Two friends play in the color-soaked mud in Mathura City, India
From red to green to indigo, each color provides festival-goers with a sense of beauty, ritual and tradition. If you land in India anytime in late February or March, it’s wise to check the dates of the annual Holi festival, and bring a spare set of clothes. That’s because for a few days in spring, people crowd the streets and splash brilliantly colored dyes on anyone walking by. It’s hard to avoid the fun—and paint—unless you stay inside or look menacing enough to discourage the custom …
Holi represents the arrival of spring and the triumph of good over evil. It is also said to be the enactment of a game the Hindu god Lord Krishna played with his consort Radha and the gopis, or milkmaids. The story represents the fun and flirtatiousness of the gods but also touches on deeper themes: of the passing of the seasons and the illusory nature of the material world … With its gorgeous textiles, exotic flowers, exuberant advertising billboards, hand-painted rickshaws and trucks covered with lights, patterns and brightly painted pictures of gods, India is one of the most colorful places on the planet.
But there’s something else to know about colors here. They are not just pretty: In India they have meaning … In Hinduism there are three main deities: Brahma the creator, Shiva the destroyer and Vishnu the preserver.
Vishnu spends eternity sleeping, until when called upon in a crisis, he wakes and like the most powerful of superheroes saves the world. One name for him is Nilakantha, the blue-necked one, because of a story that he drank a pot of poison to save creation. So BLUE is a reminder that evil exists but can be contained, through courage and right actions.
Krishna is a manifestation of Vishnu. His name means “dark,” and like Vishnu he is portrayed with blue skin … In addition to being associated with the gods, blue—through the indigo dye—is also historically linked with India.
If blue is the spiritually complex color of the gods, GREEN is the color of nature and happiness. It’s the color of another manifestation of Vishnu, Prince Rama, who spent most of his life in exile in the forest. In Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh in central India, married women often wear green bangles and a green sari in Rama’s honor … There is no naturally green dye in India, so dyers would often double dip their cottons and silks in indigo and in turmeric or pomegranate peel, which made vivid yellow dyes.
YELLOW is also associated with the third caste, of Vaisyas, or merchants. The 3,500-year-old Rig Veda book of sacred hymns refers to Lord Vishnu as tantuvardhan, or weaver, because he is said to have woven the rays of the sun into a garment for himself. He and Krishna are almost always shown dressed in yellow. In paintings of these deities, artists in India sometimes used one of the stranger pigments in history: Indian yellow … Through the 18th and 19th centuries, wooden boxes of this strange-scented pigment would arrive at the London docks. When the colormen, whose job was to process and sell paint to artists, picked up the deliveries, they had little idea of how it was made or what it was. Just that it made a fairly good watercolor, even though it was rubbish in oil.
And then there is RED … the ruins of Mohenjo Daro, in what was then northern India … the Indus Valley … the world’s largest Bronze Age urban settlement … a team of archaeologists did a thorough excavation and, among the artifacts, discovered a fragment of cotton fiber stuck to an ancient silver vase. The fiber most likely had been bright red—or perhaps bright orange or deep purple—and had been dyed from the root of the madder plant … Woven 4,300 years ago, it is the oldest piece of decorated cotton cloth ever found. Its presence, together with dye vats from a similar period found nearby, joyfully suggests that ancient India must have been as full of brilliant color as modern India is.
“Color is a physical thing: It’s not just a surface,” said the British artist Anish Kapoor in a BBC interview, in explaining his bold use of primary colors. “… It’s that sort of interplay between the ‘stuffness’ of color and its illusory, somewhat evasive, ‘other’ qualities that much of the work is about.”
You might say something similar about how colors work in India. On the surface, they provide pleasure as well as useful signals of tradition and ritual. But if we’re attentive, colors in India also remind us of that which is easy to forget: the evasive nature of matter, and of our own special relationship with light, whatever that light may be.
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