Why you should care
There’s way more to indigo than just a dye for jeans.
It’s an all-white house, skirted by a long balcony, with stately pillars holding up high ceilings and passages connected to outer rooms. All around are shades of blue — indigo rather. In one balcony, a flock of stiff cotton birds takes flight. In another stands an indigo-hued god set in gold. Above a staircase, shades of dyed cotton flutter in the wind. On terra firma stand sandstone blocks that look like life-size dollhouses, with carved cubbyholes and staircases, stained with indigo. Throughout, seating areas are upholstered with khadi denim.
These exhibits are part of the brand-new Arvind Indigo Museum in Ahmedabad, a first-ever tribute to India’s ancient natural dye, which has found its way globally into everything from medicine to textiles. While colorful and culturally significant, indigo’s journey from humble dye to “blue gold” hasn’t always been a cause for celebration, but its rich existence has found an artful home close to where your favorite Levi’s were conceived.
Indigo as a color and pigment has been around for more than 5,000 years. The first plantation is believed to have been in the Indus Valley (hence the name) from where it spread across the world. Used in textiles and paintings, for medicinal purposes and art, and considered a luxury item, indigo demand over the centuries outstripped its supply. A synthetic variant was created in 1882, which was easier to produce and much cheaper, making it more popular — especially in denim.
In 1987, textile company Arvind Limited (of Lalbhai Group), produced the first meter of denim in India. Today, they claim to be its largest manufacturer in the world. The jeans you’re wearing? The denim is probably from Ahmedabad.
The Arvind Indigo Museum, which opened in January in the ancestral home of the Lalbhai family (today the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum complex), honors the dye that made the family’s denim journey possible. “We’ve always been influenced by this simple dye,” says managing director, Sanjay S. Lalbhai. “The best way of paying our homage to it is by extending its vocabulary and creating a museum.” But instead of offering a colorful history — or business — lesson, the space focuses more on how indigo can be used in other art forms, and in “different media besides textiles,” says the museum’s creative consultant, Vipul Mahadevia.
An “indigo universe” spread across the garden, backyard and in six gallery spaces highlights the dye’s application in different media.
This first exhibition, titled Alchemy, showcases 54 innovative experiments from contemporary artists and artisans who were given 14 natural indigo “recipes” to experiment with. The result: an “indigo universe” spread across the garden, backyard and in six gallery spaces, that highlights the dye’s application in different media: Think leather, sandstone, acrylic, steel, bronze, plaster of paris, paper and aluminum.
Kavin Mehta’s sandstone sculptures, injected with indigo, show how the color deepens (not lightens) over time. The most captivating and camera-friendly piece: an installation of three rows of jeans, set up against a window. One of the museum’s visions it to “revive the dying crafts in India,” says Lalbhai. Here visitors will find examples of traditional Rogan art (painted with a fine wooden stick) and zardozi (indigo-dyed pashmina). The most stunning piece: Mata Ni Pachedi, by Kirit Chitara, a piece that showcases the different forms of a goddess and took eight months of dyeing and washing to create. Lithuanian artist Victoria Andrejeva’s The Nest — popular with children — is an enclosed space made using waste material (cotton bales, iron strips and sacks) from the manufacturing site.
Mahadevia sometimes leads tours around the museum, dressed, of course, in denim jeans, jacket and a cap. His 30-year love for indigo is even tattooed on his arm: the dye’s chemical formula. He also has some works on display and contributed to an exhibit showing how indigo reacts to different substances like salt, vinegar, sulfuric acid, sugar, fructose and turmeric.
What you’ll find here — which is more art gallery than museum and the only one dedicated to a color — is an exploration of the uses of indigo dye, beyond the obvious.
But there is a darker side to indigo’s history. British plantation owners forced Indian farmers to grow only indigo, causing poverty and hardship, and the eventual Indigo Rebellion of Bengal (1859-60). Nalini Malani’s The Teller of Tales touches on this past in an indigo-on-acrylic piece juxtaposed with a quote from Hannah Arendt (German philosopher) and a philosophical note from Wislawa Szymborska (Polish poet).
At the end of the year, the museum will move a short drive east to a larger, dedicated space at the Arvind company’s headquarters on Naroda Road. It will also be home to a residency, elevating artists and art forms (mainly Indian, but a few from abroad) working with indigo. But Lalbhai is looking to expand the dye’s versatility even further. Such as? Think food-grade indigo ink pasta, he says, served on an indigo-dyed ceramic plate with dyed blue steel cutlery.
Given what the museum has commissioned thus far, that’s perhaps not such a blue-sky idea.
Go There: Arvind Indigo Museum
- Location: Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum Complex in Shahibag, Ahmedabad. Map.
- Hours: 10 am to 5 pm daily
- Admission fee: Free
- Pro tip: In the room dedicated to paper, don’t miss Mumbai-based Nibha Sikander’s intricate 3D paper models of insects cut and pasted together and shown with their “negatives.”