The Man Who Captured Shades of Bapu’s Dream

Touched by Gandhi’s genius, Toofan Rafai journeyed from poverty to worldwide acclaim as a painter and master of vegetable dyes. To mark a year of his passing, we bring you a rare, unpublished interview of the guru marked by his infectious cheer.

Some days ago, while excavating my cassette collection as an artifact of an age that seems long gone, I found one tape that had been eluding me for the past eight years. It contained my interview of an extraordinary man in Ahmedabad whose name – Toofan Rafai – had captivated me the first time it was mentioned 22 years ago by the arts editor of The Economic Times, Sadanand Menon. Born in 1921 in Amreli (Gujarat) in a fakir’s family, Toofan went on to become an acclaimed artist and internationally renowned master of vegetable dyes and printing techniques that he was called upon to popularise through workshops in India and abroad. The 300 shades that he created, many out of waste like onion or pomegranate peel, were, in his own telling, the reflection of a great man’s influence on his life: Gandhi.

Toofan Rafai. Credit: Pinki Godiawala

Toofan Rafai. Credit: Pinki Godiawala

A memorable childhood meeting with ‘Bapu’ and the discovery, post-retirement, of a book Gandhi wrote on natural dyes, were significant turning points in Toofan bhai’s life. He said he had lived by the mantra Gandhi gave him: do not drive a vehicle, dress plainly, and wash your own clothes. It was his life’s mission to share his knowledge with as many institutions, people and students as possible.

Toofan bhai passed away in September last year. He was in his nineties. When I heard the news of his death, I remembered our meeting – how his eyes had smiled when he told me about the dirty topi (cap) on his head which drew ‘Bapu’s’ ire, the young nurse who helped him when he was injured at work, the ‘robots’ (commandoes) of Raisa Gorbachev who attended one of his vegetable dye workshops during the Festival of India in Moscow, and the Americans who were stunned by his lecture on feeding virgin cows mango leaves to get a deep yellow urine for dyeing. I also remembered the cassette that I had misplaced and felt miserable. (More so when I learnt that the reason why Toofan bhai had spent the last years of his life in the Muslim locality of Juhapura was because some Hindus in his old city neighbourhood, in the aftermath of the 2002 riots, disapproved of him giving drawing lessons to local girls and being a non-vegetarian.)

This year again, on October 2, my thoughts veered to Toofan bhai and his creativity that had been sparked by Gandhi’s genius in spinning threads for a new canvas – creativity anchored in a convergence of aesthetics, politics and solidarity that stands in stark contrast to the intolerance being witnessed in the country today. That I should find the recording of Toofan bhai’s interview around the time of Gandhi Jayanti seemed fitting, for his life did reflect the luminous hues that Gandhi had hoped to see in the Indians who would be born in freedom. Excerpts from the interview:

Q: In depth and breadth of experience you have had a most unusual life.
That is true. I come from a family of fakirs. No one in our family, in seven generations, had been associated with any work or labour. We lived on alms. My earliest memories are of asking for provisions like aata from Hindu families in the morning, from Muslim families in the afternoon, and for rotis in the evening.

Then at Bapu’s bidding a school for farmers – khedut shala– was set up in Amreli. I started going there. Studies also included helping farmers in the cotton fields, making the thread for baati (cotton wick), and dramas. I was a very good monitor and student. I remember the time when Bapu came to give away prizes. I was about nine years old and very excited that I would receive my prize from him.

Bapu came. A gaddi and takiya was ready for him. As my name was called out I started walking towards him. He was holding a big box. I looked at it and thought, that’s my prize. After bowing to him as I stretched out my hands for the prize, Bapu drew back. He said, you will not get this award. I was stunned. The conversation went like this:

Bapu: What are you wearing?

Toofan: khadi half-shirt, chaddi (shorts).

Bapu: No, what are you wearing on your head?

Toofan: Gandhi topi.

Bapu: That’s not a Gandhi topi.

Toofan: What you are wearing is a Gandhi topi, and what I am wearing is also a Gandhi topi.

Bapu: Your cap is frayed. It’s dirty around the edges, and there is dust and oil sticking on it. (It had not been washed for two years.) Where do you stay?

Toofan: Near the graveyard.

