The nonspecific ability of anaerobic sludge bacteria obtained from cattle dung slurry was investigated for 17 different dyes in a batch assay system using sealed serum vials. Experiments using Reactive Violet 5 (RV 5) showed that sludge bacteria could effectively decolorize solutions having dye concentrations up to 1000 mg l−1 with a decolorization efficiency of above 75% during 48 h of incubation. Headspace gas composition of anaerobic batch systems for varying dye concentration revealed that lower concentrations of RV 5 (upto 500 mg l−1) were found to be stimulatory to the methanogenic activity of sludge bacteria. However at higher dye concentrations, the headspace gas composition was found to be similar to batch assay controls without dye, indicating that dye at higher concentrations was inhibitory to methanogenic bacteria of sludge. The optimum inoculum and incubation temperature for maximum decolorization of RV 5 was found to be 9.0 g l−1 (in terms of total solids) and 37°C, respectively. Of sixteen other dyes tested, nine (Reactive Black 5, Reactive Blue 31, Reactive Blue 28, Reactive Red HE8B, Reactive Yellow, Reactive Golden Yellow, Mordant Orange, Novatic Olive R S/D & Navilan Yellow GL) were decolorized with more than 88% efficiency; three (Orange II, Navy Blue HER & Novatic Blue BC S/D) were decolorized with about 50–65% efficiency, whereas other three dyes (Procion Orange H2R, Procion Brilliant Blue HGR & Novatic Blue BC S/D) were decolorized with less than 40% efficiency. Though Ranocid Fast Blue was decolorized with about 92.5% efficiency, this was merely due to sorption, whereas the other dyes were decolorized due to biotransformation.