From the Himalayan mountains to Ocean Blues – Avani to Saagari

By Malika VirdionNov. 02, 2016in Environment and Ecology

Written specially for Vikalp Sangam

As you take the turn around a corner of the mountain road from Berinag and head towards Tripura Devi, the red rooftops of Avani’s campus can be seen draped over the 5 acre hillside it sits on, at an altitude of 5117 feet above sea level. We had traveled down from Munsiari, known for the traditional weaving skills of the Shauka community, and had come to meet and interact with Avani, an NGO set up in 1999. Walking through the gates, the yellow mud plastered building you first encounter is the Dyeing unit. It is a small work-shed, with dye baths and skeins of reds, blues and brown dyed spun yarn stacked on shelves. There is a pot of orange pigment being strained through a piece of white cloth – from the seeds of Annatto (Bixa orellana) procured from south India, though the tree itself is a native to Brazil. Later in the evening, Rashmi Bharati, co-founder and Director of Avani, tests the colour on a piece of art paper – its a blazing burnt sienna. But she wants to give it a local name.

Step out and you see a small green house and next to it, row after row of indigo blue dyed wool yarn hung out to dry under the shade of a tree. The yarn has been dyed in indigo grown locally by farmers working with Avani. You step into the greenhouse and are accosted by a strong smell of fermentation from the dye vats – blue drums filled with gur (Jaggery) and indigo dye extract that has to be stirred every now and then. Next to it lies a dye bath with a fermenting dark liquid with indigo leaves which too need to be stirred and oxygenated to convert the naturally present glycoside indican to the blue dye indigotin.

“Its like magic, to watch the wool yarn swirl in the solution of the green leaves of indigo, and as the yarn come in contact with the air, to see it begin to turn an astonishing blue,” remarks Rashmi. Unlike other dyes, indigo does not need to be heated nor does it need a mordant to fix it. But at this altitude the hot house helps keep the temperature steady and high enough to allow for fermentation.

Rashmi and her colleagues – Santoshi and Raju walk us down through the campus, down small red earth terraces, passing office blocks and dormitories- each building built on it own underground tank of rain harvested from roof runoffs. Water, a critical component of the entire dyeing process is a scarce resource in this part of the Himalaya. Gray water is filtered through organic patches of tall Canna plants, which we walk past to get to the greenhouses with a thriving growth of tomatoes, ladyfinger, pumpkins and gourds watered by the same water.

Close to the lower boundary of the campus, we come upon the Indigofera trial plot. There are plots of Indigofera tinctoria, the seeds of which were procured from south India. Adjacent to it is a smaller plot of the knotweed or Polygonum tinctorum which tends to thrive at higher altitudes, the seeds of which have been brought in from Japan. There is another small plot of madder with rootstock brought in from Arunachal. A sprinkling of Pomegranate trees intersperse the wooded campus. This had once been a monoculture slope of pines that has been painstakingly restored by Avani to a small mixed forest of diverse local trees, including the fast growing Moru silk oak brought in from the North East of India.

Avani's Dye Unit team
Avani’s Dye Unit team

Avani’s Interventions

For generations, the transhumant Shauka community of the Kumaon Himalaya migrated with their sheep herds along their fixed route from the foothills to the Greater Himalaya and back with the seasons. While the men traveled further north in the summers to Tibet to trade in wool and salt, the womenfolk stayed back in their high altitude summer homes, particularly in the Johar valley, and worked the wool from their sheep and pashmina from the high altitude Tibetan goat into clothing and warm blankets.

When trade with Tibet came to a sudden halt after the Sino-Indo war of 1962, the Shaukas were forced to adopt a more settled lifestyle. While the majority settled in the upper Johar valley around Munsiari, a section of the community chose to make Tripuradevi and the Berinag region that fell midway on the migration route, their home. It is this community, along with the the Bora Kuthalia community that Avani first reached out to with their livelihoods programme of textile weaving with wool in 1999. Both these communities have been involved in hand spinning and weaving of natural fibres like wool, pashmina and hemp. They used drop spindles and foot operated Bageshwari spinning wheels for spinning yarn. For weaving, pit looms and back strap looms were used traditionally to weave a range of products like the carpets and blankets, hemp fibre sacks and floor coverings.