Bapu said, run to your mother this instant and tell her that I am angry that my topi has not been washed. So I raced to my mother and said, Ma, what have you done? Because you did not wash my topi I can’t get my prize. It is such a big dabba (box). My mother told me not to argue with Bapu if he did not give me the prize “because he is a great man”. Then she asked me to tell Bapu that while there was plenty of river water, poverty prevented her from buying soap to wash the topi. But she would use the local ‘khar’ to wash the topi regularly.

I ran all the way back and conveyed this to Bapu. He said theek hai (ok) and gave me the prize. I was tip-toeing back to my seat when he called me and said: ‘Mera jaan jalane ko yeh topi pahan ke kyon aaya’ (Why, by wearing this topi, are you trying to give me heartburn)? He asked me why I couldn’t wear another clean topi. So I said, kisi ke paas do topi hota hai kya? (Whoever heard of anyone having two caps?). Stunned, he asked the school to issue us new sets.

Bapu wanted to give us a lesson in hygiene. Because he was standing, everyone, including the collector, was standing respectfully. That was fun to watch. Then Bapu asked me if I went for the prabhat pheris (early morning rounds) with other children to spread the message that people should not drink tea. He was aghast to know that I had tea for breakfast even as I spread the message faithfully. We simply could not afford to buy milk. On Gandhi’s insistence, some rich farmers of the area agreed to give us milk daily for free. To this day I don’t drink tea or coffee, nor do I touch paan, supari or beedi.

What were your growing-up years like?

They were difficult. For instance, when I was about 15, a friend called me for his wedding saying he would be sitting on a horse, but I had togo for work in the evening. To support my parents, I sometimes worked for a wedding band, carrying a gaslight. As I walked with the gaslight that evening I realised that our band had been hired for my friend’s wedding. What a way to attend a friend’s marriage! The next day, seeing me doze in class, a student pointed me out to the teacher who slapped me and dismissed me from class. I told my mother that I would no longer beg for alms; I would work. I started doing odd jobs and later was employed in a seth’s household for which my family was promised Rs 40 after a period of two years! Happy with my work the sethani secretly gave me food to eat. But the seth was zalim (merciless); he would wear me out.

Later, when the family shifted to Mumbai, they took me along and gave me work as head mistri in their sawmill. That was the time when I met Husain (M.F. Husain) who painted cinema posters for a living. We both stayed near the red light area for that’s where the rooms were cheap.

On occasion when I travelled by local train I would see youngsters laughing, joking or playing cards and I would feel sad that my life was so hard. Once, seeing a boy cheating in a game of rummy I started helping the girl who was losing, and she started winning. The boy was so furious that he threw a banana peel on my face. I got off at the next station, crying and cursing God for the disparities he had created in society. I couldn’t concentrate on work that day and my hand came in the machine. I lost two fingers and was rushed to JJ Hospital.

When did things take a turn for the better?

In the hospital. I told the 19-year-old nurse who was looking after me that even though I was living by Gandhi’s mantra, boys my age could humiliate me so easily. It wasn’t fair. After telling me that in my profession people lose arms, not just two fingers, she brought me Sarat Chandra’s novels to read. When she got to know that painting was my passion she got me colours, paper and brushes. I should have been discharged after eight or ten days but she somehow kept me there for 40 days, giving me milk and fruits so that I could recuperate.

When I was discharged, she sent me to her brother, Prof. Fernandes at the JJ School of Arts. To cut a long story short, I finally became a student of fine arts and got my diploma in 1955 and also did a post-graduate course in mural decoration. After classes I worked at the factory.

Around that time the chief minister of undivided Maharashtra (Gujarat included), Jivraj Mehta, who was from my native place got to know that I was simultaneously studying and working. He offered to send me to France for two years. I refused for I could not leave my family in the lurch. Then the chief minister spoke to Pupul Jayakar who was largely responsible for handicraft revival post-independence and asked her to give me a government job in textile design so that I could get out of the factory job. In 1960, I started working at the Weaver Service Centre which was affiliated to the All India Handloom Board, doing research in dyeing and printing using natural dyes. After retiring in 1979, I was wondering what to do next when Bapu came to my aid once again.


One day as I was walking in Ahmedabad I passed a pavement shop selling old books. Something made me stop. The book that had caught my eye was Gandhi’s rare text on natural dyes, Vanaspatiyon nu rang, which had originally been priced at six annas. I bought it there and then. For me the book is like the Koran and the Gita. I don’t allow anyone to make photostat copies of it also. Gandhi was far ahead of everybody in this respect. He felt that khadi and chemical dyes were a mismatch. (In fact he asked Prafulla Chandra Roy, who started Bengal Chemicals, to compile information on natural dyes.)

