Jenny Balfour-Paul came across Thomas Machell’s journals in 1999 during a meeting at the British Library Image Credit:

“I first met Thomas at the very end of the 20th century. The attraction was instant and when I parted from him in London I felt physically sick.” Thus begins Jenny Balfour-Paul’s book on her personal journey in the footsteps of Victorian adventurer Thomas Machell from India to Patagonia, from Polynesia to Afghanistan.

Machell, a midshipman and indigo-planter in the merchant navy, exhaustively chronicled (five volumes of journals) his travels. Balfour-Paul came across his journals in 1999 while attending a meeting at the British Library. A librarian pointed them out to her, and thus started an obsession that lasted more than a decade. Machell had travelled on an Arab ship dressed as an Arab.

When she came across the journals, she was up to her neck in indigo. And she wanted a break. “Though I was trying to move on from indigo when I met Thomas, it is too tightly woven into our joint lives ever to be disentangled.”

Balfour-Paul was taken aback at how much they had in common. Machell had travelled to Arabia, North Africa, China and the Indian subcontinent — the routes she also followed while researching about indigo, a subject in which she is internationally renowned.

“Deeper Than Indigo” is a deeply descriptive, colourful book. It is beautifully illustrated with Machell’s own drawings taken from his journals, which are full of evocative, and sometimes funny, sketches and watercolours. Machell’s accounts are interwoven with Balfour-Paul’s — her trips to India as a teenager, her marriage and her global travels in pursuit of Machell, and so are the illustrations — she has added her own to those of her hero.

Balfour-Paul often draws parallels with Machell’s life and his passion for indigo. She was a practical dyer but also had a life of travel, notably in the Middle East. “Thomas Machell owes his indigo career to a letter from Sir James Hogg while I owe mine to a revered dyer and fabric hand-printer, the late Susan Bosence. She was already in her later 60s when I, still in my 20s, became her quasi-apprentice. Looking back, I see she was mentor as well as friend and teacher.”

Bosence relished nature’s rich colours and soon infected Balfour-Paul with her particular love for indigo. “I inherited not only her habit of inviting friends to share summer indigo dyeing sessions, but also, later, her special indigo dye vat, in whose mysterious depths my journey had begun. Bosence had a collection of indigo-blue clothes from around the world that she fingered for inspiration, and when she learnt of indigo’s demise in the Orient, she sent me there like her carrier pigeon, to gather information in places she couldn’t visit herself.” The first place was Yemen in 1983. “In the small town of Zabid, I was told, the number of indigo workshops had dwindled in 20 years from more than a hundred to just two.”

Bosence insisted that Balfour-Paul should go back to Yemen and record its indigo traditions. When Balfour-Paul argued that she couldn’t for various reasons (one being financial), Bosence suggested applying for a grant. Balfour-Paul remembers being amused. “Who on earth would give a grant to an unknown mother with young children who’s doing textile dyeing in Devon? I don’t even have a postgraduate degree.”

But Bosence convinced her to write to a trust and within days, she had received a positive reply and a cheque. She went to Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, and was soon doing fieldwork in the Arab world, often with Glencairn, her late husband, as translator and companion. Her passion for stories around indigo took her to places such as south-west China, Tokushima Island in Japan, the Dogon cliffs of Mali near Timbuktu, and to India. Sometimes her children, Finella and Hamish, came along too. “My long-suffering family overdosed on indigo.”

Balfour-Paul’s love for indigo has resulted in several interesting encounters. “I have loads of memorable incidents — sharing meals with dyers [sometimes surrounded by the dye pots, as in Zabid]. I have made many wonderful friends thanks to indigo [and to Machell too], above all in West Bengal. Natural indigo tends to be used in more remote areas today so I have stayed in incredible villages way off the beaten track, or visited magical places such as the Hadramout Valley of Yemen, beloved of Freya Stark.”

Sometimes her research led to nerve-wracking moments. “Being shot at in Yemen and lodged [with my husband] in a local squalid jail ranks as a low point!”

Travelling by local bus around the oases of western Egypt where indigo had been cultivated and also in the desert oases of Oman was fascinating, she says. “Most Arabs are very hospitable. I met wonderful people in beautiful cities such as Aleppo and Damascus, where I was seeking former indigo dyers, and felt no Islamist threats when I was there then. Many of the peaceful places I visited when doing research for ‘Indigo in the Arab World’ would be impossible to visit now [not only because I am a Western woman but also because they are being damaged and destroyed]. I was lucky to do the research when I did, and happy to have been able to record a remarkable industry that had been in continuous use for at least 2,000 years.”

She has been to West Bengal several times. In 2010, she was there for a remarkable exhibit (for the first time in history) of the only surviving volumes of the Indian dye chronicler Thomas Wardle. The volumes (18 of them) were discovered in an old, dusty cupboard in Kolkata’s Botanical Survey of India. Around the same time, volumes of textile samples compiled by John Forbes Watson in the 19th century were also discovered. The discovery had created a sensation in the world of natural dyes. An international symposium on natural dyes was moved from Paris to Kolkata to celebrate the discovery. To get into the spirit of the era, Balfour-Paul decided to book a passage on a freighter to get to Kolkata.

