Tag Archives: India

Counting on the body: Reflections on Numeracy in Indian dyeing practices

By Annapurna Mamidipudi

‘I don’t know how to read, but I can count’ said Salim, ‘I was not much for school, my father put me on an old tractor when I was 12, and told me to go around in circles, till I had learned to drive’. Salim was a 20 something driver, the same age as me, when I met him in 1990. I –along with a few other socially minded engineers – was trying to decipher the recipes from a century old colonial account of dyeing using natural materials, and he was hired to drive me around the weaver villages we were visiting in rural Andhra Pradesh in South India.  The idea was to use these recipes to bring natural dyeing practices lost over the last century back into the practice of craftspeople, in order to enter newly emerging green markets and support their livelihoods.

‘Keep the temperature around 70 degrees’ specifies the recipe. Yes, I could measure the temperature and tell when it was 70 degrees; but how to maintain a constant one? Salim smoked incessantly, yet he could blow on an open wood fire under the dyebath to keep it at a steady 70 degrees for as long as it took to extract the colour –whether yellow, brown or red. I measured and jotted down notes from his experiments, attempting to standardise a recipe that would provide fast colour across the different dyehouses, in the different villages where craftspeople were being trained to re learn natural dyeing practices. But this was an important first lesson about the material life of numbers in dyeing –they came attached with fires, smoke, dye baths, and always required a willing body to maintain them.

Indigo dyed yarn production in a weaver co-operative dyehouse © Moody Chetanand

So my first recipe:

Material needed:

For one kg. of yarn, take  15%  in weight in dyematerial Katha [Acasia Katechu]

Copper Sulphate: Take 10 % of weight of dye material

First measure out the quantity of dye material…….

‘Weavers don’t read, why would you want to write down a recipe in English?’ Salim interrupts, with some curiosity. The recipe is a formula, I explain, and it has to hold fast wherever we use it, and whoever uses it. It can be in any language, its the numbers and reproducibility that make it technical. ‘My car is technical, but I don’t need a manual’ he jokes, even as he measures out quantities out aloud for me to write into the journal we keep of all the dye experiments. After using the recipe on the field in a series of training workshops for weavers, he makes an observation. ‘Change the recipe standard to 4.5 kg, not one kg, if you want a stardardised recipe’. I reply patiently, if they learn to calculate quantities using the standard of 1 kg, they can multiply it by 4.5 or any number they chose, that’s the whole point of a recipe. ‘But they only use the 4.5 kg standard, or multiples of it, so if you write those down in the recipe, they don’t need to learn how to calculate percentages’. He is right, I realise, all across the world of Indian cotton handloom weaving, the general measure that applies across all dyehouses, is the weight of one box of cotton yarn, the ‘peti’, standardised across all thicknesses or counts of yarn. I change the recipe; we now formulate all recipes with 4.5 kg as the base. I need a calculator to figure out how much copper sulphate we need for the recipe for Katha, each time, meanwhile, Salim is measuring it out by hand. ‘Sometimes the quality is not so good, you have to add a bit more’. The weavers agree, accuracy is about the outcome of colour, not so much the weight of material as input.

Sample of jottings from a dyehouse in Peddapuram in Andhra Pradesh © Moody Chetanand

Almost ten years later, Salim is a master dyer, and well on his way to acquiring the skill of dyeing Indigo, one of the most difficult colours to master. He is successful in the market, and has trained more than a hundred artisan groups, forming a large network of dyers. I continue to be the documenter of recipes, now trying to author a small booklet of recipes in the four South Indian vernacular languages, for craftspeople learning natural dye colours. ‘You tell colour by smell, put away the notebook’, he says. Yet, in Salim’s pocket is a strip of paper that can measure the pH value of a solution; ‘Checking the Indigo vat with a pH paper helps me to get a general idea of how alkaline the vat is, before I start using my nose,’ he says. He is meticulous in checking the vats every morning and evening. ‘Yellappa is a master, [the 80 year old Indigo dyer who taught Salim] he doesn’t need the paper’, he says, a little enviously, ‘he can count on his nose to tell him when the vat is ready’. We decide to leave out the recipe for Indigo from the booklet, learning to tell colour and alkalinity by smell has to be learned from the master, not with recipes.

Salim setting up the Indigo vats in his dyehouse © Moody Chetanand

Ten years on, it is 2012, and I am theorising innovation in craft practices, as part of my PhD study –analysing the practices of dyers as socio-technical expertise. I am assailed by the smell of fermenting Indigo, as I enter the well functioning Indigo dyehouse for an interview with Salim the master dyer. Salim is a tad more portly, and is surrounded by a bevy of young men and women dyeing Indigo. ‘Come to learn Indigo dyeing?’ he asks with a smile. I take out my laptop, ‘put your hand in’ he says instead, ‘and turn the yarn 50 times’. I wet the hank of cotton yarn, and sit down amongst the other dyers. Unpractised as I am, I lose count after 37, but Salim tells me when I can stop, he can see when the colour is right.  Do you keep count? I ask the girl sitting next to me, curiously. ‘I used to’ she says, ‘now my body knows how long it takes, so the numbers disappear from my mind’.

