While adjusting to the new normal and trying to fathom the severity of the impact and the afterlife post-pandemic, I found a long lost love of mine, the notes and the worksheets from Michel Garcia’s workshop that I attended way back in the year 2008-09 called “The Dye Garden”.
Like Indigo, the traded cloth “Chintz” has always been my point of interest. The workshop was an introduction to the Old practices of painting the Cloth with Mordants and Natural Dyes. Michel’s easy chemistry and matter-of-fact way of demystifying the natural dyes which otherwise is beyond reach in India (supposedly the custodian of natural dyes, its application in dyeing, printing, and painting). He made them look like those DIY realiz kits but only when I started practicing, Ied how tricky and difficult they were. I don't remember exactly but looking back at those FB posts, the trigger was April 2020. Sowing the first Indigo seeds in Nadia, West Bengal after 165 years of the Blue Mutiny, and extraction 3 months later.
In the meantime, I joined various natural dyers, growers, and printers groups on Facebook & Instagram which gave me the confidence to take out the dusted notes and my paintbrush and start to paint.
The most daunting task was keeping the colours intact on the cloth and acquiring the desired depth, intensity, and shade. Maybe this was why ritualist pujas were performed to appease the Dye Gods. Nothing came to help here. The people I was interacting with were all foreign, the raw materials, the water, the climate, the heat source, the pots, and pans, everything was foreign. Bizarre measurements to the fraction I don't know how many decimals, it was just not real.
It was almost embarrassing at times, as on Facebook if people asked to see the final results as they have been watching me uploading my journey, I had to keep quiet as either the piece had completely washed out, only leaving behind a stain, or instead of the desired colour a pale dirty yellow or a dirty grey (the two most abundantly available colours in nature) was all that I got.
A complete nightmare. In one of those hide and seek, “I’ve gotcha”, moments I met this wonderful gentleman called Gopal Kanchibhotla from one of those Facebook groups. Gopal came as an angel and he understood what I was going through, trying to implement recipes tested in Foreign lands on Indian soil. His tips opened my eyes and made me relook the whole process. I have to mention Charlotte of Maiwa Handprints whose experience with natural dye production in India is huge. She made me understand how to standardize and work in batches to achieve the desired results.
Books opened another window. I started understanding the colour application and the layering. What sets apart chintz from other forms of painting is that natural dyes are not direct dyes that one can paint with. You don't see any colour while painting as you are painting with a transparent white organic salt solution called mordant, which attracts and fixes the dye molecules in the dyebath onto the cloth. So it is an immersive dyeing technique.
More colours in your paintings would mean that many dips in the dyebath, one after the other, so the sequel is important. Otherwise, one dye might react with the other and completely mess up your painting. This understanding came in the wake of many failures and made me appreciate the Indian tradition of handing down the age-old knowledge from the father to son which we take so much for granted. Books based on the chintz collection of V&A and Calico Museum, books on private Collectors like Karun Thakar let me inside this dream world.
What intrigued me most was William Morris and his brilliance in design and technique and how he used the nuances and the shortfalls of a particular dye to his advantage. I understood how design layouts play a key role in the outcome of the dyes, subtle details that bring out the soul but most importantly the colour shades that sets Chintz apart from all other hand-painted traditions that make people call it “The Cloth That Changed The World”.
By then, my control over dyes was better. It was important at this stage to get the same results repeatedly. From random strokes, circles, and squares I moved on to flowers and vines, and birds from individual motifs and then into more complex compositions. Here there was another challenge, the spreading of the mordants. Too much gum was making it difficult to create fine lines and strokes and interfering with the dye absorption. The fine balance took a bit of time to achieve.
Just then, by a stroke of luck, Susie Vickory and Maggie Baxter both textile artists whose work I adore, approached me for collaboration on an art project “iota21” at the Fremantle Arts Center WA. we worked on it for 6 months and created innumerable mythological fishes.
Many shades and patterns adorned these fishes which was an excellent exercise as I was basically working with the 4 primary colours, Red from the Madder, blue from Indigo, Yellow from Marigold, and Black from rusted iron water.
A 60 m long ocean was painted with wax and dyed in a huge Indigo natural Vat repeatedly to achieve four shades of blue, on this, the fishes were appliqued by Susie.
Trade ships were painted that traded Indigo and slaves.
The trickiest part was painting the story of ‘Samundra Manthan’, or the ‘churning of the ocean’, from the Hindu Mythology. Painted on 1mt x1mt piece of cloth, this piece tested all my skills as a chintz artisan, the layout, the details, the colours all culminated in that piece.
This journey has been a rediscovery. My initial love for textiles had started from hand-painting, then I was fascinated with the possibility of handlooms and its world of textures and weaves and now it has come to a full circle with the natural dye hand-paint. What fascinates me is the connection with the history, revisiting the old forgotten recipes, the surprises that the plants hold, and, most importantly, my connection with nature.