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Indigo Plantations and Science in Colonial India by Prakash Kumar (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 55, Number 2, April 2014
pp. 492-494 | 10.1353/tech.2014.0055

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Indigo Plantations and Science in Colonial India. By Prakash Kumar. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xix+ 334. $103.

The exploitative nature of indigo manufacture as a colonial enterprise is etched in the popular memory across eastern India, especially the Bengal Presidency. This province, the production center of the natural blue dye for centuries, is the focus of Prakash Kumar’s research on agricultural indigo’s genealogy, consolidation, crisis, and demise, covering in the process the [End Page 492] broad swath of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century global history of science. Though Kumar weaves his narrative around Bengal indigo, it is not geographically limited to it; in fact, the author carefully situates his analysis in the larger history of the subcontinent and beyond, shedding light on the vast panorama of events, different communities of traders, and flows of knowledge that shaped indigo plantations. Undoubtedly, Prakash’s greatest achievement lies in recovering from the seams of history the course, context, and commercial benefits of indigo science, doing so in a way that contributes to the broader social history of colonial South Asia. Indigo Plantations and Science, therefore, deserves to be read as one of the finest studies on “colonial knowledge” that has been published in recent years.

Kumar points out that the “fundamental project” of his book is to uncover “the various knowledge forms surrounding the indigo” (p. 7) and to bring out its changing nature, including the different “functional end” to which technical knowledge was put to use at different times: e.g., improving the crop yield, color concentration, or efficient color extraction. As empiricism gained ground in modern science over the nineteenth century, the natural history–based and local craft-centric practices of indigo cultivation evolved into a “more formal, discipline-based and laboratory-edified science” (p. 8). By the end of the nineteenth century, as the colonial state invested in building scores of agricultural stations, the new knowledge system proliferated. The trend, Kumar surmises, transformed the “local root” of Bengal’s indigo cultivation of premodern times and facilitated the growth of the plantation system.

In locating the sources of modern indigo knowledge, Kumar argues in favor of its multi-sited, composite nature. Colonial relations and imperial frameworks, though foundational to this story, arguably never were the sole factors in the development of modern indigo knowledge. In fact, Kumar claims that the colonial space of indigo cultivation was “invaded by impulses from various points in the world” (p. 14) and the knowledge circulated in the form of modular texts on cultivation techniques, through the work of a diaspora of planters and naturalists. The colonies were not the passive recipient of this knowledge; in fact the local context of Bengal, especially the monsoonal climate and the long-established system of land rights, Kumar argues, led to the development of its own methods of indigo cultivation.

To understand how colonial rule tied the colony to the material benefits of a distant metropolis, Kumar focuses on the responses of natural indigo producers to the launch of synthetic indigo in the world market. In so doing, he meticulously brings out the interaction between the global and the local. Another significant theme is the science-nature relationship. It is a well-known fact that science has been used as a tool to “improve” nature and it has led to objectifying nature in certain specific ways. Indigo Plantations and Science does not stop at validating this argument with further empirical details but goes on to unpack for its readers how the concept of [End Page 493] “improvement” carried multiple meanings and evolved with changing dynamics of trade, market demands, and scientific knowledge production itself. If the promise of “improvement” had its appeal in the practices of indigo science, planters had put significant value in the claim of “natural” too. Faced with stiff competition from synthetic products, they emphasized exceptional quality of products created in the “laboratory of nature” as opposed to that of man.

Indigo Plantations and Science is valuable for its sheer breadth of analysis, though it at times overwhelms. I wish Kumar had chosen to shed more light on the interactions of socioeconomic and political factors so...