Feb 20, 2020

Behind the Musik: The Indigo Project

The Indigo Project. With Feet of Blue by Tim McLaughlin, MAIWA

By Alison Mackay, program creator

The Indigo Project is an exploration in music, words, and images of the influence of indigo dye on the culture and economy of Europe and India in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Practised in tropical climates around the world, the complex art of indigo dyeing was particularly important in India. Extracted from the leaves of the indigofera tinctoria plant, the blue dye was preserved in small cakes which could be transported in camel caravans to the Middle East and then on to Europe. During the Middle Ages indigo was a rare luxury commodity, made expensive by the taxes levied at multiple frontiers along the silk road.

When Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, a new direct ocean route from India to Europe helped to make spices, textiles, and exotic dyes much more affordable. Indigo was more intense and versatile than woad, the traditional European blue dye plant, and in spite of the lobbying efforts of local woad dealers, indigo became widely available all over Europe, where it was used to dye silk gowns, military uniforms, and clothing for working-class people.

The story of indigo provides a vivid backdrop for a concert of Indian and European music from the time of Tafelmusik’s repertoire because it intersects in such fascinating ways with the history of music, art, fashion, trade, and science. Scholars in all of these fields have greatly enriched the development of this project, and we are particularly grateful to be collaborating with Suba Sankaran and her father, Professor Trichy Sankaran, who will perform a variety of works from the ancient and complex repertoire of Carnatic music, the classical music of South India. Like indigo dyeing, the practices of this tradition developed over millennia, but they were codified during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries at the music-loving courts of Mysore, Travancore, and Thanjavur, where famous singers and instrumentalists practised their art.

The story of indigo intersects in fascinating ways with the history of music, art, fashion, trade, and science.

The opening work from India, a song in praise of the elephant-faced god Ganesha, is often sung to bring blessings on a special occasion. It was composed by Purandara Dasa (1484–1564), called the grandfather of Carnatic music because of his prolific output and his contributions to the codifying of music theory. Nandhavanathil Oru Aandi is a centuries-old anonymous song from the Tamil folk tradition, and Hemavathi Jatiswaram is a dance song written by Ponniah Pillai (1888–1945), a tradition bearer of the Thanjavur tradition. The complex relationship of English colonial masters with the people of India is reflected in Santhatham Paahimaam, by Muthuswamy Dikshitar (1775–1835). It is a song of praise to Hindu deities set to the tune of God Save the King!

Most of the European works on the program come from London, Paris, and Genoa, three centres of global trade and textile production where music was performed by professional musicians in banquet halls and opera houses for the well-to-do. All three cities also had lively traditions of popular music sung on the streets for all to hear, and some of this repertoire will be featured in the concert.

The wealthy city-state of Genoa was a famous centre for the manufacture of fine woolens, silks, and velvets. The city was also known for its blue cotton, used for industrial cloth in the port lands and for working-class clothing. One of the most striking examples of indigo-dyed cotton from Genoa is a set of large blue canvas hangings with scenes from the Passion story painted in white lead. Thought to have been created for temporary meditation tents erected during Easter week, these extraordinary hangings form a backdrop for Io mi sento liquefare, sung by our student chorus. This vocal work in three voice parts with improvised octave doublings is a lauda, a type of spiritual song popular in Italy from the 15th to the 19th centuries often sung by confraternities of textile workers.

The influential composer Alessandro Stradella spent the last part of his illustrious but turbulent career in Genoa, having been forced by his romantic entanglements to flee for his life from both Rome and Venice. A number of his innovative orchestral works experiment with musical dialogue between two instrumental groups. His Sinfonia in D Major is the first known concerto grosso, with a small group of solo instruments standing out against a larger orchestra. 

Archangelo Corelli was exposed to this style of writing in the spring of 1675 when he played the violin in Lenten performances of music by Stradella in Rome. Soon Corelli was composing his own concerti grossi, 12 of which were collected into his Opus 6, one of the most important printed collections of the 18th century.

George Frideric Handel, who was greatly influenced by this collection, had worked in 1708 with Corelli, the leader of the orchestra for Handel’s earliest sacred oratorio, La Resurrezione. Ten years later, Handel composed his first English oratorio, a setting of the Old Testament story of Esther. He was living and working at Cannons, the estate of the Duke of Chandos who financed a large musical establishment with wealth from investments in the South Sea Company, an important player in the Atlantic slave trade. By this time, the demand for indigo had become so great that it was introduced in the tropical plantations of colonies in the Americas.

The mridangam is the most important classical drum of South Indian (“Carnatic”) music. It is precisely tuned, and is played using a variety of tones and subtle finger techniques. Made of jackwood with heads of animal hide, the double-sided drum is used in classical concerts, devotional songs, and South Indian classical dance. More information about the percussion instruments and history of Carnatic music may be found at trichysankaran.com.

Indigo became a vital commodity in the portfolios of the English investors who helped to finance the London Foundling Hospital with which Handel became closely associated. Founded by the retired ship’s captain Thomas Coram, who was appalled at the sight of babies left to die in the streets of London, the Foundling Hospital opened its doors in 1741 and became a place of nurture and education for children, as well as a fashionable social centre with a picture gallery, concerts, and other fundraising events. The “Ladies’ Breakfasts” became so popular that in 1747 the windows had to be nailed shut to prevent uninvited ladies from sneaking in. In 1749 Handel directed a concert in the incomplete chapel to raise funds for the construction of the building, appropriately choosing extracts from his oratorio about the building of Solomon’s temple. The famous sinfonia now known as “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba,” which begins the third act of Handel’s Solomon, evokes this occasion.

The plight of mothers forced by poverty to give up their newborns is given poignant expression in the anonymous broadside ballad Ballow my babe. Many of the popular songs sung on the streets of London, as well as “voix-de-villes” (voices of the city) sung on the Pont Neuf in Paris, have been preserved in early publications. The program includes two French songs found in a large collection of popular texts set to tunes from operas by Louis XIV’s court composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully.

Modern museums and concert halls usually emphasize the clothing and the music of privileged people from the past. But there are exceptions. A small sample of the cloth worn by each baby admitted to the Foundling Hospital was cut at the time of admittance. One half of the piece was sealed into the admittance form and the other half was taken by the mother, who remained anonymous. If she should fall on better times, she could recover the baby by producing the matching piece of cloth. Thousands of these pieces, many of them dyed with indigo, have been preserved in the London Foundling Museum and are a rare collection of the clothing of the most impoverished people of the 18th century. The sight of these bits of cloth, like the music of Ballow my babe, go to a place in the heart that velvet robes and French overtures cannot quite reach.

Image credit: With Feet of Blue by Tim McLaughlin, MAIWA

The Indigo Project
Alison Mackay
Suba Sankaran
Trichy Sankaran