Many shades of the betel nut
Shree Padre, Kasaragod
THE betel nut has a terrible reputation. As a part of paan spittle it is associated with disgusting red stains in public spaces. Chewed on its own it is linked to oral cancers. But far removed from its negative image, the betel nut has another and completely wholesome identity as well. Farmers in Karnataka have traditionally extracted from it a natural red dye. And over two decades ago, scientists found that the betel nut’s red could be used to develop a range of pleasing shades, pink in particular.
But despite such potential, the betel nut continues to languish. Could it possibly be a driver of higher rural incomes in a state like Karnataka where it is grown widely? Designers have been cottoning on — in India and, globally, from Turkey to Japan. It isn’t enough. Much more needs to be done to develop betel nut commercially and give it pole position for being organic and unique in the colour it yields.
Dr Geetha Mahale, the scientist who developed the dye in Dharwad
It was in 1996, that Dr Geetha Mahale began her quest to understand paan stains a little better. Setting aside her angst over the stains she would see around her, she began to investigate what it was that made them so devilishly long-lasting.
She was then a senior scientist in the department of textiles and apparel design at the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) in Dharwad in Karnataka. Mahale noted how tough it was to remove paan stains. Was it the entire combination that made up the paan — spit, leaves and other ingredients? Or was there a single component emitting the colour?
Her probing finally led her to the betel nut, which in common parlance is called supari and agriculturally is known as areca nut because it grows on the areca palm.
Mahale realized that the betel nut/areca nut was the source of an incipient natural dye — and she knew a thing or two about such matters since she was researching natural dyes at the university.
Obsessed with the idea, Mahale began researching the betel nut and organizing dyeing workshops with farmers in and around Sirsi. “We got dozens of shades from areca nut, each with its own beauty. I got kind of attached to the colour. I realized we needed more research, and the idea was worth pursuing,” says Mahale, who retired as head of department in 2018.
In 2010, UAS published a book on her work, ‘Value Addition to Agro and Animal-based Fibres.’ It has a chart of shades one can derive from areca nut dye on different fabrics and with different mordants. Mahale was given an award by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) for this study.
That’s how a new colour, areca, came into use in rural Karnataka. The dye alongside began to be used by the local handloom industry and then travelled to Rajasthan to a company that began exporting it globally.
Traditional crafts like Ajrakh, Kalamkari and the Channapatna toy industry have picked it up. So have weavers and fashion designers across Asia who are mixing it with other natural dyes to glean newer shades.
“I love the areca colour. It is pink, soft, calming and peaceful. We use madder to make red-pink colour. Madder is good too. But areca is different,” says Masaki Aoki, a natural dye expert in Japan, who has his own studio called Tezomeye. Aoki has been teaching at the Kyoto University of Art and Design for over a decade.
Maki Teshima, also a natural dye expert from Japan, runs workshops on areca nut dye. “The nut releases a beautiful rose pink colour. I fell in love with it,” says Teshima. “People who joined my workshops loved the beautiful rose and gray colours we created using the nuts. You can’t deny the beauty of the colours from areca nuts.”
For centuries, the betel nut has been chewed and then spat out across Asia. It’s been the bane of health professionals who call it addictive and carcinogenic and of exasperated municipalities trying to beautify city spaces. But, if recognized for properties that provide a natural dye, it is potentially a money spinner for farmers. Karnataka is the biggest producer of areca nut in India and stands to benefit the most.
Dr Jyothi Vastrad, who succeeded Dr Mahale, continued to work on the areca nut dye. Another scientist, Dr Sannapapamma K.J., experimented with the dye on banana fibre.
The main ingredient used is a syrup called adike chogaru which is made by farmers themselves. Two kinds of areca nut are produced: white and red. The white nuts are those that are harvested when ripe, then sun-dried and peeled. To make red areca nuts, green or unripe nuts are harvested, peeled, boiled and dried. What remains in the boiler at the end is a blackish-red, tannin-rich syrup.
All in areca colour jackets: The Karnataka governor, Thawar Chand Gehlot, and members of the faculty of the Keladi Shivappa Nayaka University of Agricultural and Horticultural Sciences
This syrup is bought by local traders, some of them small farmers, by going house to house for as little as Rs 5 to Rs 12 per litre. It is not sold in shops. While areca nut is priced at around Rs 500 to Rs 600 per kg, its byproduct, areca nut syrup, is available for `70 to Rs 130 per kg.