Avani’s guiding philosophy has been to enhance rural incomes amongst the women and some men of these 2 communities through the revival of the traditional craft of hand weaving, spinning and dyeing by using the local resources of wool and natural fibres. At the same time, they have built a rural business and introduced modern raw materials and produce a range of contemporary products, mainly naturally dyed and hand made textiles and home furnishings that are relevant in today’s market. Spinning and weaving of wild silks such as tussar, eri and muga as well as pashmina wool and plant based cellulose fibres of linen has been reintroduced to the region. Frame looms to produce wider textiles have been introduced. The existing knitting skill is being used to produce products in silk and wool. Local tailors have been trained to produce high quality garments and home accessories. Today more than 800 families have been directly integrated in this initiative.

Alongside, Avani has pioneered the integration of Eco-friendly technologies with its textiles initiative that promote a zero waste approach and have a low carbon footprint. While natural wool, fibers and plant dye materials were a fairly abundant resource, water is not. Over the years Avani has built a closed loop production cycle using harvested rain water from roof runoff for natural dyeing, recycling of waste water by treating it naturally and then used for irrigation purposes, replaced chemical detergents with locally available abundant natural detergent and have moved away from acid based mordants that would pollute ground water.

Clean energy is being used for many of the energy needs throughout the production process. Locally manufacture solar water heaters and solar driers are being used for preheating water for dyeing and drying of dye materials respectively. The abundant pine needles found carpeting the hillsides are used to run locally manufactured Pine needle gasifier for powering the machines used in ironing of ready products – all in evidence on their campus where production takes place.

Renewable and solar energy devises have been introduced in 2500 rural homes, including 25 villages that are now 100% solar users. Solar powered spinning wheels have been installed in unelectrified villages for home use in the villages to increase productivity.

The use of natural dyes is traditional to all artisan communities. Starting in 1999, Avani decided to revive this skill of natural dyeing through intensive training and experimentation. The Shaukas were skilled in the use of plant based natural dyes and produced a color palette ranging from browns, yellows and pink which they used along with the colours of natural wool that ranged from white, all shades of grays and browns to black. The white wool was dyed with high altitude herbs like Dolu (Rheum australe) and Tatori (Rheum moorcroftianum) and mid altitude shrubs and trees like walnut fruit hulls and leaves, Kilmora (Berberis), Dock leaf (Rumex) and madder (Rubia cordifolia) roots. But with the ingress of cheap chemical dyes in the local markets they to began to shift to using these readily available colourants which lead to the steady erosion of this skills. At the same time, mass produced industrial textiles using cheap chemical dyes and changing consumer preferences have tended to replace the relatively more expensive hand made and dyed products, causing this skill to slowly disappear. With diminishing returns over the years, this craft had plummeted, discouraging younger generations from taking up textiles as a livelihood option. Avani has worked towards upgrading the skills, materials and tools to revive this dying traditional craft and make it a viable livelihood opportunity by creating a durable market.

Rumex
Rumex

Avani started its own research in 1999 with a small copper vessel to experiment with traditional plant dyes used were from locally growing trees and herbs of the region. All shades of brown and black was got from walnut and harada, yellow from Dolu, Berberis and shyam patti and pink from Tatori.

Walnut

Akhrot or Walnut (Juglans regia) in the family Juglandaceae. The dried fleshy outer hulls that encase the walnut fruit is collected from trees. The tannins present in extracts of the outer soft parts of the walnut drupe act as a mordant, aiding in the dyeing process, and are usable as a dark ink or wood stain.

Walnut hulls were collected from trees grown on private lands owned by farmers. Again, the guiding philosophy was to provide the most earning opportunity for a lot of people than a high return for a few. With a cap of 20- 25 kgs/collector in a season, Avani procured 1500 kilos in the year 2014-15 which lasted through 2 years.

Harada

Harald (Terminalia chebula) is native to South Asia from the Indian Himalaya and Nepal. T. chebula is a medium to large deciduous tree growing to 30 m (98 ft) tall. It is the fruit that provides material (Chebulic acid is a phenolic acid compound isolated from the ripe fruits) for the dyeing wool, silk and cotton as well as the tanning of leather.