Indigo dyeing: Dyehouse of Salim © Moody Chetanand

I reflect later, on how to write the recipe for Salim’s Indigo, and who to write it for. The underlying chemical principles of the traditional fermentation Indigo vat have been written up extensively by scholars and scientists. The aim of my own analysis was to establish that Salim like many other master dyers before and after him has indeed mastered the principles of Indigo dyeing. How does one establish that, without explicating his knowledge in scientific terms? Yet, even if I were to explicate such a recipe, Salim himself would not use it. Rather, he engages his material knowledge of Indigo as he problem solves, or sets up a new vat, or uses new materials to bring forth a resplendent blue time after time.

Where then does the knowledge of the underlying principle reside in his practice? I do not yet have an answer. All I can speculate is that the knowledge of the principles governing Indigo are known by Salim much like the numbers themselves are known in the dyeing: when dyers learn to count on their bodies, the numbers on the piece of paper disappear. Much like a weft thread woven through the warp, sometimes visible on the surface of the fabric, and at other times stabilised below the threads, Salim’s knowledge too is always present, sometimes visible and enumerable, and at other times invisible and embodied.


Annapurna Mamidipudi was trained as an engineer in electronics and communications, in Manipal, in South India. She had set up and worked for over 15 years in an NGO that supported vulnerable craft livelihoods where before completing her doctoral thesis titled “Towards a theory of innovation for handloom weaving in India” in the University of Maastricht in 2016. She is currently a visiting post doctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. She is a member of the NGO Timbaktu Collective’s executive committee, which works in the drought prone district of Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh to support women farmers and trustee of the Handloom Futures Trust, in Hyderabad.

“For English Girls … in the Eastern Empire”: Housekeeping in British India

By Cynthia D. Bertelsen

An Indian household can no more be governed peacefully, without dignity and prestige, than an Indian Empire.
~ Steel and Gardiner

British Bungalow in India During the Raj. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
British Bungalow in India During the Raj. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The British Empire at its zenith stretched across more than fourteen million square miles, ruling nearly half a billion people. Social and racial attitudes forged during the long period of colonial and imperial rule still prevail on many levels today. To survive the many unknowns of tropical daily life, British women relied on nineteenth-century household manuals.

Arjun Appadurai, in his much-cited “How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India”, commented that “[t]he spread of European ideologies of household management in the colonies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is an important topic for comparative research.” Books such as these provided more than just recipes; they also outlined cultural beliefs and hinted at the overall agenda of Empire–the so-called civilizing mission, wherein women were expected to create a little England amidst the dust, heat and teeming masses of India.

These prescriptive texts form a sub-set of the larger genre of household manuals, of which Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Managementfondly dubbed Mrs. Beeton–became one of the most popular and long-lived of the nineteenth century. Studying these materials offers culinary historians numerous insights into subliminal communication of “Othering” attitudes by which a relatively small number of British administrators and other personnel ruled the British Empire.

Mrs. Beeton certainly accompanied many women’s voyages out to India, but a whole spate of similar cookbooks, geared specifically toward the Anglo-Indian* housewife, appeared later in the nineteenth century. Women wrote most of these, but some were written by men. For example, Robert Flower Riddell, an Army surgeon at the Nizam of Hyderabad’s court, first published his Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book in 1841. The women had lived through it all, following their husbands from one lonely posting to another, suffering through brutal heat in the tropical sun, challenges of feeding families on slim provender, and dealing with servants.

Flora Annie Steel. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Flora Annie Steel. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

One of the best and most thorough of those books was The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, by Flora Annie Steel and Grace Gardiner, dedicated “To THE ENGLISH GIRLS to whom fate may assign the task of being house-mothers in our eastern empire”. The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook followed not only in the footsteps of Mrs. Beeton, but also took heart from a number of other books, such as Riddell’s. Steel and Gardiner’s book underwent at least ten editions between 1888 and 1921 and became the bible of existence for many young English women in India. And elsewhere in the British Empire.

A common theme in these books concerned servants, and more specifically cooks, usually older Muslim men. The creation of social distance made it possible for the household to run as efficiently as the empire, or at least to aspire to do so. Authors accomplished by including derogatory comments, particularly after the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Servants were described as dirty, dishonest, and childish. Steel and Gardiner warned young housewives in India to beware of “the dirty habits which are ingrained in the native cook” (13).

Chapter XXI, “Advice to Cook”, spoke directly to the cook (225):

The next point is to keep yourself clean. Cooks must use their hands a great deal. Some things are better done with the hand than with spoon or fork, but not with dirty hands; so keep a piece of soap and a towel handy by the sink for constant use, and don’t use your hands unnecessarily. Don’t, for example, stir eggs into a pudding with your fingers. They do it very badly.