The Thomas Wardle set of three books with more than 3,200 swatches of natural dyed cloth at the BSI, Kolkata, is the only extant documentation of India’s dyeing tradition in the world. Although these have been digitised, it is of utmost importance that these priceless documents are properly conserved. The books contained dye samples and recipes.

Wardle has collaborated with William Morris. Both Morris and Wardle wanted to document natural dye knowledge and, in the face of the growing market for synthetic colours, promote the use of natural dyes. Wardle travelled to India and collected Indian textiles, many of which were recently exhibited at the Whitworth Art Gallery in England. Along with the exhibition, there were workshops on practical applications of textile conservation and integrated pest management, and one by a team from Albert Victoria Museum on the conservation of textiles.

After bitterly abandoning indigo, the past five years have seen a resurgence of interest in reintroducing the cultivation of Bengal indigo. There is a momentum building to celebrate indigo and reintroduce sustainable indigo to West Bengal (“from a somewhat dark history there to a light future”). “This will probably be late in 2017. Machell is a rare voice from Bengal’s indigo past, as you know.”

Indigo’s history in India is tainted with memories of colonialism by the British. Bengal indigo, supposedly the best in the world, contributed to the brimming coffers of the East India Company, but at a tremendous cost to the people. They mercilessly pursued farmers to plant indigo instead of food crops. It’s been more than a century since the British left, but it is difficult to forget the stories of suffering and exploitation attached with British indigo plantations in Bengal.

“Neel Darpan” was a famous 19th-century play about the revolt by tenant farmers who refused to grow indigo as a protest. It was in 1859 that the indigo revolt (or “Nilbidroha”) took place.

“With the Sutra events, we have already demonstrated the positive aspects of indigo, a wonderful, much loved dye that shouldn’t be tainted because of one exploitative period of its history in certain places. The empathetic views expressed by Machell [with his concern and help for the exploited indigo workers in the industry he was involved in himself] that feature in ‘Deeper than Indigo’ also help to heal. And I hope that every time I give a talk about this, it also helps with the healing process.”

One of the indigo revival initiatives Balfour-Paul has been involved with is with cellist Yo Yo Ma’s “Silk Road Project”. The project’s vision is to connect the world’s neighbourhoods by bringing together artists and audiences around the globe. As one of its 10th anniversary programmes, the “Silk Road Project” has created a New York City Education Programme based around the many facets of indigo dye. Balfour-Paul is an adviser to the project. “Together with other people [in the UK and West Bengal in particular] there are plans to create a big event in 2017, which is ear-marked by the British and Indian governments to celebrate positively the links between the UK and India via the arts. A main aim is to revive indigo cultivation and production, as well as have exhibitions, demonstrations, talks, and to work with students and children.”

The reaction to reviving indigo in West Bengal has been mixed. “Older members of the public, and rural farming communities in particular, still hang on to the negative resonances, whereas younger people have forgotten that [except for history lessons in schools, perhaps]. And those working in textiles — fashion colleges, etc. — are very positive about indigo as they know what a beautiful and fascinating dye it is and also that it has the most potential for sustainable issues.”

A deep interest in the hue

An indigo dye expert, Jenny Balfour-Paul has written three books on the subject, and lectures around the world. Her first book was “Indigo in the Arab World” (Routledge, London, 1996), which was drawn from her PhD. It is still in print (also on Kindle). Her book for the British Museum Press, “Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans”, is being reprinted for the fifth time. And there’s “Deeper than Indigo: Tracing Thomas Machell, Forgotten Explorer” (Medina Publishing) which will be on Kindle this year. She was a consultant curator for the Whitworth Art Gallery’s 2007 touring exhibition “Indigo, a Blue to Dye For” and consultant for two documentary films on the subject. She is an Honorary Research Fellow at Exeter University; a Fellow of London’s Royal Geographical Society and Royal Asiatic Society and New York’s Explorers Club, and President of the UK’s Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers.

The colour of our planet

Indigo is the world’s only natural blue dye. It doesn’t need any mordant as its particles adhere to the fibres naturally. Jenny Balfour-Paul says what makes indigo so unique is the colour blue, the colour of our planet. “It is appreciated worldwide, but to recreate this loved colour in textiles [before the advent of synthetic dyes in the 20th century] there was only one natural blue dye and that is indigo extracted from various plant genera [not least Indigofera tinctoria].” She points out that indigo’s chemistry is unique among natural dyes, and gives the special quality still appreciated today by all wearers of blue jeans (whether dyed with plant indigo or its synthetic equivalent).

Anuradha Sengupta is a writer based in Mumbai.

“Deeper than Indigo” is available to purchase on Amazon and www.medinapublishing.com. The book will soon be available in the UAE.