The year was 2006, when an Indian fashion designer, Tushar Kumar, arrived in Rangpur as a consultant on a CARE Foundation project to train and supervise local artisans.
During his visit, a shrub-like plant caught his attention. When the villagers were asked about the tree, none of them could identify it, instead, everyone in Rangpur referred to the herbaceous plant as "Malkhari."
Tushar identified the tree as "indigo," and it turned out that its use is not limited to daily activities. After some time, this rediscovery led to restarting of indigo cultivation in Rangpur after going through various ups and downs and experiments.
It was the local handicrafts that saw the first use of indigo and the Living Blue brand was born.
Where and how it all started
In 2006, DFID-funded CARE Foundation launched a project in North Bengal called "Nijeder Jonno Nijera." The purpose of the project was to create union-based leaders in the districts of North Bengal.
At that time, almost every year, North Bengal was hit by "Monga" (a Bangla term referring to the yearly cyclical phenomenon of poverty and hunger in Bangladesh). In addition, women's involvement in economic activities was minimal.
In this situation, the social development unit of CARE took up the project with the aim of improving the quality of life by utilising local resources and manpower. The project started with crafting "Nakshi Kantha '' using Cumilla's cotton and Rajshahi's silk.
Nakshi Kantha was later commercialised under the same project. To increase production, regional clusters of artisans were formed here, where one master artisan is in charge of each cluster. The master's primary responsibility is to manage and divide work among the rest of the artisans.
Eventually, Living Blue was born, mainly from this project.
That same year, Tushar Kumar – who is also the project's consultant – had identified the indigo tree. It turns out, the locals had forgotten the identity of this tree as the practice of extracting blue from indigo had stopped for some centuries by then.
After the cessation of indigo cultivation in the 18th century, local farmers continued to use the shrub for other purposes. Indigo is a leguminous or herb type plant. It is used to increase the amount of nitrogen in the soil as it fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere. The process also helps reduce soil erosion.
The farmers of North Bengal knew about these qualities. During the year when the crop did not grow in the field, they used to plant indigo for three or four months. Apart from this, the locals used the decayed leaves as fertiliser and the branches as fuel.
However, after the Indian designer identified the plant, its use underwent a significant change. In the same year, some agricultural experts of CARE came to Rangpur to train local farmers.
In 2007, some representatives of these local artisans went to Delhi's "Dastkar Nature Market" along with their products, and sold products worth Tk8 lakh.
Seeing this demand, they thought of starting their own business after returning home. Finally, in November 2008, the journey of "Nijera Cottage and Village Industries" (NCVI) began. The brand name for NCVI's products is "Living Blue." In 2014, it was renamed Living Blue Private Limited.
The NCVI model played a role in creating a position for the poor in the market. Handicrafts are nothing new in the market. However, artisans' ownership of such businesses is relatively new.
NCVI owns 49% of Living Blue (artisans and farmers), while CARE owns 51% and a 17-member management committee runs Living Blue.
Ingredients, process and products
Living Blue's atelier currently has two tanks with a capacity of 10,000 litres of water; these can hold up to 1,200 kg of leaves. It is worth mentioning that only 1 kg of colour can be extracted from 200 kg leaves of the plant.
For fermentation, the leaves are immersed in this tank for 14 hours. At the end of fermentation, the green slurry is deposited at the bottom of the tank.
That slurry is transferred to another tank for oxidation. The process requires a grid of pumps and showerheads. After running the pump for two and a half hours, the green slurry reacts with oxygen to form a blue jelly-like substance.
After drying this substance for four days in the sun, it is called blue powder or blue gold.
Along with Nakshi Kantha, Living Blue produces several other things such as ornas, shawls, stoles and even sharees, albeit on a limited scale. In many products, the Japanese tie-dye 'Shibori' technique is used to create different patterns. Since the CARE consultant in charge of the project himself was a shibori expert, he taught about 20-25 designs to the artisans of Rangpur. Those designs are used in Living Blue's products in different permutations and combinations.
