab Abdul Latif, the British Government formed the ‘Indigo Commission’ in 1860 with the goal of putting an end to the repressions of indigo planters in the Bengal region.
In the commission report, E. W. L. Tower noted that “not a chest of Indigo reached England without being stained with human blood.” All of this ultimately culminated in the Indigo Act of 1862, correcting nearly a century of human atrocity by the British Raj on the Bengali people.
Then, one-hundred-and-forty-seven years ago in 1873, eleven years after the ‘Indigo Act’ when the first pair of jeans was patented and introduced to the world by a Bavarian immigrant, the dye he used to colour the material blue, had already transversed a historical journey of five millennia on earth. By the end of the nineteenth century, modern chemistry giants like German Hoechst and BASF started successfully producing synthetic alternates to indigo.
Nowadays, however, there remain a very few producers who dye their jeans within natural indigo, which is of a lighter shade when compared to its synthetic alternates. The natural indigo imported by these jeans manufacturers comes either from Brazil or El Salvador where they still continue to cultivate Indigofera in small quantities even today.
Today when you see someone casually pick up a pair of blue denim, it will make you wonder whether that person is aware of the five-thousand-year-old history of its colour. How a plant, a dye, an Indo-Aryan tribe of people, a cultivation, a trade, and a revolution all culminated in creating the only colour named after a country, which we take for granted today.
For a period of time, after the invention of Indigo by Akhi and the Bengali tribe, while they cultivated the Indigofera Tinctoria plant, manufactured and traded the dye, they came to be known as ‘The Blue Indians,’ a name faded from the chronicles of history, lost in time.
Amongst the many things that the Bengali’s did to etch their name on the annals of human achievement, being known as ‘The Blue Indians,’ inventors of Indigo, a colour that would go on to reshape the course of human history, is perhaps the least know identity, by which they are known today.
Copyright © 2020 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
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