Pages from Gandhi's book on natural dyes and khadi. Credit: Carmen Artigas

Pages from Gandhi’s book on natural dyes and khadi. Credit: Carmen Artigas

I knew there and then that my mission was to develop a palette of vegetable dyes from flower, leaf, bark, root, and ‘waste’ like pomegranate seed and onion peel. I started developing shades and dyeing. Then I got wooden blocks and printed a sari. I showed it to Pupul Jayakar who gifted it to Indira Gandhi. Rukmini Arundale of Kalakshetra, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and Mrinalini Sarabhai all asked for such saris printed in natural dyes. Ela behn (Ela Bhatt of SEWA) asked me to teach her girls. No one had worked like this on developing natural dyes. I developed 300 shades. In Bangladesh alone I found 80 shades. Because of the lush plant life made possible by Ganga ji, I found shades there that one cannot find in a sookha pradesh (arid place).

Developing 300 shades of vegetable dyes must be some sort of feat.

There haven’t been more than seven or eight colours in natural dyes, among them black, red, maroon, and yellow. Because of my training as a painter I knew how to blend, reduce, deepen and mix ingredients. Soon I was being called for workshops all over India; from the National Institute of Design to Santniketan to Banaras Hindu University to the Spastic Society of North India…you name it. I also started painting in natural dyes.

In 1987 Dashrath bhai [the renowned painter, photographer and designer] asked me to accompany him and the Indian contingent to the Festival of India at Moscow to conduct a workshop on vegetable dyes and printing techniques. Is tarah sansar main naam phailne laga hamara (My name started spreading in the world).

Something very interesting happened in Moscow. My stall was always crowded with people wanting to learn. One day – it was a Sunday – a group of Russian commandoes with guns and bayonets, who looked as if they ate a crane each for breakfast, burst into the stall and elbowed everyone out. I stood there quaking. Then four escort vehicles with flashing lights screeched to a halt at my stall. From the last car emerged Raisa Gorbachev, the First lady of the then USSR! I want to learn from you, she said. I told her to send the robots (commandoes) home but she said that was not possible. Seeing that she was holding the brush in the Chinese style I told her she did not know how to hold the brush. One of the robots told me I could not speak to her in that fashion. I told him she was my student and I could do so! Raisa was a very intelligent woman. Because of her I got to see the Czar’s treasure. I have never seen anything like it – what diamonds, dresses…

In which countries did you see a great curiosity for vegetable dyes?

An example of Rafai's work in natural colours, painted on the back of a greeting card and presented to the author. Credit: Chitra Padmanabhan

An example of Rafai’s work in natural colours, painted on the back of a greeting card and presented to the author. Credit: Chitra Padmanabhan

There was considerable enthusiasm in America, Japan and Germany. In fact during the 1990s I was being called to the US almost every year for workshops and lectures by various institutions, such as the Rhode Island School of Design, College of Art, Philadelphia and many other universities.

I still remember one lecture that I gave at Edison in the US in the early 1990s. I don’t think they had ever heard this kind of a talk!I told them that they needed to come to India to see the real laboratory in which natural dyes are made — that is, nature. I gave them an example: feed a virgin cow tender mango leaves in spring and the deep yellow of its urine would be a sight to see. Boil it, dip the cloth and you have it! That is my laboratory.

The colours that God has created in this world, our eyes have not even glimpsed them. There was a time when natural colours were used all over the world, and India led the way. It makes me sad to think that we can’t see the wealth we can create from what nature discards or what we discard. For instance, the amount of onion peel that is thrown away can be used by dyers to create a rich tint. Pomegranate peel, too, can be used to create a rich shade. Similarly, while the seed of the dholu flower in the Himalayan foothills is used for medicinal purposes, the flower itself, a very good colouring agent, is thrown away. Gandhi understood the link between colour, nature and culture.

As countries like Japan and Germany, having seen the cycle of chemical dyes, accelerate their efforts to build up a knowledge bank pertaining to natural dyes, it is possible someone from India may be influenced by them to start looking at the in-house wealth of knowledge. India has a bright future if someone looks at this aspect seriously. It is possible that I may not be alive to see this transformation. But I am confident that it will happen.