A historian and a textile expert introduce chay and the Sri Lankan community that works with the root
IF YOU are piqued by all things natural, The Leela Galleria is where you should head today. Apparao Galleries, in association with The Leela Palace, is hosting a Yarn Club talk on red textile dye and the chay root diggers of Ceylon. The speaker, Mark Balmforth, a doctoral candidate from Columbia University, New York, has been researching the social history of the Jaffna Peninsula, since 2010. “The dye (or chay) root diggers of Ceylon were a little-known community that survived for centuries picking a root still common in the coastal regions of South India and Northern Sri Lanka,” he shares. This root was used to produce a red and purple dye that earned significant income for the Dutch and early British colonial governments.
Balmforth shares that in addition to exploring the mystery of the community’s near disappearance, his talk will look at “what we know about the processes of root collection and dyeing, as well as see some of the materials used.” When compared to indigo, turmeric, and other natural dyes, little is known about chay. “We have not been able to reproduce a finished product with it,” he points out, adding that the historical references to chay are intriguing. “There is something unique to dyeing with chay that was known to make the cloth it dyed stronger and lasting. Historical accounts also say that the colour became richer and deeper over time and in contact with the sun.” However, these characteristics are little understood and will require further research.
Shades of blue
While indigo is going through a revival of sorts, textile experts like city-based Dr Bessie Cecil (who is working on the revival of chay root dyeing) feel that there are other plants whose use has declined. “According to Thomas Wardle’s Specimens of Fabrics Dyed with Indian Dyes, there were a number of indigenous plants used for dyeing. This is the only surviving record, with the natural dyed samples of silk, wool and cotton in the world, at the Botanical Survey of India, Kolkata,” says Cecil, who adds that the eco-system and quality of water play a vital role in natural dyeing. That said, as far as the best natural dyes from India are concerned, “the colour palette was always red and blue, particularly on cotton. Blue is from the plant indigofera, widely researched and proved scientifically, whereas red is not researched as much. Indian dyeing craftsmen knew the secret of fixing the red dye to the cotton, which still eludes the world,” she concludes.
The Yarn Club talk at The Leela Galleria starts at 11.30 am. Details: 30958077