Interest in ethnobotany (human interactions with plants) as a storehouse of indigenous and local ecological knowledge, culture and practices has been reinvigorated in recent years, as the global search accelerates for renewable products that contribute to more sustainable management of resources and ecosystems. In partnership with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Royal Holloway, London University, this PhD uses an ethnographic approach to document and visualise embodied practice - the tacit knowledge and skills – embedded in the cultivation and production of natural indigo dye in Bengal, India.
Due to indigo’s history, tainted by colonial exploitation, many West Bengal farmers have refused to cultivate it. Now, working with SUTRA, a Bengal-based civil society organisation working to revive long lost knowledge about cultivation and production of natural indigo dye, this PhD extends scholarship on embodied practice. Where previous scholarship describes the history and legacy of Kew’s natural dye collection, this project focuses on the less investigated aspects of the skills embedded in production of natural indigo.
Documenting indigo dye production as a repository of skills and practices as well as a source of income for renewable and low carbon materials is one strand of the field work. A second strand is the collaboration with SUTRA and dyeing communities to co-design the project. The applicant’s previous and extensive experience in participatory observation and visual methodologies, such as photo voice and filming, will be used to capture the whole process of indigo from harvest to dye vat and to conduct in-depth interviews.
Outputs, beyond peer reviewed articles, include advancing Kew’s outreach by communicating with audiences outside academia. Visual storytelling and dyeing workshops in Bengal and Kew will weave together contemporary and historical sources – film and photos produced during field work with newly digitised archival materials from Kew’s catalogues to engage with the public.