Of a factory and many artisans
Living Blue's factory is in Rangpur. Almost all the activities, starting from cultivating indigo to production including dyeing, shibori stitching, fabric cutting etc, are performed in the atelier.
The work of Kantha sewing is done by the artisans sitting at home, but the shibori stitching and dyeing are done in the atelier. A total of 240 artisans and 550 farmers are involved with Living Blue. In addition, 40 more staffers work in the atelier.
After Living Blue was launched, the local union council of Rangpur allowed the landless farmers to cultivate in "khas lands" on the roadside. Many farmers in the region sell indigo leaves to Living Blue; many others supply seeds.
The master artisan of every cluster trains the new artisans working with Living Blue. Most of the artisans are women; there are only six male artisans.
The daily wage of the artisans is $5 a day, while it is $4 for the junior ones. While the standard working hour is eight hours a day, weaving (one part of the production) depends on the weather; the work continues as long as natural light remains in the atelier.
Shawls and ornas are made with 9-11 stitches per inch, while the number is seven for Nakshi Kanthas. It takes about three and a half months for an artisan to weave a Nakshi Kantha, and its starting price is Tk 28,000. The artisan gets Tk 6,500 for making such a kantha.
Another type of kantha stitch is called "ripple". It takes six months to make a kantha with ripple stitch. Mainly handloom fabric, two types of cotton, silk etc. are used for such productions. And, the prices of various products of Living Blue start from a minimum of $50 and go up to $750.
Living Blue is currently working on eight natural dyes in addition to blue. They infused one of the colours with the other and created 12 natural dyes. They buy up to 100 kg of pigments per season.
Although Living Blue is a clothing brand, they also sell indigo pigments. Natural dye retailers buy pigments from here. In 2018, Living Blue sold 1 ton of indigo pigment to an American customer.
With merit, from Rangpur
Living Blue's products are sold in various Western countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan. Different foreign boutique brands are their main customers. Most of their products are sold through social media, that is how they market themselves.
So far, brands like Dior, Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton etc. have taken samples from them. Since 2012, they have worked with many other companies, including Sally Campbell of Australia, Plantation House of India and Maiwa of Canada.
Four years later, in March 2017, Living Blue exhibited its products as a co-brand of Galeries Lafayette. Through this exhibition, they set foot in Paris for the first time.
In the same year, in collaboration with Paris-based fashion designer Anais Guery under the label "A.Guery-Living Blue," Living Blue's products were seen in a showroom of Paris Fashion Week.
However, their international recognition does not end here. Artisan Sona Rani Roy from Dinajpur - one of the weavers working for Living Blue - received the Loewe Craft Prize in 2017. She was one of the 26 finalists. That year, 3,951 handicrafts were submitted from all over the world for the award.
The pattern of the wavy Nakshi Kantha made of five layers of cotton woven by Sona Rani Roy is called "Mayur." It took her three months to weave this kantha. Earlier, in 2014, she represented Bangladesh by participating in the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in the United States.
Until 2019, Living Blue's revenue was growing at 30%. In addition, after winning the award, Sona Rani Roy worked on two collections with Living Blue. However, the launch of the third collection was halted because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Syed Murtaza Jahangir, technical officer of Living Blue, said that they have plans to launch a collection with Loewe again in the future.
State of affairs
Till date, Living Blue does not have a physical store for local customers. However, if anyone wants to buy, they can buy the desired product by ordering through the brand's Facebook page.
From 2013 to 2016, Living Blue's products were sold to foreigners who came to the AISD fair in Bangladesh. They used to sell products worth Tk1,50,000-2,00,000 in one day. At that time, Living Blue had a market of $10,000 in the country.
But after the Holey Artisan attack in 2016, their annual fair came to a stop. Since then, the sale of goods in the country has come down drastically.
They had planned to launch some mid-range products in a shared shopping space for domestic customers during this Ramadan. But unfortunately, they were not able to do so due to a lack of capital.
However, they are receiving orders from abroad and plan to launch the local line of clothing in winter or by next Pahela Baisakh.