“Why does the Indian team wear blue?” my son asks, as the match kicks off at the Hockey World Cup 2018.
“The Indian team always wears blue!” the other replies, all-knowingly.
“But why?” the first one asks, not satisfied with his brother’s superficial and dismissive answer.
“Because India is surrounded by the sea on three sides!” a plausible explanation is offered by the brother.
“Good guess!” I say.
“Because Blue is the colour of many of the Indian gods!” he takes another shot referring to the images of Krishna, Rama and Shiva he has seen!
“Nice one!” I can’t help smiling.
“So…what is the answer?” they ask in unison, curious to get to the bottom of things.
I haven’t thought about it before. But to be honest, as a student of history, if I were asked to pick one colour to represent India, it would undoubtedly be blue.
“But WHY?” the question is repeated with much force, drawing me out of my thoughts.
And so I begin my story, narrating the tale about India’s tryst with Blue!
India Makes Blue
Blue has been for the longest time, one of the most common colours used to dye textiles. Even today much of the world dresses in blue.
While in today’s day and age, a large number of dyes to colour textiles are synthetically made in factories, years ago natural dyes were required to colour fabrics.
Blue was one of those brilliant colours for which not many options were available. One of the only natural sources for the colour blue was the indigo plant.
Historically it was India that domesticated the use of this plant. The plant known as Indigofera tinctoria, is a shrub that was cultivated extensively in various parts of India since ancient times.
This plant is called Neel or Neelam in the north and Nilichettu in the south.
Blue dye of various shades – deep blue to light blue – can be made from the leaves of this shrub.
As a result, back then, India was the primary supplier of indigo to the world. From Silks to Spices, Greeks and Romans were known to lap up the exotic products that came from the east as willing buyers. Indigo was one amongst the long list of eastern exotics.
It was the Greeks that gave the name Indikon to this dye, because of its association with India. By the time the term reached the English lexicon, it had become Indigo.
Launch-pad for Mahatma Gandhi
Now let’s take a Jump in Time.
When Gandhi returned to India from South Africa in 1915, he went to meet Gopal Krishna Gokhale, his political mentor and guru. Gokhale advised Gandhi to tour India’s villages in order to get to know the country intimately before he could begin taking an active part in the political struggle.
Not one to take his guru’s advice lightly, Gandhi spent a year travelling the length and breadth of India, in 3rd class railway coaches, meeting people who formed the soul of India.
In the dusty hot summer of April 1917, he made a journey to a place called Motihari in Bihar’s East Champaran. It was this movement, Gandhiji’s 1st satyagraha, that catapulted him to national fame. This little town in Bihar and the problems of its indigo farmers was to be a turning point in the history of India.
Only a few months ago at the 31st session of the Congress in Lucknow, a farmer from Champaran called Raj Kumar Shukla had met Gandhi and requested him to come to his village to understand the problems of the indigo tenant farmers there. At that time, as admitted by Gandhi himself, he had never heard of Champaran nor did he know where it was. He said that he had “hardly any notion of indigo plantations.”
He soon learned that the Britishers had imposed a system called tinkathia under which the farmers were forced to grow blue indigo in 3/20 parts of their land. If the farmers refused, they had to face heavy taxation. The British enforced the system brutally. As a result, the farmers were compelled to stop growing food crops and made to start growing indigo.
When Gandhi reached Motihari, news about his arrival spread far and wide. Hundreds had come to the railway station to see him. Even before he reached the village Jasullipati, where he intended to stay, he was served a notice from the district magistrate ordering him to leave by the next available train.
“If you leave the district now and promise not to return, the case against you will be withdrawn,” Gandhi was warned.
Gandhi was unperturbed and challenged the police to arrest him. “I have come here to render humanitarian service to the people of this region. I shall not leave till I have helped these suffering people,” Gandhi replied.
The British soon realized Gandhi was too much of a force to contend with. They allowed him to remain and also instructed their officers to look into the suffering. of the indigo farmers.
Over the next few days Gandhi visited several villages and met many of the indigo peasants. He is said to have recorded the testimonies of up to 8000 indigo cultivators to understand their issues. He even laid the foundations of some schools in the district.
This also heralded a change in the Indian National Movement, which up until then had been a largely urban, upper-caste, upper-classes struggle. Until then, the Congress was mostly an elite organization – with members who did not represent the causes of rural India. This visit of Gandhi changed that.
The British soon wizened up. An Inquiry Committee was set up to examine the problems of indigo farmers. A bill was soon presented before the Legislative Council. And within a year of Gandhi’s visit, the exploitative tinkathia system was abolished!
The power and sway of Gandhi was beginning to rise! Indigo had given Gandhi a jumpstart. And Mohandas Gandhi became Mahatma Gandhi.
Now one more jump in time…but this time going backwards.
While we often hear about the mutiny of 1857, we do not hear much about other revolts and mutinies that took place against colonial rule in India.
One such revolt took place in Bengal in 1859 and was known as the Indigo Revolt or the Nil Vidroh.
It was one of the most large-scale peasant revolts of India where indigo peasants who had been forced to grow indigo instead of food, rebelled against the administration.
Many indigo depots were burnt and destroyed. On their part, the British suppressed the revolt, arresting and executing the indigo peasants.
As opposed to the Mutiny of 1857, this revolt is said to have been a nonviolent revolt, much before Gandhi was born.
The impact of this revolt was immediate. The government set up the Indigo Commission in 1860 to look into the problems of the indigo farmers.
In the commission report is found a line that tells the entire story “not a chest of indigo reached England without being stained with human blood.”
Not just diamonds, even dyes were stained with blood!
Fillip to Nationalistic Theatre
Indigo was also the basis for one of the earliest anti-colonial protests in the realm of art.
A play called Neel Darpan written by the Dinabandu Mitra in 1860 in Bengali, about the brutality of the British against indigo planters, quickly became one of the most vociferous voices of protest.
The Play was translated into English, published and circulated in England too. It attracted much attention from people in England who were shocked to learn about the brutality of their own countrymen.
It also attracted much criticism from the British administration and prompted them to ban nationalist theatre in India. Rev James Long who had translated and published the play in English was tried and punished.
Nil Darpan was to be one of the first of a string of plays that soon became the messengers of nationalistic fervour. Until the British clamped down heavily upon them by passing the Dramatic Performances Act, 1876, under which these kind of plays were banned as seditious.
Contrary to expectations however, the ban led to a flowering of theatre in India where writers came up with alternative plot ideas and used creative methods like hiding nationalist messages in mythological themes to overcome the ban.
It was one of the most creative phases of Indian theatre. To read more about this, click here to read my article Mythology and the Freedom Movement in the Bhavan’s Journal.
Again, it was indigo and blue that were the trigger.
Blue Dye in Our Fables
And what’s more? As my son rightly pointed out, the famous blue dye of India has found itself into our children’s stories too!
Do you remember the story The Blue Jackal from the Panchatantra Tales? Well..if you recollect, the jackal becomes blue by falling into a tub of blue dye.
Blue then, is a colour that symbolizes India for multiple reasons. A fitting tribute that Blue finds pride of place in the centre of India’s national flag.
To return to my son’s question – I don’t know if those that picked the national uniform of the Indian Sports Teams had the history of blue in mind.
I also don’t know how exactly ‘feeling the blues‘ came to mean something melancholic in the English language and became a name of a genre of jazz music.
What I do know is that if one had to chose one single colour to represent India – it just had to be Blue!
So the next time you find yourself looking up at a rainbow in the sky, remember that of those seven lovely colours you see up there, has been named in honour of India!
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