Volume 3 Issue 02| January 22, 2011|


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Cover Story
From Insight Desk

Ruby Ghuznavi & Revival of Natural Dyes

Ruby Ghuznavi set up Aranya to assess the commercial viability of natural dyes and promote its extensive use both in Bangladesh and abroad. Before establishing Aranya in 1991, she was the Project Director for 8 eight years of the Vegetable Dye Project, which was taken up as a Research & Development project by the Government of Bangladesh. Furthermore, from 1975 to 1992, she served as the Country Delegate of Terre Des Hommes, a Swiss NGO working with underprivileged children in rural and urban areas of Bangladesh. Ruby Ghuvnavi is a successful entrepreneur and a lynchpin of the arts and crafts sector of Bangladesh. She has played a significant role in reviving the natural dye process in the country and has authored books on the subject.
Rafi Hossain & Zahidul Naim Zakaria

Everyday, as technology is moving forward, products are becoming sleeker and smaller, but with more abilities packed into them. Such is the result of globalization, that goods produced in one part of the world are available everywhere. Unfortunately, not all effects of globalization are positive. In the search for cost effectiveness and scale of production, textiles commonly use chemical dyes. Often, these chemical reagents used by dyeing operations are very diverse in chemical composition, ranging from inorganic compounds and elements of polymers. They constitute a part of the vast volume of effluence that has contaminated the river system around Dhaka and killed its aquatic life. The world at large is slowly awakening towards the ill effects of harming the environment, and the global trend is now towards saving nature. In light of this, it can be expected that the global demand will shift from manmade dyes to natural, eco-friendly ones. In Bangladesh, the person who has revived the usage of natural dye is Ruby Ghuznavi, the initiator of Aranya Crafts.

Natural dye, although not feasible for mass production, is ideal for a niche market. By its own characteristic, it is a process fit for small to medium scale production. Instead of thinking of large but numbered production units, natural dye users need to look at the industry with small but numerous units. Usually, we think of fruits and vegetables that have been grown without the use of chemical pesticides when referring to the term “organic”. Occasionally, we might also apply organic to meat, eggs, and dairy products. But, how often do we apply the term to the clothing that we wear?

The natural dyeing process is not a new one, it is age-old - one that has been known to be used by our ancestors for centuries. It is a process through which each item is made unique, and therefore each item carries a greater value of craftsmanship. The output, as a result, commands a class of its own. This art was brought back to the limelight from the edge of extinction by Ruby Ghuznavi, who has given it new life through Aranya Crafts. Her products stand by various other brands but they stand unique, since no other brand's product solely uses natural dyes. She has raised the design value and usefulness of Aranya's products to be able to compete in the market, although a niche one. Aranya retains a training component for national and international trainees, particularly craftspeople. Aranya has standardized 30 colourfast dyes which, singly or in combination, can provide an extensive range of colours. It has trained hundreds of craftspeople across Bangladesh as well as organized and conducted numerous international training workshops in natural dyeing techniques in countries like the U.K., Turkey, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Malaysia and Nepal.

Ruby Ghuznavi is the Chairperson of the Natural Dye Programme of the World Crafts Council. This involvement occupies most of her time now, as she travels from one country to another to lead the programme and share her experiences. It's been twenty years since she started Aranya, but natural dye has been a part of her life since earlier before. In 1986, she met the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay in Delhi at a gathering of like minds. Kamaladevi is a well-known figure in the area of arts and crafts in the Indian sub-continent, and she played a vital role in reviving the natural dye process. She became an inspiration and a guiding light to Ruby Ghuznavi. Over the years, they kept in contact and Ruby traveled to the Kalakshetra Craft Education and Research Centre, a cultural academy, to learn more about natural dye. Ruby immediately saw a potential for this particular art to be used in Bangladesh, where the required raw materials are available and where there is a need for work opportunities for the rural poor. She is grateful to BISIC and Karika, as they provided her logistical support to organize workshops in the beginning when she had first set her mind to work only with natural dye. But she felt that she needed to take up a bigger initiative to popularize the concept, and Aranya was born.

