A thin red line, a crack of the whip

Artist’s book with 30 digital prints in edition of 70
Dimensions of book: 30 x 21 x 2 cm
Size of prints: 29.7 x 21 cm

Following a personal interest, this book is an archive of my knowledge about saffron- its history, cultivation, adulteration, trade and use, narrated as fiction. My assumption is, that the persian calligraphic script could have been inspired from the thick to thin structure of the saffron thread, as saffron is said to have originated from Persia. The drawings are etched on transparent sheets and scanned in original size with saffron from different places.

01-a-pinchaaaA pinch of saffron

02-letters-of-short-thick-varietyLetters of the short thick variety

Letters of the long thin varietyLetters of the long thin variety

Handformed letters of the long thin varietyHandformed letters of the long thin variety

124Generations of saffron farmers

06-the-tale-of-spice-travelThe tale of spice travel

(The Pheonicians who had extensive trade routes, traded in saffron. Alexander the Great first tasted saffron in Persia and then brought it along with him to western Europe as well as to the borders of India. Silk route traders and the Mughals who came from Persia to India further promoted the spice in the Indian Subcontinent.)

07-the-harvest-of-saffronAncient cultivation practices

Medicinal useMedicinal use of Saffron-I

128The wooing of the maiden

The recipe of a sweetmeat for the belovedThe recipe of a sweetmeat for the beloved

A love letterA love letter

12-the-wedding-feastThe recipe of the golden swan

Medicinal useMedicinal use of Saffron-II

14-the-visitation-of-melancholieThe departure of Melancholia

(Currently the pharmacuetical industry researches saffron as an anti-depressant. Saffron threads would thus be scattered across beds and mixed into hot teas as a curative for bouts of melancholy in ancient Greece.)

At the bordersAt the borders

16-the-conversion-of-the-donkeyThe conversion of the Saffron Donkey

(Due to a trade sanction, Iran the biggest saffron producer cannot export its saffron. Most of the saffron is brought into neighbouring Arabian cities like Dubai which has huge immigrant populations. Immigrants are offered free air tickets in return for smuggling packages of saffron into their native countries to be delivered to the local agents. Such people are termed as saffron mules by the police.)

17-crossing-the-bordersCrossing the borders

Nighthalt at a warehouseNight halt at a warehouse

20-under-a-safflower-treeUnder the safflower tree

(Saffron, the costliest of all spices is prone to heavy adulteration. Dried petals of safflower are often sold as a substitute for saffron, although it completely lacks in colour, aroma and flavour.)

The proof of qualityThe proof of quality

punishment for sale of adulterated SaffronPunishment for sale of adulterated Saffron-I

141Punishment for sale of adulterated Saffron-II

23-the-huntThe hunt

24-the-afflictionConfessions of the saffron donkey-I

Confessions of the saffron donkey IIConfessions of the saffron donkey-II

Confessions of the saffron donkey IIIConfessions of the saffron donkey-III

The miracle at nightThe miracle at night

The declaration of SainthoodThe declaration of Sainthood

The Bard sings the Ballad.The Bard sings the Ballad

Saffron- A brief history

Prof. Dr. Nils Büttner
Chair of Art History, (Staatliche Akademie der bildende Künste, Stuttgart, Germany.)

Weeks before India achieved independence on 15 August 1947, a cabinet of ministers presided by Jawahar Lal Nehru dis- cussed the issue of the flag of the prospective free nation, which was also to become the national symbol. They decided upon a horizontal rectangular tricolour flag of India saffron, white and India green, with the Ashok Chakra, a twenty four-spoke wheel in navy blue at its centre. The Indian Vice President Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan explained the significance of the top band of the special saffron colour in the following words: “Bhagwa or the saffron colour denotes renunciation or disinterestedness. Our leaders must be indifferent to material gains and dedicate themselves to their work.” Hence the colour of saffron attained national significance in India. The colour is so strongly associated with India, that since 2001, the colour of saffron used in the national flag has been included in the universal Resene Colour List designated with the name – Raja, a word derived from Sanskrit which means ruler.

