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« Atlas Shrugged (film) (Joe) | Main | Getting old? On the other hand... »

July 27, 2009


A wonderful set of reflections on colour. Thanks. We are always surrounded by colour and its symbols are culturally ordained. Famous American books such as The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick are about "red" and "white." The racist asssociations of Black in the USA may, in turn, encourage us to think about the meaning of colour in Indian contexts. For women, red, white and yellow are highly significant. More suggestions, anyone?


Did you have Indian women in mind for what red, white and yellow signify in their lives? In particular, Indian Hindu women? Or are you including all women? I know what red and white signify for married Hindu women. What does yellow mean other than the somewhat sacred connotation associated with turmeric?

Great post; vexing dilemma. We can thank Mr. Gates for reminding the wide-eyed among us that we are most definitely *not* "post-racial". One of the great luxuries of the privileged is to live in some brand of uncontroverted denial, from the cradle to the grave, and one of the Pyrrhic victories of the underprivileged is to disturb Realty's slumber, from time to time, in the name of having our supposed paranoias confirmed as fact-based. Which leads us to being liked all the less (vide Gates), in an age when being "liked" (vide GW Bush) is everything.

I think it's time to move on from worrying about being "liked" and cultivate the kind of respect that's based on a new kind of fear; not fear of physical violence, or a lawsuit, but the privileged one's fear of being seen as the crass, the primitive, the boorish... the hick or the fool. Let's bring back shame as an agent of social change; it won't work as long as we sigh or whine or beg for attention or help: there must still be a "Right", higher than the Supreme Court's vision of it, which we were able to access once, before it all went to crap during the Reagan years... and I don't mean "God" or that sock-puppet "Christ". Something to do with Pride?

To get back to the Gates affair: that cop should have been too ashamed to arrest, or at least *shamed* over arresting, a professor of Harvard... for back-sassing. How is it that *Obama* was shamed, instead, into all-but-apologizing to the same hot-headed (despite his supposed exquisite training) cop? There is much work to do, I think.

Sukrita :

I don’t normally engage with the subject of color in a philosophical way. Faced with choosing a paint I must reach out to women friends to validate my dubious instincts. I’m sure someone has elaborated on this as being symptomatic of men. The last time I thought about color and culture I was looking at pictures from a family wedding in India. Gazing at all those saris on display in the crush of a wedding hall made me wonder if Indian women weren’t blessed with the widest (and wildest) choice of colors known to mankind. And all it takes is a trip to the sari shop. Indian men, for the most part, are clueless.

Yet our languages don’t have the facility of names for shades. I think English has, through borrowings, become especially rich in this respect – think ecru, fuchsia, mauve, vermilion, cyan, cerulean - I could go on. Moderately literate Hindi speakers may not easily come up with the words for violet, indigo and orange without using ‘the color of …’, and must fall back on English. What can one make of lemon and lime as color descriptors in a language that only recognizes ‘neembu’? What English calls ‘saffron’ is really the color derived from haldi. To my mind, 'saffron' can hardly be equated with ‘kesar’, which in the raw is closer to vermilion in color and must be softened in milk to get the desired shade of 'saffron'. Westerners may be forgiven the misnomer since most don’t know the shade or the flavor of saffron, and woudn't know fresh turmeric from ginger. So the new metaphorical connotations that are giving ‘saffron’ an unsavory tint may be lost on the West.

Who would not deplore the uses of color to promote bigotry? On the other hand color is the gift of nature that makes up for black and white and grey and the weeds in my yard. If you wish the abuses acknowledged, the beauty must be doubly appreciated. New shades may be synthesized in the interest of commerce, but what a boon they are to people; mauve is a good example. The blessings of color in our cultural life outweigh the worst uses mankind puts it to. Color is indeed imbued with pristine innocence – I thank you for those words.

To take the edge off the stark bitterness of Derek Walcott I suggest Federico García Lorca’s tragic-beautiful tribute to the color green (verde) - Romance Sonámbulo - in poem, and in song.

PS :
(1) Rupa Bajwa wasted the opportunity of exploiting the metaphor of color in her novel “The Sari Shop”. What was she thinking?
(2) I don’t know much Hindi music so can’t vouch for the use of color metaphors. They abound in Brazilian music, the famous instance being the theme song used in the film ‘Brazil’ which was bleached in translation, the original being ‘Watercolors of Brazil’. Several other memorable songs come to mind.
(3) Malashri : Black was never a demeaning term in the US. In fact, "Black is beautiful", "Black power", "Black Muslim" etc. are all still in vogue. I continue to use the term, finding African-American a whitewash - sounds like Italian-American but from a different continent. I saw on TV, a the white Mozambican who wants to be recognized as African-American, but is being denied that classification by both blacks and whites. I recognize the logic of his claim but think this hyphenation is just plain stupid. I am Indian for some purposes, American for others, and refuse to be blended.
(4) Steven, aren't you on the wrong page?


"Malashri : Black was never a demeaning term in the US."

Surely you jest. You may never have heard anyone call anyone else a "black nigger" or a "black Sambo" or a "black spasm" in the U.S., but I have heard these phrases, spoken with vehement emphasis on the "black".

"(4) Steven, aren't you on the wrong page?"

I'm responding to the bits in this post about racism. The bits that aren't about racism are beautiful, too, but I have nothing to add to those.

(Please forgive the typo in writing your name... I think the battery in my keyboard needs changing!)

its a wonderful write up which makes us think about the relevance of colour in our existence. It seems that most of the time we paint our lives with artificial colour which we have borrowed from others. Dr Sukrita's personal experience of striping the anglicized culture and replacing it with her own indian culture is just remarkable. i loved reading it
I wish her all the best in all her future endeavors.


