“Indigo Blues: Shelly Jyoti’s Transnational Collaborations”  By Laura Kina


“Indigo Blues: Shelly Jyoti’s Transnational Collaborations” 

By Laura Kina

Curator and Vincent de Paul Professor, The Art School, DePaul University

The South Asia Institute is honored to present New Delhi-based Indian contemporary artist and textile designer Shelly Jyoti’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States. Shelly Jyoti – Indigo: The Blue Gold is a mid-career retrospective of Jyoti’s investigation into the 18–19th century colonial trade of natural indigo dye. Known as the “King of Dyes,” “Devil’s Dye,” and “Blue Gold,” indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) in the Indian subcontinent can be traced back to 2nd millennium BCE. As Barbara Hanson Forsyth’s essay explains, “Indigofera originated in Africa more than 150 million years ago and then spread to India where it was first cultivated for use as a dye.” Different varieties of true indigo (not to be confused with European woad) are grown around the world with the earliest known uses of indigo dye dating back 6,000 years ago in Peru. Jyoti’s exhibition focuses specifically on indigo’s long history from several perspectives, including global trade, forced labor, slavery, and indentured labor, migration, and colonization in terms of India’s colonial history.

The exhibition features over forty new artworks along with a selection of Jyoti’s installations, poetry, drawing, fashion, and textiles from the past decade including her signature “Indigo Narratives” series, which traveled extensively across the US and India from 2009–2018. Jyoti’s art uses recurring iconographic symbols including Gandhi’s spinning wheel, fish, and ships to tell the story of indigo. Since 2009, Jyoti, has been creating contemporary hand spun woven khadi textile works utilizing traditional indigo dye and ajrakh (Arabic: blue) reverse block printing techniques that trace back to ancient Indus Valley Civilization (3,300–1,300 BCE). Jyoti’s original textile art is produced in the studios of master craftsmen Juned Ismail Mohamed Khatri, son of the legendary Dr. Ismail Mohamed Khatri, in Ajrakhpur, Bhuj, Gujarat.

Shelly Jyoti is a visual artist, fashion designer, poet, and an independent curator whose work references the cultural context of Indian history. She is trained as a fashion designer from National Institute of Fashion Technology, New Delhi, and she earned her MA in English with American Literature from Punjab University, Chandigarh.


My work focuses on Gandhi’s ideology of nation building for creating moral and peaceful societies, relevant for the 21st century, connecting the past with the present.

Shelly Jyoti and I first met in 2008, when her solo show Beyond Mithila: Exploring the Decorative was at Woman Made Gallery in Chicago. We went on to collaborate on a two-woman textile exhibition Indigo that traveled across India and the US from 2009–2013, including Chicago’s Cultural Center in 2013. In 2022, we created a reunion work about the pandemic for Reimagining the Global Village curated by Nirmal Raja at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design that featured transnational art collaborations. 

Curating Indigo-The Blue Gold is an extension of this collaborative spirit in which we invited five scholars to be in conversation with thematically distinct bodies of work in Jyoti’s retrospective. Curator JohnyML critically reviews Jyoti’s oeuvre making connections between British colonial history of extractive labor practices, US slavery, and today’s data driven global capitalism. A historical overview of indigo dye across the ages is provided by curator Barbara Hanson Forsyth as she addresses the exhibition theme of “Trade and Migration.” Professor Michelle Yee extends this exploration in her close material examination of Jyoti’s textiles around the theme of “Transnational Colonial Commodity.” Professor Lisa Trivedi asks us to consider the human cost behind indigo production in “The Mosaic Wall of Indigo” as well as the “possibility of interconnection” in “Indigo Farmers in Colonial Bengal and Gandhi’s Intervention.” Curator Sarah Fee examines Jyoti’s kaftan and embroidered jackets in “Contemporary Printed Fashion.” Finally, Jyoti herself shares the ancient history behind the process of working with ajrakh and indigo in “Indigo Plant, Color, and Dye.”

Indigo-The Blue Gold opens with Jyoti’s “Oxygenated Blue” (2018) abstract installation of water composed of tiered strips of indigo dyed khadi fabric across a range of saturations. In the indigo dying process, fabric is dipped into a fermented vat of green colored indigo plant biomass steeped in water. When the fabric is lifted from the dye and exposed to air, the green color instantly turns blue. This process is called “Oxidation” – aeration “dimerizes the indoxyl molecules” resulting in the insoluble lightfast blue indigo dye. The raw materials of this installation are politically loaded with indigo symbolizing the British colonization of the Indian subcontinent and hand-spun khadi’s close association with Gandhi’s Swadeshi movement of self-reliance and the Indian freedom struggle.