Harada berries are typically collected from the Van Panchayats or Forest Commons of each village, Avani purchased approximately a 1000 kilograms annually from 300 villagers. A cap of 25 to 30 kgs per collector was laid down as in village Basulti it became necessary in order to balance out the amount each person got to earn.

Avani purchased 400 kilos of pomegranate peel per season and also collects rhododendron flowers as a dye.

High altitude plant material like Dolu and Tatori were procured from Bhesaj Sangh, the state run agency dealing with the collection and sale of aromatic and medicinal plants.

But as the textile production began to scale up, Avani felt the need for both a wider palette of natural dyes and in much larger volumes. The natural progression then was to start experimenting with and to source a wider range of vegetable based dyes from plants that were either abundantly available in the wild or to introduce such dye producing plants that could be easily cultivable on the landscape locally.

Push towards localization

“We are now working with the cultivation and harvesting of dye yielding plants as a livelihood options for local farmers.”

The quest for alternative sources of colour was also driven by other environmental concerns. There was a need to reduce the dependence on plant material like Dolu and Tatori that were collected from ecologically sensitive high altitude landscapes. Plants like Berberis or Kilmora that had been over harvested a couple of decades ago were now on the endangered species list. Research and experimentation with over 80 plant types of the region over the years by the Dyeing Unit of Avani has now yielded a palette of a hundred stable vegetable colours and documentation has been done on these plants and their dye yielding properties.

Right: Tagetes, Left: Eupatorium
Left: Tagetes, Right: Eupatorium

Prominent among them is an invasive weed Eupatorium or Ageratina adenophora (Kala baans as it is locally referred to), that has overtaken large swathes of the mountainsides in the middle Himalaya. Innovative use of this weed yielded a beautiful range of greens for dyeing of textiles. In 2014, the Avani Dyeing Unit procured a tonne of the weeds’ leaves collected by the rural women. One woman collector alone had earned upto Rs.16000 in a weeks time.

Similarly, the peels of Punica or the Pomegranate, considered a waste, have been used to produce a yellow/ pink dye. Flowers of Rhododendrons and the Indian Marigold were also experimented with.

Avani is now producing a range of colors, including browns, yellows, oranges, reds, blues, violets and greens. For the full range of reds and browns, a select number of natural dye materials is procure from outside of their landscape. Some of these are often considered waste bye products.

Not so long ago, there was a katha or Acacia catechu processing factory not far from Avani near Seraghat that has since closed down. Blues using natural indigo and reds made from shellac are still being brought in from from other parts of India for bulk use. Flowers of Tesu / Palash or the Flame of the Forest as well as manjishta or maddder is also procure from outside the landscape as their own scale of production locally is yet to become viable.

Cultivation and collection of plant dye materials by local farmers

Instead of procuring and marketing raw material, Avani’s focus has been on creating dye production centres in rural areas, guided by the belief that paying farmers a remunerative price for their plant dye material will reconnect them with the weaver and close the loop of production on that landscape. Today, Khari Baoli in Delhi and Jaipur are the main central mandis of the country for plant dye materials, with Madder coming all the way from Manipur. The buying price of unprocessed raw Harada for a wholesaler in Khari Baoli is Rs.18/kg, which barely covers the the cost of collection and transportation. Rashmi believes that the dyes and pigment industry has no consideration for the rural collectors, extractors and the farmer. “We have a gold mine here, not a problem in the raw materials for dyes. The need of the hour is to organize.”

Madder
Madder

Today, Avani is intent on reducing the range dye pigments bought from outside the region by increasing local production. Currently there are 60 acres of Indigo and Madder under cultivation undertaken by total of 150 farming families. Initially, 3 acres of private land was leased by Avani for trial plots. Some farmers took 10 grams of Indigo seed for themselves for trial on plots of fallow land of an average size of a twentieth of an acre (1 nali). Being a legume, Indigo was also promoted it as a nitrogen fixing plant and the farmers were encouraged to use it as a rotation crop to improve soil fertility.