'In fact how refreshing it would be if innocence could be recreated, if one could go centuries back in history, cleanse our brains, eliminate genetic memory and regain our ability to see colours in the freshness of their own texture without any baggage of cultural prejudice and meaning.'
freshness of their own texture! did such a thing ever exist? considering that nothing in human perception has an ontological existence - everything exists in contrast to/relation to something else or its human perception, there is no reality outside language.colours too have no existence other than the signification given by language.

very interesting article. hope you post more such pieces.

On the language aspect of this essay - I love Sukrita's metaphor of the forked tongue. While her instincts drove her to discover another English to call her own, mine led me to other languages in which written poetry more easily finds new life in popular song. Till that happened I did not care for poetry and only listened to instrumental music; now lyric and verse are one to me and I am making up for lost time. But not particularly in English.

I read the "The Sea is History" in its entirety and it reminded me of a famous Portuguese poem I first heard read to music. It is "O Navio Negreiro" (The Slave Ship) written by Antonio de Castro Alves at the age of 22, two years before his death. Sukrita might like it ...
in translation
in performance
The latter has some brutally visceral images, some of which Walcott refers to in his poem, and, towards the end, makes a video metaphor out of the colors of the two major slaver countries of the New World.

Many thanks Narayan! I'd love to read "O Navio Negreiro". Where do I get it from?
Language and human perception of reality seem to be so inextricably fused ... it makes me wonder how animals may be perceiving/ understanding "colour"! What kind of language would they have to recognize colour?

gulon mein rang bhare, baad-e-nau bahaar chaley
chaley bhi aao keh gulshan ka kaarobaar chaley ( Faiz )

chaman mein ikhtilaat -e- rang-o-boo se baat banti hai
humien hum hain,tau kya hum hain,tumien tum ho tau kya tum ho (Sarshaar)


Does anyone else see music as colors?

Ruminating on colour
In India, when an Indian dancer sings for her lover: "Mohe rang de, mohe rang de( Colour me, colour me)" it has a multiplicity of meanings. Apart from a display of affection in the state of trance that the beloved is in, it is also a sensuous love invitation!...for everything! She need not say, colour me red, green or yellow. 'Mohe rang de' is so complete and meaningful!

Ruchira:Yellow is also associated with 'Basant' spring time in India.In addition, the lines that immediately come to my mind are " Mera rang de basanti chola, mai" ( colour my garments yellow , mother!) sing the young martyrs ready to fight for their motherland. So yellow is also symbolic of sacrifice as also the new year in some cases.

Narayan: Do you remember the famous Hindi song in the rich baritone of Amitabh from the 1980's: rang barse, bheege chunar wali, rang barse ...( Oh beautiful maiden with a drenched stole/ it is raining colour! )?
Several medieval Bhakti poet-saints like Kabir and Meera have also used a lot of colour imagery in their poetry.
Ignore the random, speedy translations.

Prem: I do know about the significance of yellow with respect to spring (Basant) and the sacrifice of martyrs. That is a universal association irrespective of gender. I thought Malashri meant that yellow has some special meaning for women. I could not think of anything other than turmeric and the ritual application of turmeric water and paste during wedding ceremonies in some parts of India.

Louise: My co-blogger Dean may have synesthesia. But I will let him confirm in case he is reading.

A few fleeting responses to this kaleidoscopic discussion... It is impossible to "perceive [colors or anything else] phenomenologically and [to] present them with pristine innocence." A pristinely innocent view of anything would be, I imagine, horrifying, anyway. That said, I enjoy Pamuk's texture/symbol distinction, since I tend to view color--especially in paintings--as texture, promising a tactile at least as much as a visual sensation. (The White Castle? What's that, a book about a burger stand?) I raced through the National Portrait Gallery and part of the Museum of American Art on Sunday. Color, volume, heft, grain, weave...the textures were ravishing. I especially liked the slight hint of deteriorating latex in the Duane Hanson installation of a woman at her table having lunch.

I don't see music as colors, but I taste it as flavors. Prokofiev, for instance, likes to drizzle vinegar over some of his most lyrical passages.

For Dean:

I also taste certain music. Some violins sounds taste like raisins.


A wonderful image. At the museum on Sunday I viewed a Duchamp exhibition, including some of Man Ray's photographs. I had forgotten the fur teacup was Oppenheim's. I would have guessed Ray.

Raisins. Rosin. Resin. Retsina.

Prem : Thanks.
My contact with everything Hindi is tenuous and goes back to high-school in the 50s. The only song that came to mind was "Mai rangeela pyar ka rahee / Duur meri manzil". In that era language and music were two separate entities to me, and lyrics were meaningless
I looked up 'chunar' and found it associated with red. The word brought back vague memories of a poem(?) called 'choona-ghati', a satire on the more famous 'haldi-ghati' - a far-fetched color connection.

Note: Many of our readers (and some of my co-bloggers) do not understand Hindi / Urdu. My request to those who are referring to Indian words in their comments: please translate if possible for the benefit of everyone.

I am delighted that the well known poet and lyricist Gulzar visited us here. I understand most of the Urdu lines he has used in his comment but not all. If someone can translate them accurately, I would appreciate that.

here is the essence of what I had put forth earlier in the two coupletes:

" Come-
that the flowers get filled with colours
and the breeze get its sway
Come that the garden resumes its conventions "
( Faiz)
It's the diversity of colors and fragrances
that matter in the garden
It matters little, if there be, only you or me only.
( Sarshaar )


Thank you Gulzar Saab, for the translation and for visiting us.

Hope to see again here when Sukrita sends me another piece for publication!

Gulzar has given the translation in his blogsite. wonder if u saw it.

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