Rang: Living In Colour

The sentiment of colours, from nature and language to culture

What is it with India and colour? From deity-filled temples to rainbow-hued saris, India’s colours are vivid and supersaturated. These hues represent the colour of life, the actual chromatic hues that make our rocky planet a living world. And somewhere between the blue of water and the green of the land, these colours are intimate revelations of an energy field…they are waves with mathematically precise lengths, and they are deep, resonant mysteries with boundless subjectivity.

But the palette goes into overdrive once a year for the festival of Holi in the Hindu lunar month of Phalguna.

We Speak in Colour

In India, colours challenge language to encompass them. They bear the metaphors of our culture. From the vibrant glow of Gulaal to the deep, earthy textures of Jodhpur blues, they convey every sensation from love to ecstasy. A vermillion, for instance, marks the land of a woman deity who controls the soft desert rain. Flowers use colours ruthlessly for mating. Moths steal them from their surroundings and disappear. An octopus communicates by colour. Humans imbibe colours as antidotes to emotional monotony. Our lives, when we pay attention to light, compel us to empathise with colour.

It’s All In The Name

It has been shown that the words for colours enter evolving languages in this order, nearly universally: black, white, and red, then yellow and green, with green covering blue until blue comes into itself. Once blue, the colour of the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Andaman, is acquired, it eclipses green. Green manifests into turquoise, the is-it-blue-or-is-it-green colour. Despite the complexities of colour names even in the same language, we somehow make sense of another person’s references. We know colour as a perceptual “truth” that we imply and share without its direct experience, like feeling pain in a phantom limb or in another person’s body.

Colours Tell Our Stories

Within every colour lies a story, and stories are the binding agent of culture — especially in India. Here, the intoxication with colour, sometimes subliminal, often fierce, may express itself as a profound attachment to our rituals. From traditions to cooking spices, from clothes to room decor — the meanings of colours in Indian culture are rooted deep in religion, but they continue to influence people’s conscious and subconscious decision-making in their everyday lives. One of the most prominent representations of colour in Indian culture is Holi. Our palette goes into overdrive once a year during this time, better known as the Hindu lunar month of Phalguna.

 The festival is celebrated with great vigour in the villages, especially those around Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna. Holi is also associated with the Divine Dance known as Raas Lila staged by Lord Krishna for the benefit of his devout gopis. Other than this, it’s also associated with the Holika-Hiranyakashipu-Prahlada episode, Lord Shiva’s killing of Kamadeva and the story of the ogress Dhundhi. In most of these stories, good defeats the evil forces and Holi is a part of the resulting celebration that follows. It’s boisterous and welcomes the change of season. It’s a celebration of the thrumming promise of spring. The birds sing, and God helps us, we sing, too.