Indigofera
Indigofera

The Indigo plant is not known to grow in the middle Himalayan region in Uttarakhand. But in the last few years, with seeds brought in from Mysore, Avani initiated indigo cultivation work with the local farmers in a short 90 day cycle that starts in February. The indigo leaves are then bought directly from these farmers, ensuring the purity of the dye produced. Rashmi believes that “it is not so difficult to maintain the purity of dyes, unlike the established practice of mixing chemical dyes in commercially sold natural dyes.” The leaves once harvested are transported to 3 indigo extraction centres located within a 1.5 km radial distance from the place of harvest. This has reduced the transportation cost of the bulk of leaves to Avani. Today, indigo cultivation is a source of supplemental income for these farmers in the region.

Though growing wild in the Himalaya, Avani has imported roots of Madder from Arunachal and began growing it on half an acre of land leased from farmers that had lain fallow for over 5 years. The reason being that it takes about that long for the root stock to grow and thicken sufficiently to be extracted for dyeing purposes.

The Process: Paying attention to the ecological costs.

In the initial year Avani used metallic salts of Ferrous sulphate, copper sulphate, potassium dichromate, stannous chloride, alum (aluminum sulphate) along with vinegar and salt as mordants in the dyeing process. Mordants are chemical salts that “fix” the colour, and are used to alter the hue and intensity of natural dyes and improve colour fastness. While some dyestuff like indigo and lichens give good colour when used alone, the majority of plant dyes require the use of a mordant to pretreated the textile or be incorporated in the dye bath.

Avani soon changed its approach as all the mordants were not environmentally friendly. Along with using pH neutral rain water, mordants like natural alum, iron vats with jaggery replaced many of the earlier mordants. Traditional methods of using stale cow urine were also explored. Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) testing is done of the effluents produced before the waste water is used for irrigation of the vegetable garden.

Once the dyeing of the yarn or textile is completed, the dyed fabric is washed with Reetha or Soapnut. Avani has actively reduced chemical usage of detergents that release polluting effluents into the environment with the use of Reetha, a plant based natural detergent which grows abundantly in the region, in keeping with their larger philosophy of closed loop production and zero waste. At this altitude, a Reetha tree takes 10 years to reach full production potential. Avani has purchased 2500 kgs of seed in 2014- 15 and 1000 kgs in 2015-16. Today, Avani purchases the deseeded dry hulls at Rs.30/kg. Reetha is expected to corner a fair share of the projected market in the future operations of Avani. Besides using it in their own production cycle, Avani has already put out a reetha detergent product in the market and is retailing it for use by environmentally conscious users.

Avani believes that the process of production is as important as the product itself. As both water and energy are scarce resources in the region, it has implemented systems to conserve both. The actual process of dyeing requires a good supply of fresh water, storage area for bulky plant materials, vats which can be kept heated (often for days or weeks) along with the necessary fuel, and airy spaces to dry the dyed textiles. From switching to non-polluting mordants and using pH neutral rain water harvested and stored on location, to promoting a zero waste closed loop dyeing and production cycle, Avani has been conscious of and been advocates ecologically sound business practices.

Avani has invested in building rain-harvesting and storage facilities on their campus where upto 7 lakh liters of water is collected annually and lasts them for 8 months of the year. For the rest of the 4 months, they have bring in water in tankers from a source that is 7 km away. In the villages too, water conservation is promoted. Bora village has a good source of water which was linked with a supply line through the Swajal Project. But once the project exited, the system has broken down and again there is a scarcity of water within the village.

Clean and renewable energy is used consistently through all production process and is solar and biomass based.

Cultivation of dye plants focuses on an ecologically integrated approach. The primary focus has been to discover, cultivate and use local dye plants. For plants that are not endemic to the region, Avani has set up three experimental Permaculture plots on campus. One such plot combines a small tea and madder trial plantation plot where they plan to plant indigo this year. The focus is on understanding the soil requirements of the three plants and how they can work together and be complementary. For instance, the indigo plant is also widely grown as a soil-improving groundcover as it it is a legume and fixes nitrogen in the soil. In addition to producing a crop that can be harvested and sold for its dye, the cultivation of indigo is encouraged amongst farmers to be rotated into fields to improve the soil health. If successful with permaculture practices, it will be introduced to the local farmer community to try out too.