Jyoti’s “An Illusion to Ajrakh: An Indigo Plant” (2009) and installation “Homage to the Farmers of Champaran 1917-18” (2008-2017) directly reference the Champaran Satyagraha rebellion of farmers who protested being forced to grow indigo cash crops for the British Raj. This was Gandhi’s first satyagraha on Indian soil following his return from South Africa. These two art works were part of Jyoti’s debut “Indigo Narratives” series and were created with ajrakh block print resist and natural indigo dye on khadi fabric. Jyoti’s use of traditional master artisans to produce her contemporary art works and her focus on histories such as the farmers of Champaran are part of her commitment to “celebrating the subaltern.” These materials, techniques, concepts, and entangled South Asian histories have all come to be central to Jyoti’s practice. Jyoti accompanies this work with a spoken word poetry video “An Ode to Nil Darpan” (2023), which draws inspiration from Dinabandhu Mitra’s 1858–1859 Bengali play “Nil Darpan: The Indigo Planting Mirror” about the Indigo Revolt.


Building on “Indigo Narratives,” Jyoti’s solo shows include three distinct bodies of artwork Salt: The Great March (2013), The Khadi March: Just Five Meters (2016), and Bound by Duty: An Idea of Swaraj and Collectiveness (2018-19). In 2018, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts presented a retrospective of these works in Revisiting Gandhi: The Art of Shelly Jyoti 2009-2018 in which looked at her thematic use of swaraj, khadi, salt, and indigo as symbols of Indian national identity.


The South Asia Institute exhibition includes her installation of white khadi sails in “Sea Voyage” (from Salt) and a large-scale textile of fish swimming together in a school in “Migrated Communities” (from Bound by Duty) both of which continue her longstanding interest in Gandhi’s teachings of the power of collective action and self-reliance. Her 2022 “Chakra” series features the recurring motif of Gandhi’s spinning wheel, and the motif of the indigo plant is explored in new works in the “Indigo Plant, Color, and Dye” section of this exhibition. 

Jyoti has created nine new large-scale textiles around the theme of “Transnational Global Commodity” that bring together images of British sailing vessels embroidered with gold thread, with abstracted trade routes, circles symbolic of Earth’s seven continents, and ajrakh block resist pattern printing on indigo dyed khadi to look at the history of 18–19th century indigo trade and colonization of India. These works were created using 300–400-year-old carved wooden pattern blocks from Gujarat–one of which is similar to a 500-year-old Kutch-made block fragment excavated in Egypt in Fustat, the former capital and Cairo’s first Islamic settlement.


In Jyoti’s “Mosaic Wall of Indigo” works, this link is made overt through her subtitle “Red, White, and Black Make Blue” quoting Andrea Feeser’s book about indigo’s history of slave labor in colonial South Carolina. The mosaic works play with the forms of ship mast flags, geometric abstraction and floral prints that riff off of the ajrakh tradition and modernist abstraction, along with a color palette that recalls the Union Jack and US flags. Her use of the centralized circle motif in these works invoke time, circulation, and labor as they are simultaneously a moon, sun, globe, spinning wheel, compass, vortexes of energy, and even a coronavirus.


Jyoti is a prolific multimedia textile artist whose singular focus takes on wildly divergent forms. To highlight her origins as a fashion designer, we selected samples of her 2016 structured indigo dyed jackets that are hand embroidered with shisha mirror-work characteristic of the Gujarat region that Jyoti called home for fourteen years. They are shown alongside her new kaftan series that in turn relate to her new large-scale textile wall works blurring the lines between traditional and contemporary art, fashion, and craft.


This exhibition highlights the Indian subcontinent’s rich textile tradition of ajrakh, indigo, and embroidered needlework and asks us to think about the global history of the indigo trade that involved forced cultivation, exploitative trading terms, colonial oppression, indentured labor migration, and slavery. In an interview with the South Asia Institute to prepare for this exhibition, Jyoti shared that indigo continues to have “a deep resonance with modern India’s post-colonial identity because of its ties to India’s colonial domination and her emergence from that experience as a growing global economic power. A large part of the story I want to tell is about traditional textile arts and the ways that they continue to serve as a means of cultural expression, resistance, and reconstitution.”