Shades of Blue

Cynthia Smithers opens The Indigo Project

I’ve made it a point since seeing Tafelmusik’s ‘Coffeehouse’ program to attend all of the orchestra’s multimedia concerts that I get a chance to see, but Friday night’s presentation of The Indigo Project was particularly anticipated, given my interests in textiles and natural dyeing methods.  Held at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church and Centre for Faith, Justice and the Arts, this is new production of the amazingly talented Alison Mackay, who has retired from Tafelmusik as a performer but stays on in her role arranging these special projects, this program focused on the indigo trade between southern India and Europe.  As in previous programs, the music featured was not only European baroque from the 18th century, but also South India’s own classical music, known as Carnatic music, from the same general timeperiod, integrated into a program that traced the development of the indigo trade, its importance to Europe and India both, and some of the absolutely fascinating connections between the trade and music.  To bring Carnatic music to the table (pun intended!), Tafelmusik welcomed a father and daughter team, singer Suba Sankaran and percussionist Trichy Sankaran (playing the incredibly versatile mridangam, a tuned drum with a variety of timbres).

After an overture by Lully setting the stage for the story at the court of France, Carnatic music provided the soundscape for the story of the harvesting and processing of the indigo dyestuff, along with the narration of Cynthia Smithers.  Like its cousin woad, there is no immediate indication when looking at an indigo plant that it would produce a blue dyestuff.  This is partially because the indigo plants must be ground down and placed into a water solution, then oxidized into the blue colour–in this case, by men standing in a giant vat and swirling it around with huge paddles.  After that, the dye was distilled and dried down to a thick paste, which was then turned into bricks more valuable than gold, allowing the dye to be shipped in large quantities.  Returning to France, illustrations proved just how important indigo was to the French court, providing the colour for army coats and courtiers, with the shades available codified by law.   But indigo-dyed clothing was worn by poorer people as well, both in France (ably illustrated in music by works of Lully which were transformed by popular performers from operatic arias to songs about wine) as well as in England.

Here, another connection to music was found, because it was the trade in indigo (as well as its connection to the slave trade) that enriched several of the women who were the major benefactors of the London Foundling Hospital that Handel became associated with (particularly with a benefit concert of Messiah on a yearly basis).   Narrator Smithers revealed the tragic story of the foundlings left at the hospital, where a piece of fabric (often indigo-dyed) would be included with the records of each child taken in by the hospital; the mother would keep another piece so that if someday her circumstances changed and she could reclaim her child, she would have something to identify them by.  And then Smithers broke out of her narrator role to sing a haunting lullabye about a mother abandoned by the father of her child–the usual situation for the out-of-wedlock babies admitted by the Foundling Hospital.  But for the children of the Hospital, not all was bleak–many were taught music and even formed choirs, and the chapel built at the Hospital became a popular concert venue–this setting up the close of the first half with a spectacular chorus by Handel sang by two local high-school choirs, who processed into the hall representing the foundlings who might have sang just such a song in Handel’s era.

That’s a really big lute.

In the second half of the concert, the audience was transported to the court of Thanjavur in southern India, where the rulers sometimes imported Western instruments and musicians, and where works of Baroque composers could be found in their libraries.  Returning to Europe, we arrived in the trading port of Genoa, which gave its name to the cloth produced for working-class clothing dyed with indigo (jeancloth, or just jeans).  Genoa was also the birthplace of the concerto grosso, as first composed by Alessandro Stradella and hugely popularized by Archengelo Corelli.  Corelli, the program noted, was the leader of the orchestra for Handel’s first sacred oratorio (in a nice tie-in with the first half of the concert).

One of the most striking parts of the concert occured in this Genoa section. After a discussion of the influence of indigo-dyed cloth colouring the rag paper created there, and the development of the new technique of pastels, the focus turned to the huge indigo-dyed cotton screens painted in white lead that were used as meditation tents during Easter week.  As these images were shown on the screen, the choir of young voices processed in at the back of the balcony, their voices calling back and forth in a lauda , a vocal work win three parts with improvised octave doublings.  The open nature of the octaves made Trinity-St. Paul’s resonate and sent shivers up and down the spine.  The concert concluded with images of indigo dyeing as practiced today, including by a group at Marc Garneau Collegiate, who made a quilt using traditional techniques to commemorate the scraps of fabric in the records of the Foundling Hospital.  This section mingled South Indian music with French popular song, with the entire youth choir returning to the stage–and narrator Smithers turning to the language of dance to add an additional layer to the finale.  One of the most fascinating parts of this section was Suba Sankaran’s scat-like vocalization–particularly intriguing as she teaches in the jazz department of Humber College.

Once again, I emerged from the concert more knowledgeable about the history of a dyestuff we take for granted.  It might have been even better had it emphasized at the end that while natural indigo dyeing is relatively environmentally friendly, synthetic indigo dyeing is actually terrible for the environment, producing an enormous amount of contaminated water–and this is the kind of dyeing most of our modern denim fabrics use. That aside, the visuals were spectacular, Smithers’ narrative outstanding (although she occasionally stumbled over a word in the book she was using to prompt) and the inclusion of young choruses particularly effective.  The Sankarans (father and daughter) were rightly given a standing ovation (Trichy Sankaran’s ability to make is nridangam speak in particular was amazing), and Tafelmusik’s playing was of its usual high quality.  I left knowing not only about indigo dye, but about the music of a culture I’d not really encountered before.  And once again, I left amazed at just how connected our world was–even three hundred years ago.