Dye plant trial plots
Dye plant trial plots

Dyer’s knotweed Indigo that is adapted to grow at higher altitude is being experimented with for cultivation in its preferred niche in the higher altitude villages. Alternatives to endangered species like Berberis/ kilmora have been found and used.

Another impact of procuring plant-based raw dye material locally is that farmers are now averse to cutting down trees like the walnut and terminalia on their private fields as they bring in revenue.

And an invasive weed that grows across the Himalayan range from Kashmir to the north-east, Eupatorium has been transformed into a tried and tested resource for all shades of olive green.

Rashmi says, “Fifty years ago, all colourants came from the earth. But factory based production broke the link between the natural resource base, the farmer, dyer and weaver.”Avani’s approach is to re-establish that link, nurture it and make it one of scale. Factory production houses and other businesses do not even consider calculating the environmental costs. There is an opportunistic tendency of markets to cash into trending catch words of ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ with a piece-meal approach. So even when the dyes used are advertised as being natural plant based, the rest of the process is highly chemically dependent. It is in this competitive market environment that Avani seeks to make its place with higher production values in terms of it use of natural resources.

Localization, Scale of operation and Mechanization

Avani is working on developing its internal expertize in the extraction of pigments and dyes. Natural dyes are known to have a degree of variation which lends a charm and uniqueness to the fabric produced with it. These plant based dyes, like Indigo, are sensitive to both temperature and pH of the water- and when both are at the optimal levels, the colour comes out as desired. In a small scale operation, like in a family run unit, both these variables can be reasonably controlled.

However, with Avani scaling up this enterprise, large volumes of yarn need to be dyed a consistent colour for a n order of a particular colour of fabric. Rashmi believes that for colour standardization, mechanization becomes a necessity. Mechanization also increases efficiency in the use of a scarce resource like water in the dyeing process.

Avani’s has a dyeing unit on campus and 3 units located in villages of the region, close to the fields where indigo is being cultivated. In 2014, farmer from the villages in the Berinag region brought in 890 kgs of leaves of Indigofera tinctoria from their fields to the Chankana collection centre set up by Avani and 3 kilograms of indigo dye was processed from the leaves. Next year, 50 farmers from Thogs, Mana, Chinkana villages and the Tripuradevi and Sukna Centres brought in 915.5 kilograms of leaves for indigo extraction to the centres located in a radius of a kilometer to 1.5 kms.

Avani has recently acquired and installed 2 machines at its Tripuradevi campus – one for pigment extraction and the other for bulk yarn dyeing at the cost of Rs.10 and 20 lakh respectively. Through this central facility it is expected that the volume of production, standardization of colour and conservation of scarce resources of water will be addressed effectively.

Avani’s Product range

A major share of the natural dyes developed by Avani is for their in-house textile production. They have begun to diversify into the pigments market and produce colorants for use in different applications like cosmetics, art supplies and wood stains.

Uttarakhand has a rich tradition of using Turmeric to dye cotton yarn and to make pithiya or kumkum, a skill which was considered the preserve and privilege of a specific upper caste group. Avani now produces and retails small sachets of pithiya that has replaced the commercial toxic chemical kumkum traditionally used by hill women to adorn their foreheads as a sign of marriage.

Bee wax crayons with a range of 6 plant based colours is another product that has been put out as art supplies. It is being promoted with the philosophy to encourage conscious parenting. Avani has applied for Intellectual Property Rights on this product as it believes that there is a growing market potential for such products and it wants to protect the interest of the rural producers. As large companies often appropriate the creative potential of rural producers, this move is to protect producers’ right and to give them the power to bargain in such an eventuality.

Bee wax crayon set
Bee wax crayon set

Avani is set to launch its vegetable based water colour paints in the near future. In an innovative exercise, Avani collaborated with Pune based artists to use their natural pigments to produce a calendar in 2012 in order to promote and popularize its product. Avani has produced kits of a Hand Painting (traditional Himalayan Aippan designs in a book using gerru mud and adhesive) and Tie and Dye for children using natural dyes.

