Embodying Color: How Color is Made, Mobilized and Owned in Traditional Craft Practice in South India

Embodying Color: How Color is Made, Mobilized, and Owned in Traditional Craft Practice in South India


INDIGO Dyeing, Dyehouse Malkha Hyderabad. Picture courtesy of Annapurna Mamidipudi

Craft producers in India stand in the shadow of deep divisions: rich/poor, urban/rural, modern/traditional, Brahmin/Dalit, educated scientist/illiterate laborer, and so on. Many of these oppositions are underpinned by deep social inequality. Yet through the claiming, contesting, and attributing of ownership of knowledge, it becomes possible to change what is valued as knowledge, disrupting inequalities and social order. Based on practices of artisan dyers, of artists, and of activists supporting vulnerable livelihoods in craft production, I would like to explore what constitutes ownership of knowledge that is embodied, experienced through the senses, and held by marginalized communities of practice. Recognizing that knowledge is not value free, is the property of social groups, and is culturally embedded, the aim of this project is to understand how traditional craftspeople have historically made and continue to maintain claims of knowledge towards the political project of social change and democratizing of knowledge.

The case of color is particularly suited to this study. But how can color be owned? How is it be used? How does it communicate? How can one be excluded from a color? How would communities negotiate and determine how much color an individual requires? How can one control or restrict its use when it is not depleted by use? Knowledge of color includes aesthetic, material, and technical expertise—color, like knowledge, has to be extracted, mobilized, and stabilized, in this case requiring material and dyeing skills, ordering and naming, and agreements on judgements of quality between producers, traders, and users. Colors derive meaning that is culturally shared; equally they can bestow meaning on the object they color.

Knowledge about color is accumulated in Indian scriptures, in stories, in songs, in temples, in traditional craft practices and repertoires, in museums, as technology, as scientific expertise, and as cultural heritage. Through studying these, I would like to describe and analyze the making of knowledge claims as an opportunity for political action—as a unifying device for cultural cohesion, as embodied cognition that engages both mind and body, and as a tool for democracy.