Over the last two decades, Aranya has become a commercially viable operation that has carved its own niche in the mind of Bangladeshi consumers. Ruby Ghuznavi regrets that Aranya always operates at a production level below its global demand. The combination of aesthetics and environmental friendliness keep Aranya's products in high appeal. Designers from Europe have expressed their wishes to purchase quantities that Aranya is not alone prepared to supply, simply because of the very characteristic of the material, which cannot be mass produced. She regrets that more people have not taken up natural dyeing in the apparel industry in Dhaka.

It has become very difficult for her to continue leading Aranya, given that she is spending a lot of time conducting regular training workshops in various countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and India on natural dye. Traveling is strenuous, especially at this age. Very recently, it was in the air that Aranya's ownership is changing hands. On asking why, Ruby Ghuznavi says, “In order to work with natural dye, it is not enough to simply understand its importance. The entrepreneur must be hands-on; he or she must know the process and its technical details well.” Unfortunately, successors in the family are too involved in their own work and careers to take up natural dyeing as their sole activity, and Ruby Ghunavi would prefer that a professional production house continues the operation under the strict terms that no chemical dye is introduced to any product which is sold under Aranya's banner. That being said, she is still going to be involved as an adviser to Aranya. This is not a retirement for Ruby Ghuznavi, far from it, really. But her main focus is changing from being an entrepreneur to an educator. She has had a tremendously fulfilling journey working with natural dyes, and if she could go back and relive her life, she would play things out just the way they have been.

The revival of natural dye important not only from an environmental purview, but also from the point of view of safekeeping the sub-continent's heritage. To revive the art at large, a lot more people need to become involved. This trade is easy-to-learn; therefore it may serve as a source of self-employment and empowerment of thousands of Bangladeshis. What are needed are people to follow Ruby Ghuznavi's footsteps, and although many boutiques have opened up, none have truly been able to stand at the same level as Aranya. One factor here is that although easy to learn, natural dyeing is a process which involves strict and often difficult quality control tasks. A lot of scope exists in this area, and artists who wish to create an identity for them in the niche garments market and portray themselves as creative, unique and environmentally aware may find natural dyeing an ideal resort.

At the moment, a few NGOs are working with natural dye in the Chor areas of Southern Bangladesh. These NGOs have engaged many unemployed women in this trade in that area. Such instances may easily be replicated elsewhere in the country, especially where pockets of regional unemployment exist. Adequate training needs to be imparted about how to use natural dye in a commercially viable way before natural dye can be used to benefit Bangladesh's rural economy.

From “Rangeen: Natural Dyes of Bangladesh” by Ruby Ghuznavi

Bangladesh has a rich repository of dye producing plants which yielded an initial set of fifteen colourfast dyes which a very short time. However, an extensive field survey carried out across the country indicated that the pernicious influence of synthetic dyes had all but eliminated this indigenous craft. Only in some of the tribal areas, nominal amounts of vegetable dyes continued to be used. Training courses conducted across the country, workshop and exhibitions held over a two year period as well as wide media coverage enabled the project to reintroduce natural dyes in this country. Since then the emphasis has been shifted from research to greater dissemination of the dyeing skills and extensive cultivation of dye yielding plants, particularly the cultivation and extraction of natural indigo. Fifteen additional colours have been added to that existing range, bringing the total to thirty standardized shades, which singly, or as compound colours, yield a wide variety of colourfast dyes. The strength of natural dyes lies in its potential for experiment and designers' control. A small variation in technique, or combination of mordant and dye, can create tonal nuances which are not possible with synthetic dyes. There are no limits to the complex range of shades which can be developed from such combination of dyes and mordants; yet because of the inherent subtlety and warmth of natural dyes, the colours never clash or jar in any way.

