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Tracing Imperial Threads: Shelly Jyoti, Indigo, and Collectivity

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Drawing out the threads of the indigo dyeing exhibition “Indigo: The Blue Gold” at the South Asia Institute.

Image: Installation view, Indigo: The Blue Gold, 2023. The piece Migrated Communities hangs on a wall of the exhibition, with Homage to the Farmers of Champaran, 1917-1918 in the foreground. Courtesy: South Asia Institute.
Image: Installation view, Indigo: The Blue Gold, 2023. The piece Migrated Communities hangs on a wall of the exhibition, with Homage to the Farmers of Champaran, 1917-1918 in the foreground. Courtesy: South Asia Institute.

From tapestries of gold-embroidered ships and schools of fish to contemporary jackets, Shelly Jyoti’s mid-career retrospective at the South Asia Institute (SAI) showcases the triumph of collective resistance against colonial violence and the relevance of ancient South Asian art forms in contemporary cultural landscapes. Indigo: The Blue Gold features works produced by many hands: Jyoti’s designs and the labor of block print artisans based in Gujarat, who inherited the intergenerational practice. 

The bulk of the exhibition consists of khadi (hand-spun fabric) tapestries adorned with ajrakh patterning. While Jyoti devised the arrangements, masters Juned Ismail and Mohamed Khatri in Ajrakhpur executed the print. In their craft, they carry on the legacy of creative knowledge from several generations. Dating back to the Indus Valley civilization (as early as 3,300 BCE), ajrakh requires pre-soaking cloth in ash, oil, and animal material; expert mixing of indigo and secondary dyes; and over a dozen stages of washing, printing, and drying to realize the details of Jyoti’s designs. The subtleties of ajrakh printing shine through with the juxtaposition of neat lines around the harsh white sails of merchant ships with lightly marbled silhouettes of fish; nuances in every detail. 

Much like Neo-Miniaturists such as Shahzia Sikander (currently featured elsewhere in the SAI), Jyoti returns to nearly-lost South Asian traditions as media. Where the Neo-Miniaturists bring labor-intensive Mughal era painting techniques into modern South Asian art, Jyoti parallelly adopts a complex, more time-consuming process of cultivation and printing. This choice stays true to the anti-imperialist values at the core of her practice. Centering a marginalized mode of textile production relegated to the distant past contrasts with today’s molecularly similar, synthetic indigo factory-made commodities. Just as there are many more cost-effective, less laborious ways to create a tapestry than on khadi using ajrakh blocks, there exists a much easier chemical process to create indigo than growing it from the indigofera plant. Synthetic indigo causes rivers to turn dark blue from factory run-off, and mass machinery replaces massive amounts of human labor. 

SAI addresses this evolution in the portion that departs from decorative tapestries to wearable artifacts. Jyoti, along with her graduate degree in literature, has also trained at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi. This background is showcased in a selection of denim jackets and kaftans embroidered with shisha mirror work, characteristic of Gujarati fashion. The denim industry sources high demand for indigo and is one of the worst culprits of pollution in fashion. As environmental destruction occurs, everyday items alongside the massive tapestries made with sustainable dyes serve as a reminder that indigo continues to play an evolving role in global trade.

Image: Installation View, Indigo: The Blue Gold, 2023. Migrated Communities hangs on a wall of the exhibition, with Homage to the Farmers of Champaran, 1917-1918 in the foreground. The latter piece takes the shape of many patterned circles hanging in the space. Courtesy: South Asia Institute.
Image: Installation View, Indigo: The Blue Gold, 2023. Migrated Communities hangs on a wall of the exhibition, with Homage to the Farmers of Champaran, 1917-1918 in the foreground. The latter piece takes the shape of many patterned circles hanging in the space. Courtesy: South Asia Institute.

Homage to the Farmers of Champaran 1917-1918, strings together hundreds of cloth disks, each with a unique ajrakh pattern, always tied to the movement of the others. About three hundred disks represent individual indigo farmers in the 1917 uprising, cited as an early spark of the plight for Indian Independence. It is a striking installation at the entrance to the exhibition, almost acting as an interactive curtain we cross to enter the space. This work, unlike the predominantly wall-hanging tapestries, sets a thematic tone. Each disk features an intricate hand-printed pattern, creating the illusion of a mosaic. We are encouraged to touch the dangling disks, sensing how the movement and action of any one piece are inextricably connected to the others. Declaring the installation an “homage” bestows memorial significance for lives lost in the indigo trade. Mercenary forces of traders eventually suppressed the eponymous rebellion, though not before it put a temporary halt to large swathes of indigo plantations in the area. While in the grand scheme of colonial trade the rebellion was short-lived, it represents the early struggle for liberation from the collective power of indigo workers.        