The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, and similar household books, promised to turn British women into astute managers who perpetuated the idea of Empire by creating the essence of England in their households… even if those households abutted up to steamy jungles or vast plains on the Indian subcontinent.

As Steel and Gardiner stated (220), these cookbooks assisted them in the

knowledge really required by a mistress which is that of half-practical, half-theoretical and wholly didactic description which will enable her to find reasonable fault with her servants.

In other words, household management books served as reference books. But a close reading suggests that they also served as models for creating the “Other.”

*Anglo-Indian as used here refers to the British housewife, not as the term now denotes people of mixed British and Indian heritage.

Pilau, eighteenth-century style

To follow Katherine Allen’s post on tobacco: some thoughts on a different colonial import. Researching in recipe books often presents tempting diversions, and this recipe for ‘Pilau after the East Indian manner’ looks pretty tasty.

Sarah Tully [and others], Book of receipts for Cookery and Pastry, eighteenth century. Wellcome Library MS 8687. Image credit: Wellcome Library (author’s own photo).
Boil half a pound of Butter to a pound of Rice & when the Butter is turn’d to Oil put in some Mace Cloves whole pepper & cinnamon together with the Rice and stir it about & let it fry till the Butter is almost dryd & soak’d away, Let a Fowl at the same time be boiling in Mutton Broth till it be enough & then pour as much Broth upon the Rice as will cover it about three Inches & let that boil away without stirring, only raising it now & then from the bottom for fear of its being burnt, then add by degrees a little & little more Broth until the Rice is boiled           th[r]ough and quite Dry, then Dish it, putting the Fowl in the Dish first & pouring the Rice over it with some Salt according to your Taste.

The recipe comes from Sarah Tully’s recipe book which she probably began when she married Sir Richard Hoare, heir to Hoare’s bank and, by 1745, Lord Mayor of London. A portrait of Sarah Tully in the National Trust collection depicts her amid rural scenery, dressed as a shepherdess. Unfortunately, Sarah died only four years after her marriage. She left one son, and other anonymous hands continued her recipe collection.

We have seen in recent posts about chocolate and gingerbread that spices such as cinnamon and cloves were common ingredients in the early modern household, but the Hoare household seemed to have been uncommonly fond of foreign flavours for their time. Recipes include ‘A Loyn of Mutton Kebob’d’, ‘currie powder’ and ‘Indian pickle’, in addition to cosmopolitan European recipes for ‘Parmason cheese’ and ‘Fromage Fondu’. Hoare’s Bank held investments in the South Sea Company, Royal African Company and East India Company. While other investors including Isaac Newton lost a great deal of money when the South Sea bubble burst in 1720, perhaps the fact that Hoare’s Bank made a substantial profit from ‘riding the bubble’, contributed to their culinary as well as financial enthusiasm for the exotic.

Several printed books from the late seventeenth century mention pilau (other spellings include pellow and peelaw). In the 1690s, Simon de La Loubere’s  A New Historical Relation of the Kingdom of Siam explained that ‘the Levantines, or Eastern People, do sometimes boil Rice with Flesh and Pepper, and then put some Saffron thereunto, and this Dish they call Pilau’ while Antoine Galland described ‘a great Dish of pilau’, made of rice, and dressed with butter, fat or gravy.

Other writers were less than complimentary; according to Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’s Collections of travels through Turky into Persia (1684) the Turks’ use of three pounds of butter to six of rice (the same ratio as in Sarah Tully’s recipe), made the dish ‘so extraordinary fat, that it disgusts, and is nauseous to those who are not accustom’d thereto, and accordingly would rather have the Rice itself simply boyl’d with Water and Salt’. In 1709, William King dismissed Peter Heylin’s suggestion that the inspiration for European silver forks had originally come from China, scoffing that ‘These sticks are of no use but for their sort of meat, which being Pilau, is all boil’d to Rags’.

It is likely that the pilau recipe in Sarah Tully’s book dates from the middle of the eighteenth century; Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) contained what seems to have been the first published curry recipe in England as well as a very similar recipe to Tully’s for ‘a pellow the Indian way’–though in Glasse’s recipe the fowl is also accompanied by bacon, half a dozen hard eggs and a dozen onions ‘fried whole and very brown’. By the nineteenth century, ‘curry’ was commonplace in English households – even if the pre-mixed powder commonly used bore little relation to its ‘authentic’ Indian roots.

Dating recipes is one thing, but understanding their meaning in households is another. In Nabobs (2010), Tillman W. Nechtman argues that hookah pipes, turbans and curry powder exposed Britain as ‘an irretrievably imperial nation’, but, as Troy Bickham has commented, it is difficult to find evidence of how items such as recipes were used in practice. This early pilau recipe copied into a private book suggests that recipe collections might be a good source for understanding the changing ways in which the empire was incorporated into the daily routines of British homes.

I’ll admit, I’m still tempted to make this pilau, though maybe I will leave out some of the butter.