About 200,000 litres of the thick syrup are produced annually. But it is made only in four taluks: Yellapur, Siddapur and Sirsi in Uttara Kannada district and Sagar taluk in adjoining Shivamogga district. One challenge that scientists face with natural dyes is shade variation in different batches despite using the same dye.
“Flavonoids are the main content in chogaru that yield the colour. If we assess the quantity of flavonoids, bringing uniformity in shades is possible. We are working in this direction, and we are succeeding in bringing about uniformity,” says Vastrad, adding that the flavonoid in areca nut is catechin.
How many colours does the areca dye yield? In the eyes of the ordinary farmer, areca nut dye is the colour of the soil. Shalini Goud, a natural dye expert who owns Uga Studio in Bengaluru, says areca nuts produce a range of peachy pink shades. If the fabric is first dyed in iron water, areca nut yields a shade of chocolate brown. The dye can be used on plant-based fabrics like cotton and linen and protein fabrics like silk and wool which shimmer with the areca nut colour.
The new dye has caught on locally. Prasanna, a well-known theatre personality, started Charaka, a women’s cooperative, in rural Karnataka in 1996 to provide alternative employment to local rural women. The cooperative now employs around 300 women and sells its garments under the brand name Desi. It has eight units where it makes shirts, jubbas (a long garment for men), kurtas and sarees from cotton and handwoven material. The areca nut dye is widely used by them.
“To dye our materials we buy around 3,000 litres of the syrup every year,” says Padmashree D., who is in charge of marketing at Charaka.
“Areca is our signature colour and the jubba our signature dress. We produce around 7,000 jubbas and kurtas a month, including the ones dyed in areca nut. We still fall short of demand. About 30 percent of the colour we use is only from areca nut,” says Terence Peter, administrative officer at Charaka.
At a recent three-day fair in Puttur, Charaka’s turnover was as much as Rs 3 lakh. “We use areca nut liquid dye on cotton and silk. It is excellent. The advantage is that the colour is fast and attractive, like a light pink-brown, similar to kattha (Acacia catechu),” says Padmashree D. Kattha is a condiment used in paan.
Dye for kattha is extracted from the stem of the Acacia catechu tree which grows wild in forests. Thousands of tonnes are required every year for dyes resulting in deforestation. In contrast, areca nut is a cultivated tree and chogaru is available in plenty, making it more sustainable.
Charaka also produces bedspreads, curtains, quilts, indoor slippers, stoles, and bags, from mobile and tablet pouches to handbags. Recently, the cooperative started marketing its products online as well.
Despite years of experience in natural dyes, Sidhanth Sodhani, owner of Sodhani Biotech, a natural dye company in Jaipur, Rajasthan, hadn’t heard of areca nut dye. He says his younger brother, Sankalp Sodhani, stumbled on the new colour when he participated in an experiential train journey, the Tata Jagriti Yatra, in 2016. His co-passenger was Santhosh Shedthikere, a young farmer from Sagar taluk in Karnataka. Shedthikere told him about the new colour and mentioned that it was being used at Charaka.
Charaka makes and sells clothes dyed in areca under its brand name Desi
Sodhani got interested and ordered the adike chogaru syrup. He sent samples to his customers. The feedback was promising. His company has named the colour ‘nut brown’ and supplies areca nut dye in a spray-dried form.
For the past five years, he has been exporting nut brown to Turkey, Japan, the US, China and Europe. He claims he has repeat orders. “Nut brown could rise to sixth or seventh place globally among the natural dyes,” he says. Sodhani has bought thousands of litres of the syrup from Shedthikere. Extraction of colour pigments from chogaru would reduce transport costs, says Sodhani whose company exports 40 tonnes of natural dyes per annum.
Apart from India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar are using areca nut dye. A minimum of 50 companies globally use the dye. But much of the world is not aware of its properties.
There is also interest in making the fashion industry, which uses copious amounts of water and chemicals, more sustainable. Countries are keen to revive their old traditions of manufacturing natural dyes.
Twelve centuries ago, areca nut dye was used in Japan. Since Japan does not grow the nut, it was imported from Indonesia. The colour obtained was called binrouji or ‘noble black’.