The theme of collectivity continues beyond this homage, emblematized in the tapestry depicting a school of fish titled Migrated Communities (2018-19). Reading an example about how as a natural phenomenon, “trillions collaborate together undersea, displacing water to create ocean currents and waves,”  inspired Jyoti. The metaphor is multi-pronged: countless discrete beings pushing against a force of nature together call to mind the potential strength of collective action and continue the oceanic motifs, alongside images of ornate ships referencing early trade networks across oceans. The recurring images of ships throughout the tapestries appear often lined with gilded embroidery against an oceanic indigo background—the shimmering hope and promise of leaving South Asia and journeying as trafficked indentured servants across the British Empire. 

Image: Red, White, and Black Make Blue. A display of salon-style-hung tapestries in a grid with the furthest wall displaying the blue tapestries, the left wall displaying red and orange, and the right wall displaying blue and white. The tapestries are made from Ajrakh printing and dyeing on khadi cloth. Courtesy: South Asia Institute.
Image: Red, White, and Black Make Blue. A display of salon-style-hung tapestries in a grid with the furthest wall displaying the blue tapestries, the left wall displaying red and orange, and the right wall displaying blue and white. The tapestries are made from ajrakh printing and dyeing on khadi cloth. Courtesy: South Asia Institute.

One of the most innovative series, Red, White, and Black Make Blue (2023), is displayed on three walls to the side of the main gallery. The title references scholar Andrea Freeser’s book, a monograph on the history of indigo in South Carolina cultivated through slave labor. The intersections of slave labor, indentured servitude, and violent forced migration are eloquently conveyed through the colors and structure of this section, with several designs evoking flags, maps, and a departure from the conventional ajrakh patterns in the rest of the gallery. While still produced on khadi cloth, the prints on these pieces are more akin to an abstract modernist aesthetic, mirroring the commercial use of indigo beginning with Asian labor and overlaid with Western demands. This section expands the horizons of colonial trade as it interacts with the Americas and Black history, emphasizing indigo’s relevance to an intersectional understanding of labor and exploitation built around colonial trade. The global hunger for indigo dye in clothing enacted Black and brown exploitation. These are the most memorable and impactful moments of Jyoti’s work when it presents something in a new and unexpected manner.

Image: Chakra, 2023. Indigo-dyed wall tapestry. A spindle-like image appears in the center with decorative red, white, and blue details around the edges. Courtesy of the South Asia Institute.
Image: Chakra, 2023. Indigo-dyed wall tapestry. A spindle-like image appears in the center with decorative red, white, and blue details around the edges. Courtesy of the South Asia Institute.

The work occasionally risks veering into the didactic in the overt Gandhian symbols. Jyoti describes herself as “inspired by Gandhi,” and frequently references historical events and slogans to which he was central. Encountering the spinning wheel motif in her Chakra series immediately evokes the figure’s advocacy for economic self-sufficiency (swaraj) as a core tenet of an independent India, exemplified in weaving one’s own cloth with a traditional spinning wheel (charkha), thereby boycotting European manufactured cloth. Jyoti’s assertion of “engaging with the subaltern” becomes contradictory in this uncritical reverence of Gandhian visions for a future India, which reinforced the caste system for the sake of national independence. The exhibition is at its strongest when, for example, the positioning of a school of fish implies a broader message about collectivity. The artistry falters slightly when it turns to a hagiographic, heavy-handed promotion of the individual politician himself. 

Overall, the story of indigo is infused with beauty, violence, resistance, pride, and heritage, as well as intertwined with innovation, artistry, and workmanship. While the earliest uses of indigofera originated in what is now South America, the word “indigo” comes from the Latin word indicum, meaning “Indian” introducing it on a global stage as inherently tied to the subcontinent and its struggles. The South Asia Institute, in partnership with Jyoti and curator Laura Kina, assembled a valuable exhibition of one artist’s engagement with this far-reaching element, and its enduring significance. The emphasis on exquisite artisanal labor rarely displayed in art galleries, but rather relegated to the past, is an important step toward South Asian tradition claiming its place in modern discourse. 

Indigo: The Blue Gold at the South Asia Institute, Chicago, is on view from July 22 through December 10, 2023.


Image: A photo of Mrittika Ghosh smiling at the camera.

About the author: Mrittika Ghosh (she/her) is a Bengali American reader, writer, and translator currently based in Chicago. She holds a BA from Mount Holyoke College and an MA from the University of Chicago. She has also been a bookseller, oral historian, and educator. Her writing focuses on queerness, migration, and postcolonial art in Francophone and South Asian diasporic contexts.

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