Contributing to this is the fact that Hindu nationalists identify themselves as the “Saffron Brigade”. Saffron attained similar political significance in other Asian countries as well. For example, in 2007 when the masses protested against the military regime of Myanmar (Burma), the protests organized by Buddhist monks went down in history as the “Saffron Revolution”. These numerous political connotations should not dismiss the fact that saffron belongs to one of the oldest cultivated plants in the history of mankind and has been used since thousands of years as spice, food and textile colourant as well as medicine.

The saffron plant with the scientific name Crocus Sativus is a species of the crocus family with violet petals that blossoms in late autumn. Saffron as we know it is the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus flowers. No one is sure from where this widespread plant originated. Recent botanical research assumes that it first appeared in the Mediterranean region on the island of Crete. A fresco painting from circa 1600 B.C. found on the Greek island of Santorini, depicts women plucking saffron during the harvest. At around the same time the plant is mentioned in the medical records of the Egyptians. It is mentioned in Salomon’s Songs of Songs (4, 14) along with “spikenard, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the finest spices”. Similarly it was used as a spice in ancient Egypt and stories narrate that Cleopatra took baths of saffron to add a topaz glow and perfume to her skin.

The spice is accredited with healing powers of great effectiveness, perhaps because as mentioned in Greek mythology, Zeus the king of gods slept on a bed of saffron. Accordingly, Plinius, the Elder recorded in his “Naturalis Historia”, the most comprehensive literature on natural history from classical antiquity, saffron as a valuable medicine, which was also highly regarded as a spice by the cook Apicius. The Greco roman doctor Pedanios Dioskurides discussed in his treatise “De Materia Medica” about the curative and poisonous properties of saffron. The pharmaceutical industry is researching saffron as antidepressant. On account of its strong anti-poisonous, aphrodisiac, cardiotonic, carminative, diaphoretic, diuretic, emmenagogue, febrifuge, stimulant, lactogogue, livotonic, nervinetonic, sedative and styptic properties, it is highly valued in Ayurveda. Under the Mughals who originated from Persia and ruled the Indian subcontinent between the 16th and 19th century A.D. saffron got introduced into the culinary arts. During the medieval ages in Europe, when a variety of spices were used, saffron found a special attention in the royal kitchens. People decorated cooked meats by stuffing them back in bird feathers which were painted golden yellow with saffron.

Already in those times it was traded as the most expensive spice. In order to guarantee good qualities and to avoid adulteration by mixing stigmas of other crocus flowers, special laws were formulated in the trade city of Nuremberg in Germany and the spice trader’s guild of the city of Basel in Switzerland, the “Safran Zunft”, was held in charge of providing fine quality saffron. The high economical value of the spice can be attributed to the fact that saffron has no substitute and is obtained only through enormous manual labour. In order to obtain one kilo of dried saffron, around a hundred and fifty thousand flowers need to be picked. A trained labour can separate only so many stigmas in a day to produce maximum hundred grams of dried spice. That is why monkeys were trained in ancient Crete to help in the harvest.

The Indian artist Priyanka Jain plays with saffron and all these layers of meanings in her book “A fine red line, a crack of the whip”. The book is about and made of saffron. It refers to the miniature painting styles that were introduced in India during the Mughal rule, to the mythological dimensions of the plant as well as to the contemporary connotations in a postcolonial and globalized world. Priyanka Jain’s curiosity which has been aroused by the exotic spice explores the historical as well as the contemporary. Gender roles are thematised in her artistic narratives, as well as the effects of international trade sanctions on the biggest saffron producers. The saffron is smuggled by immigrants, in exchange of free air tickets and by doing so, convert themselves into mules in the eyes of the police. The title “A fine red line, a crack of the whip” hints at the artist’s assumption that Persian calligraphy is derived from the similarly thick to thin structure of saffron threads and to the contemporary artist Jaishri Abhichandani’s whip drawings, which not only imitates Persian calligraphy but also hints at power and political issues. These multifaceted references to art, culture, politics society, that are reminiscent in this book, can be barely mentioned in this short introduction. This is only an invitation to the infinite shades of meanings that can be traced in this aesthetically featured “A fine red line, a crack of the whip”.


