Neeli Raag: An ode to India’s dying indigo trade

Melanie P Kumar | Updated on June 14, 2019 Published on June 14, 2019

Colour controversy: The indigo remains one of the most enduring symbols of the British Empire’s exploitation of Indian farmers

Film-maker Swati Dandekar’s latest documentary looks at the lives of those involved in the making of the once-coveted dye

The expression ‘true-blue’ had no meaning for Yellappa. But the indigo dyer from Uravakonda, a village in Andhra Pradesh’s Anantapur district, had dedicated his life to the colour that seldom fades — just like the unflinching loyalty of a true-blue supporter or friend.

Yellappa’s lifelong affair with indigo wouldn’t have gone beyond the community of dyers in Uravakonda had it not been for Swati Dandekar, a 51-year-old film-maker currently based in Bengaluru. He is the adhesive that binds the narrative of Neeli Raag, her 85-minute documentary film on the making of indigo and the lives of those involved in the trade.

Film-maker Swati Dandekar


Sadly, though, one doesn’t see Yellappa in the film that premièred at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival in October 2018. The master craftsman passed away while Neeli Raag was in the planning stage. “I came across Yellappa’s story in a magazine I read at the residence of Uzramma Bilgrami [founder of the Andhra Chapter of Dastkar] in Hyderabad,” says Dandekar. “I was working on another documentary at the time. I finished that in 2011 and then decided to drive down to Uravakonda for a meeting with Yellappa,” she adds.

Like many Indians, Dandekar had relegated indigo to the annals of East India Company’s oppressive reign in India. But the encounter with the “living history” of indigo was an eye-opener for the film-maker, who was exposed to world cinema during her days as a communications student at Mumbai’s Sophia Polytechnic. The visit to Yellappa’s house introduced Dandekar to his passion and involvement in the “magical process” of indigo-making and his role in training others in the same. But while she scouted for funds to make the film, Yellappa died at the age of 75. “It was a huge setback and I was unsure about going ahead. He was meant to be the pivotal character,” she says. But Dandekar, who heads the film programme at Bengaluru’s Srishti Institute of Art Design and Technology, decided to go ahead nonetheless.

She built the narrative around Yellappa’s contribution to the dying art, with stories of the people he had trained and their struggle for survival in a shrinking market. Her confidence was bolstered by the Films Division of India’s decision to sponsor the project. The making of Neeli Raag took three years — one year for research and two for shooting and post-production. It is available in several Indian languages with English subtitles. It has been shown in cities across the country — including a recent screening at the Indian Institute of Human Settlement in Bengaluru. Dandekar adds that the film might also be aired on Doordarshan.

Some of the characters in Neeli Raag are Odhelu, Mallikarjuna, Anbazhagan and the Khatri brothers. Each of them shares tales of how they came into the trade and the challenges that their work is riddled with. The biggest reason for thetheir losses they suffer is the use of synthetic colours. These are cheaper than the natural dye, apart from being harmful for the environment. There is some demand for indigo in the West, especially Europe. Closer home, retail chains such as Anokhi and Fabindia have a range of garments that uses the dye.

During her research for Neeli Raag, Dandekar came across the interesting story of a schoolteacher in Bihar. The cultivation of the leaf-based dye in Bihar — like in other parts of the country — is on the decline. “There was no one in Bihar to teach him the art of making indigo,” says Dandekar. He eventually travelled to the south to learn it. Dandekar might get to explore this story in another film.

Bihar’s relationship with indigo, which is one of the most enduring symbols of exploitation of farmers in British India, goes back to the 1750s. It was produced in huge quantities for export to China, the UK and Europe. The miserable plight of the cultivators and the farmers inspired Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to launch the historic Champaran Satyagraha in 1916.

Dandekar’s use of blue and green motifs — the blue that refuses to fade from the hands of the dyer, for example, as well as the green of the indigo leaves — lends warmth to the visual quotient of Neeli Raag. But it’s the human condition, according to Dandekar, that has appealed the most to viewers. It is also what drew her to the subject. An admirer of films such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) and Anand Patwardhan’s Bombay, Our City (1985), Dandekar is also the maker of Water and a City. It looks at the journey of water into and out of urban homes. Along the way, it also examines issues such as access to water for the poor and the politics of water pricing.

On the lookout for a new subject, she is, meanwhile, enjoying the role of a teacher.

Melanie P Kumar is a Bengaluru-based writer

Published on June 14, 2019
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