Avani is also experimenting with using plant based dyes as wood stains and is conversation with the pigments industry to promote natural dyes in their product range of paints for housing and buildings.

Institutional framework

In 2005, Avani transitioned it livelihoods project into a full fledged rural enterprise. It organized the artisans into a cooperative named the Kumaon EarthCraft Self Reliant Cooperative, with Rashmi as the Founder and Chairperson. EarthCraft, as it is commonly known works at creating a contemporary range of products with traditional skills, natural dyes and materials. It markets its products under brand AVANI and the children’s products under the brand GORAIYA. It became a self sustaining business in 2009 and is now upscaling to increase its outreach. The cooperative reached the break-even point in 4 years with a turnover of INR 40 lakh and with 40% of it sales directed at the export market, while the remaining 60% accounted for by the domestic market. In 2014-15 the cash flow reached INR 53 lakhs. In the 14 years of its operation, wages given to date and income from sales is INR 4 crore 62 lakh and 27 thousand. In the last financial year Rs.19 lakh was paid out as wages for it production.

Earthcraft has 9 Governing board members drawn from the artisan and farmer community. The cooperative currently employs 26 managers and supervisors, buys the raw materials and takes care of operational aspects of the business, including the dyes and pigment production. Membership of the 350 shareholders from about 50 villages is based on a sustained relationship with production process of the cooperative. A token dividend of 5% extra wages is distributed to members annually from the profit. Avani has now set up its own retail show rooms in several cities in the country.

As an NGO, Avani supports the development of the community’s capacity to be part of the Cooperative through its active involvement in product development, quality control, provision of raw materials and marketing.

In 2012, Avani received a grant for research and for strengthening its agri-based work and to survey the existing flora and its propagation. For its part, Avani has focused on the capacity building of the functionaries of the cooperative and in the R&D aspects of this part of the business. It is funded by the Barr Foundation, a private, Boston-based foundation with its core programs in Arts & Creativity, Climate, and Education.

A thriving rural enterprise

Avani started as an income generation project and is now a thriving rural business that engages with a total of 1400 families in 114 villages across Berinag and Pithoragarh district of Kumaon. Not all families work every year as the supplementary cash income needs keep changing. The dye plant cultivation work is now taking place in 64 villages in these 2 districts.

Traditional handloom weavers have been consistently underpaid and marginalized by the prevailing market forces. Most textile enterprises do not even factor in environmental costs, even those that claim to be ecologically aware and responsible. They are often reluctant to pay the true cost of naturally and ethically produced textile that include the environmental costs or fair wages.

Avani has worked to counter this trend. Over the years, people have been trained as artisans, and existing artisans have refined their craft through additional training. Artisans have become the managers of the rural enterprise and Avani has enhanced their control over their natural resource base, means of production, distribution, exchange and markets through its cooperative platform. Avani prides itself in paying fair wages to all contributing artisans and farmers and employing those marginalized even within a rural economy. In particular with its sourcing of plant dye material, the approach has been to generate income for a large number of families rather than to generate a big income for a few.

Colour mapping of products
Colour mapping of products

Today Avani works with as many 32 Self Help Groups in 25 villages. While the actual cultivation of the dye plants is done by individual farmers, the entry point is through these groups, introducing the idea and supporting farmers open to innovation. Gram Pradhans and the Mahila Mangal Dal representatives from villages in the region have approached Avani with the request to bring the same programme to their villages.

Community and Processes

EarthCraft Cooperative’s work with textiles has evolved through continuous dialogue with local communities about their needs. There is a culture of encouraging innovation and creativity, and with the generation, transmission and use of knowledge of diverse skills- both traditional, managerial and digital within the organization.

The revival and strengthening of this traditional livelihood of weaving and dyeing and making it a durable income source has clearly impacted the rural community in a positive manner. It has reached out to economically depressed and socially vulnerable rural households, with a majority of them being women, some of who were either abandoned, widowed or physically challenged. A reliable source of income over the past 14 years has allowed these women to educate their children and take care of health expenses, constructed their homes and become self sufficient members of their respective societies. They have been helped in stepping out of a vicious cycle of deprivation, early marriages and forced migration.