Artist Statement

Priyanka Jain

My first encounter with saffron was maybe at the age of seven. The chef of a cooking show on television used saffron for every dish he made. Afterwards my cousin and I while playing “ kitchen-kitchen”, would imitate the cook and say, “now we shall add these few strands of saffron that we have previously soaked in lukewarm water, to give this dish a wonderful aroma”. In India, I have frequently tasted saffron in weddings and religious festivities and at home when we had guests.

As an artist I encountered saffron when I travelled from India to Germany to pursue higher education. My mother had given me a box of two grams saffron (Spanish quality) to survive the cold winters by consuming it with warm milk (an Ayurvedic recipe). The Germans know very little about saffron – that it is very expensive and is used in cake recipes to make a yellow cake. Suddenly between two cultures the saffron acquired new meanings. It became symbolic of the various conflicts, discomforts, distortions, questions of identity, migration, assimilation and reconcilliation of knowledge that a traveller faces. It was as if not I but the saffron that had left one land and entered another. But saffron has already experienced migration centuries ago.

To pursue my interest, I undertook a journey from southern Germany to the heart of Spain, to a small village called Minaya, where Antonio and Maria Angeles Serrano have a saffron farm. They plant their own saffron bulbs and are presently the only saffron farmers in this village, where previously there used to be many. In the first week of November, 2012 amidst heavy rains and abundant yield, I participated in the entire process of the harvest.


Before daybreak, the labourers, each with a wicker basket in his hand, stand between three rows of saffron plants and with a slight jerk pick out all the flowers that have bloomed. The flowers are picked up before bees mix the pollen dust with the stigmas. Antonio is on the field, supervising. At around ten o‘clock, Maria comes to weigh the flowers. Each labourer transfers his pick from his basket into a plastic sack with his name written on it, which is then weighed in pounds and recorded in a book. When it rains, the farmers pay for the extra rainwater that is also in the flowers.


By eleven o’ clock, the picked flowers are brought to a hall laid out with long tables where almost half the village has assem- bled, and the flowers are spread out like a violet serpent. Old men, lots of housewives and a few young girls briskly pick out the threads, keeping the three strands attatched at the base. Each person has a thermocol tray in which he drops the bright red, 4 – 5 centimeter long stigmas and shoves the rest of the flower under the table. By evening, their feet are covered in mounds of violet petals. When a group has finished removing the threads and there are no more flowers on the table, they cry out “Rossa”, which means flowers. Each picked thread leaves a violet stain on the fingertips.


By nine in the evening, all the stigmas have been picked. The floors are sweeped and tons of saffron petals are put back in the same plastic sacks and dumped back in a corner of the field. The flowers have lived a day on the earth and seen many people. The threads that remain are only one-fifth the weight of the flower. The people hand over their day‘s work to Maria, which is weighed in grams. Before they leave, I ask if I may photograph their stained fingers. They laugh. Maria takes the saffron home for roasting. The house has a sweet honey smell.

Not the smell as when we open a box of saffron. Maria’s mother, who also harvested saffron in the past, sits here inspecting the threads to remove other parts of the flower that have been overlooked. Then the saffron is put in small batches over a fine mesh and toasted over low heat. Soon the straight bright strands start shrivelling, bending, darkening. Again that sweet honey smell. This work goes past midnight. A lot number is assigned to each day’s yield. On rainy days, when lots of mud had entered the flowers, a sample must be sent to the laboratory for grading. They will eventually be packed into one or two gram bottles with three labels – one of them is a Denomination of Origin – La Mancha.

When I reflect upon the saffron harvest, I think it is absurd that so many human hours go into the production of saffron, the flower itself lives for not more than half a day and the dried spice is not more than one-twentieth the weight of the whole flower. But somewhere in a bottle it matures into its essence, that makes it live beyond this one day of production– something very much like art, traveler faces. It was as if not I but the saffron that had left one land and entered another. But saffron has already experienced migration centuries ago.

To pursue my interest, I undertook a journey from southern Germany to the heart of Spain, to a small village called Minaya, where Antonio and Maria Angeles Serrano have a saffron farm. They plant their own saffron bulbs and are presently the only saffron farmers in this village, where previously there used to be many. In the first week of November, 2012 amidst heavy rains and abundant yield, I participated in the entire process of the harvest.