But Japan, like the rest of the world, shifted from vegetable dyes to chemical ones centuries ago. Japan’s natural dye experts are dejected that knowledge of natural dyes has almost vanished. Experts like Aoki and Teshima are trying to rekindle interest and disseminate traditional knowledge of natural dyeing techniques.
In Bhutan, Chandrika Pakhrin, owner of cdkgyencha, uses areca nut, called doma in her country, to make natural dyes ranging from brown to orange and pink. Her parents grow areca nut on their farm. Pakhrin exports her garments to Europe, mostly to Spain and Japan.
In Taiwan, Pingtung University of Science and Technology studied the use of this dye by tribals 15 years ago. Loy Xuan Zang, director, says clothes made with areca nut are costly to buy. Wa.Textile, a fashion brand by designer Wo Yiling, sells exclusive areca nut-dyed dresses.
In China, the town of Zhongpi is hoping to reverse migration by becoming a natural dye hub using areca nut. The number of people chewing betel nut has declined in China. Since 2016, areca nut-dyed apparel is being produced there to earn more income, says Lin Shujun who owns a studio in the town. In Thailand, Zhamhaus, a natural dyeing company in Bangkok, produces furnishings from areca nut dye.
FROM SAREES TO TOYS
Realizing the potential of adike chogaru, Adike Patrike, a 35-year-old farming magazine, ran a series of articles to create awareness about the dye among the farmer community. It also contacted research institutes and textile industries, requesting them to carry out trials with areca nut.
The onus of providing samples fell on the magazine. There was a hitch, though. Since areca syrup is a liquid, courier and lorry companies refused to transport it. So it requested some farmers to sun-dry the syrup into tiny crystals.
Persistent efforts paid off. More than 20 textile units and companies began conducting trials. Some have concluded their experiments. The results are encouraging, and have been reported in almost every issue of the magazine, which eventually compiled all our articles into a book on adike chogaru, published recently. Included were interviews with two Japanese natural dyeing experts on the areca nut dye.
Traditional crafts, like the Kalamkari textiles of Andhra Pradesh and the toys of Channapatna, have taken to the dye. In the old days Kalamkari craftspeople used only vegetable dyes. But in recent years, chemical colours and screen printing have been replacing manual block printing.
Shyamala Arts and Crafts in Pedana in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, is one of the few who have retained traditional methods of Kalamkari. Its owner, Pitchuka Srinivas, is an internationally known artisan who exports his products. “I had used areca nut dye decades ago by cutting the dry nut into pieces and boiling it. The result with areca nut syrup powder is better. Supari dye enhances Kalamkari art,” he says.
To conserve Kalamkari in its traditional form and impart knowledge to the next generation, Srinivas has converted a room in his house into a Kalamkari museum. One of his exhibits, Tree of Life, has won accolades.
Recently, Srinivas decided to use areca nut dye as the background colour for replicas of his Tree of Life display. His business partner in the US was so happy with it that he bought three of the art pieces for $120 each. Srinivas now plans to incorporate areca nut dye in all products being exported to the US.
“We will explain what areca nut is to our customers and how the colour is extracted. Automatically, word will spread across the globe,” he says.
Sankalpa Art Village in Visakhapatnam used the dye in the tie-and-dye method for some shirts and churidars. The clothes sold quickly at an exhibition. “We are very pleased with its colour and fastness. We plan to start a small natural dye business. We will definitely be using supari dye,” says Chalapathy Rao, owner of Sankalpa.
Rao, in fact, proposed testing the dye on Etikoppaka wooden toys and asked us for areca nut dye powder. This gave us the idea of also approaching the toy makers of Channapatna.
We requested B. Venkatesh of Beereshwara Arts and Crafts in Channapatna to use the areca nut dye on toys. The experiment turned out to be a success. “Generally, we use kattha to get a brown colour for our toys but it doesn’t give a uniform colour, areca nut dye does,” says Jameelya, Rao’s daughter, who studied product design in Dehradun. “Our artisans too were happy with it.” Gilaka, a toy for toddlers, was made using areca nut dye and it has been bought by a reputed toy company in Bengaluru, she said.
The areca nut dye has also found acceptance amongst the weavers of the Guledagudda khana (khana means blouse piece) and Ilkal saree in Bagalkot district of Karnataka. Both these traditional weaves have been dying.