Though Avani does not overtly support women in their everyday struggle for dignity and survival, it has on occasion extended support to victims of domestic abuse. Young girls who were school dropouts in class 5 or 8 and would have been married by the age of 15-17 have been taken on as vocational trainees in weaving, and with the skill so acquired, have been able to bring in regular income to their home, resulting in delaying the age of their marriage by 7-9 years. Most of the weavers associated with Avani now marry at the age 24-28 years.

Challenges

Avani is working towards a projected turnover of Rs.3.5 crore that will provide employment to 4000 artisans – weavers, dyers, cultivators and entrepreneurs and generate Rs.2.5 crore worth wages. But Rashmi believes that the actual potential is a hundred times more. Extrapolating from the demand for chemical dyes worldwide, and with an estimated 10% share of the total demand being for natural dyes, reveals that there is an immense potential in this sector.

Acutely aware that producing 10 kgs of pigment extracted locally from home grown plant base is still small to be able to make an impact in the dyes industry, Avani sees itself making a meaningful intervention by striving to become a large scale producer of pigments and then to be able to influence those working on an industrial scale. This year the volume of pigment extract went up to 30 kilograms and has strengthen the belief in the farmers.

Investment in rural infrastructure with big machines that will value add at the landscape level is another challenge that Avani has taken up. Rashmi believes that if it means taking external funding from foreign sources as a grant, then so be it, or else “one can keep debating the colour of money” at the cost of setting up a viable and self reliant rural enterprise of scale. It is a slow process, with the business cycle taking a couple of years to make any significant jump.

Avani does not see itself as a supplier of one product, but is creating an Eco-range of natural dyes and pigments that will plug into a wide product range of the textiles, art supplies, pharmaceuticals and paint industries. It is working to influence the environmental standards of the industry and is actively seeking out partnerships with large paints and pigments companies to invest in R&D to create a range of products that are ecologically sound and reduce the impact of polluting chemical dyes.

For example, the wool carpet industry has been plagued with over extraction of water through bore wells and effluent pollution which could be addressed by switching to natural dyes. In Rajasthan, the Sufiyan Khatri Ajarak printers buy their pigments from Belgium and dialoguing with them could help convert them to the use of natural pigments. Avani is looking to forge tie-ups with craftspersons, artists and a growing market of conscious parenting who do not wish to expose the younger generation to toxic chemical dyes.

Avani believes it is working towards being a successful craft group that has chosen consciously to maintain the link between skills, water, electricity/ power generation and dyes. Recognizing their ecological limits, it is averse to focusing on just any one of these critical resources and instead has adopted an eco-system approach. What needs to be kept in mind though is that propelled by the market driven logic that in order to have a voice of influence in the industry, the scale of operation must grow, could compel the enterprise to end up catering to an extractive and hungry market that would put undue pressure on the natural resource base. While Avani is ever mindful of the manner and extent of use of water and of clean energy, the use of forest and land resource base has also to be seen within the bounds of what it can yield beyond the everyday survival and well being of the rural hill people. The extent of the enterprise will be decided by the resource base that exists and not by the demand of the industry and Avani is conscious of the fact that it will always cater to a small niche market even within the industry. There is a conscious effort to not replace food growing areas with the cultivation of dye plants. Collection of plant dye material, as in the case of Harada from the forest commons is being done in a manner of open access, with no permissions or royalty paid yet to the respective Van Panchayats.

It is Avani’s ambition to collectivize weavers who work with natural dyes across the country as a unified force under a common umbrella. As a collective working with traditional weavers of Munsiari, we for our part have made a valuable connection and see ourselves coming back to Avani to dye our yarn a Saagari or Ocean blue, and in time take back Indigo seeds for our high altitude villages of Johar valley.

Wall painting using natural pigments
Wall painting using natural pigments

By Malika Virdi email
Maati Women’s Collective
Munsiari
Kumaon.
Uttarakhand

Credit: All photographs by E.Theophilus
Illustrations: From Avani’s database

a video on the work of Avani
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