Saleem is 54 this year, and has been a master dyer for the last 25 years.
He was first a driver for Uzramma, founder of Malkha and Dastakar Andhra, when he asked for a pay raise. She told him, “I can’t give you a raise as a driver, but I can if you become a master dyer.”
And so began his lifelong journey into this craft. Beginning with 6 months of apprenticeship, he’s now a master dyer specialising in indigo, having taught over 100 people as far away as Chiangmai.
“I’ve reached a stage where I can tell what temperature the water just by looking at the surface and smoke, and placing my hand above it”.
Indigo is a special colour. It’s his favourite, he tell us, because of the intricacy and web of connections behind it. It can only be dyed in the morning because of the weather, and close attention has to be paid to the underground vats, padded with goat dung, and the time the yarn spends inside.
Natural ingredients are increasingly hard to find because forest cover is decreasing all over the country. Indigo in particular is a rare plant, and 1 kilo of indigo cake dyes about 8 kilos of fabric. It’s hard to find people who want to continue working in this field, given the tedium of its process and unpredictability of yield.
To obtain the deep blue indigo loved by many the yarn has to be dipped, dried in the sun, and dipped again, about five times.
We asked Saleem how he will pass on his knowledge, given the intricacy of this process. He explains that he is not literate and does not write anything down – everything is inside here, he says, pointing to his head and laughing. He teaches in order to keep the tradition alive. His son has started working in the dye unit now, learning the trade through the trials of smoke, water and colour. He hopes his son will continue this tradition even as many other young people move on to work in factories in the area.