The sources of natural dyes were as varied as they were prolific. With its diversity of climatic and geographic conditions, the Subcontinent possessed an immense wealth/variety of flora and fauna which yielded an array of dye producing shrubs and perennials. Basically, they did not require special care and nurturing; with time, however, al, manjistha, safflower and indigo came under organized cultivation because of their exceptional versatility. The Arthasthastra noted the increased acreage put under al and safflower cultivation purely because of their dye qualities. Over 300 dye producing plants are listed in various historical manuals. The repertoire includes fruit, flower, root, rind, extract, gall of plants, lichen, cactus cacti and lac-an incrustation on thebranches of specific trees. Rich earthy tones of rusts, browns and olives combined with brilliant scarlets and crimsons, to produce a range of textiles in resist printing, hand painting and textured weaving, unknown in other parts of the world. Indigo, the most valuable of all dyes, originated in the Subcontinent. The Greeks and Romans referred to it as “Indicum”, a product of India. Europeans were not known to have used indigo dye to any considerable extent, till the English traders gave it “the place of honour among possible exports”, in the 17th century. The technique used in India and Southeast Asia were most complex and had “little tolerance for error”. Today it remains one of the most exciting dyes, with the same requirement of highly skilled processing. Dyers of this region were famous for their reds, blues, and a host of other colours. The processes used were extremely complex, requiring numerous stages of development.

The earliest and most exhaustive account of an Indian dyer's work was painstakingly recorded in 1734 by Mr. de Beaulieu in Pondicherry. Today, one of the few remaining intricate processes in followed by the handpainted Kalamkari craftsmen of Kalahasti, who still use some natural dyes.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay & Ruby Guznavi - Delhi, June 1986

Rooted in religious and functional usage through centuries, the new colours, farms, and textures of the master dyer developed greatly in response to court of Delhi and later, the Great Mughals, who were instrumental in causing a remarkable promotion of indigenous textile during this period. Increased acreage of cotton and dye yielding plants was supplemented by the infusion of designs and techniques. The encouragement provided to the medieval weaver simulated experimentation with colours of exquisite tonal variations. Names like Fakhtai, Sandali, Kafuri, Falsai, Aquilquami, Dilbahar, Badshad Pasand and Jilani evoked their Persian, and Arabic origin and influence behind the emergence of this new range of dyes. Such patronage found its richest expression in the craft schools which emerged around the Mughal Courts of Delhi and Agra and the Imperial Courts of Golconda. Flair and refinement combined to create colours of extraordinary beauty and sensibility.

Until as recently as the nineteenth century all colouring matters were of vegetal and mineral origin. The vivid warm colours to be found in cave paintings or in carefully restored fabrics in museums the world over, attest to the enduring fabrics in museums the world over, attest to the enduring qualities of natural dyes. St. Jerome's reference in Rome, to the “perennial wisdom” in terms of “the perishable dyes of India which never fade”, confirms the ingenuity and skill with which the traditional craftsmen handled mardants, when using the dyes. A mordant is the mineral used to precipitate the active principal of the dye and to fix the colour so as to make it insoluble in water or neutral soap. This technique has been known in the Subcontinent from the second millennium B.C. and had a great deal to do with the luster and performance of vegetable dyes. Pliny's report dates it to an early period by its account of several colours resulting from a single dye a clear allusion to the genius of the Indian mordanting process. Competence in the art enabled the colours to permeate the fabric in a manner which enhanced its glow over time, rather than dull its brilliance. The earliest reference to the mordanting process in the West appears only in the first century A.D. Derived from a wide variety of course like lemon rind, kapas and bhalawan flowers, myrabalan fruits, sheep dung, alum, salts, and sulphate of iron, the mordants combined with specific dyes causing the colouring matter to adhere permanently to the fibre. The manipulation of different kinds of mordants, combined in their purity and density with the various dyes, was one of the secrets of the dyer's art, handed down from generation to generation. Even today, it is the expertise and skill with which one handles the mordants that determines the tonal brilliance and permanence of the dyes.



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