Ramesh Ayodi, a young weaver, is struggling to revive the tradition. He has started a group called Khana Weaves and has a page on Instagram. He is also taking part in exhibitions of naturally dyed fabrics. Ayodi is using areca nut dye for both the sarees and blouse pieces in silk and cotton. “We are getting repeat orders. A small group of Khana lovers has come up,” he says.
The dye can be used for block printing
“Earlier I used pomegranate, manjistha (Rubia cordifolia) and other plants as natural dyes,” says Ayodi. “But areca nut dye is more attractive and has sheen. More studies must be done. For textile printing we need to find out whether areca nut syrup or the powder is better. For transporting syrup, one has to hire a vehicle since lorry services don’t take it. This makes it very expensive. Such challenges have to be addressed.”
Inspired by the response to the trial products, Khana Weaves has decided to produce different types of areca nut-dyed sarees for the next three months. These sarees, though in small numbers, have already hit the market.
Sufian Khatri, an internationally renowned Ajrakh specialist from Kutch, too has taken to the supari colour. His family have been Ajrakh artists for 10 generations. He recently bought 100 litres of this dye for more trials.
As a result of Adike Patrike’s campaign, three research organizations are conducting studies on the areca nut dye: the Textile Engineering Department of the Rural Engineering College in Hulakoti, Karnataka; ICAR’s Central Institute for Research on Cotton Technology (CIRCOT) in Mumbai; and the Institute of Chemical Technology, also in Mumbai.
Natural dyes are catching on globally. But for areca nut dye to take off, it faces two problems: first, it is not well known and, second, it is not available in a ready-to-use form.
Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs) need to come up, set up a company and market areca nut syrup. The present dye can be used for dyeing yarn. For block printing or fabric printing the dye has to be converted into a paste.
But for mechanical printing in factories, the quality of the dye has to be far superior. It should not contain any alien particles, sand or impurities. More research is needed to take areca nut dye to this level of sophistication.
That would also mean improving the quality of areca nut syrup or chogaru. Ninety percent of areca nut farmers sell their chogaru as a diluted liquid. They do not condense it under the sun because that requires a lot of effort. The income from chogaru is meagre since the market is in the hands of middlemen. To earn more they will need to condense the areca nut syrup and sell it through their own organization. Subraya V. Danageri, a farmer from Yellapur taluk, has been selling adike chogaru only after condensing it. “Last year, we produced 400 litres. We sold it to Campco for Rs 36,000.”
If the farming community wants enhanced income, it will have to start condensing chogaru in a professional way. It needs to know how best to process chogaru into a qualitative concentrate or sun-dried powder suitable for the textile industry.
Also, nobody knows how to retain the strength of the pigment for a long time. Agricultural universities have to be roped in to carry out studies to improve the processing.
TAKING THE PLUNGE
The Keladi Shivappa Nayaka University of Agricultural and Horticultural Sciences in Shivamogga has taken the initiative to organize a national workshop on areca nut dye. This university was the first to promote areca nut dye by wearing areca-dyed jackets for their convocation earlier this year, even getting the Governor of Karnataka to don one.
Masaki Aoki, Japanese natural dye expert
“We will initiate more research on areca nut dye,” assures Dr Jagadeesha R.C., vice-chancellor. “For the national workshop, we will invite all stakeholders like handloom weavers, exporters, areca nut farmer organizations, natural dyeing experts and so on. The workshop will have hands-on training sessions on dyeing. Policy papers will be prepared and proposed.”
Other dyeing experts are trying to popularize the colour. Jagada Rajappa, a veteran in natural dyeing in Hyderabad, trains people in natural dyes. She has conducted two workshops on the areca nut dye for farmers in West Bengal and Rajasthan.
“Areca nut yields a good dye. In West Bengal no one knew of it. I give it top priority because it is locally available. We can popularize it through workshops and demos,” she says.
There are other exciting experiments happening. Kolkata’s ultra-fine muslin sarees are going to be dyed with areca. The banana fibre cloth makers of Bengaluru, a lotus stem fibre cloth company in Manipur, the Pen Kalamkari company of Kalahasthi are all on the verge of using the new colour. But for areca to become a money spinner, farmers will have to take the initiative to organize themselves.
Instead of being cursed for defiling walls and causing health issues, areca nut can acquire a new lease of life as an alluring colour. Instead of ruining walls it can pretty up cloth. The areca nut will then be the pride of Karnataka and its farmers.