‘Tints of history and culture’: A romp through the deeper significance of colours

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It may only be a phenomenon of the electromagnetic spectrum, as analysed by our eyes and brain, but given how much we rely on our sense of sight, colour is a vital element of how we perceive objects, and negotiate our world, while its varied palettes also play a major role in fashioning identities and influence our emotions and thinking.

Even before Sir Issac Newton demonstrated their origin in a beam of light, colours, outstripping the traditional VIBGYOR, have defined human understanding of the world, right from the natural one we are born into to the social one we have constructed ourselves (and still do).

We still judge many things by this standard (including humans), can pledge ourselves to a single colour, or a combination thereof, of our flags and banners, and the concept is abundantly found in our vocabulary to depict ourselves too – “shown his true colours”, “red-hot fury”, “feeling blue”, “green-eyed monster” (jealousy) or simply “green” (inexperience), “yellow streak” (cowardice) and so on. Also, the names of various colours are some of the most mellifluous in the languages – especially English, which had adapted many from other tongues – crimson, azure, turquoise, emerald, mauve and so on.

And then the drive for manufactured colours, to augment those we get naturally, is a microcosm of human history, covering ingenuity, enterprise – and exploitation (remember the Indigo Revolt in Bengal in the late 1850s and the Champaran satyagraha of 1917 related to the forcible indigo plantation for the dye it yielded).

Colours, though they are a visual frame of reference, have a long pedigree in history – not to mention riveting histories, and hence, have inspired books which seek to depict their various shades (pun intended), either singly or severally. Let’s look at some of these – from those dealing with the subject overall to those dealing with single hues.

Victoria Finlay’s “Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox” (2002, or “Color: a Natural History of the Palette” (2003) in the US), a combination of a travelogue and narrative history, is an informative, though slightly meandering, account of the history of the colours of the rainbow and how paints came to be invented, discovered, traded and used.

Finlay, who reveals she first became fascinated with colours when she was eight, and her father showed her the stained glass in Chartres cathedral and explained how the blue glass was made 800 years ago but couldn’t be made like that anymore, said that she gave up her job as arts editor at The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong to write the book which takes her from then Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to the Australian outback, and from China to Britain.

Starting with ochre, used by Neolithic hunters, she moves to black and brown, where she sketches the origins of charcoal, pencil, and ink drawing instruments, and then white, she traverses the rest of the VIBGYOR spectrum in reverse order.

In the same vein is indefatigable science writer Philip Ball’s “Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour” (2012), who seeks to answer where the colour in art, as inspiring and uplifting as in life, comes from to charting the discoveries and developments that have led to the many-splendoured rainbow of modern paints.

Beginning with a lucid discourse on the science of colour and visual perception, Ball, in a slightly rambling and bit Euro-centric book, goes on to describe the materials which artists throughout history have had at their disposal, how they were produced, and how it was not just the artists’ needs but progress in industrial processes such as dyeing, mining that resulted in availability of new pigments.

“The Secret Lives of Colour ” (2016) by British freelance journalist Kassia St Clair, is meant for those who would seek more visual accompaniment while chronicling the story from “scarlet women to imperial purple, from the brown that changed the way battles were fought to the white that protected against the plague, from kelly green to acid yellow” in how the singular stories of colour run through human history.

With each chapter on a particular colour has the margins dyed in the particular shade – from gamboge (yellow) to heliotrope (purple) to verdigris (green) under discussion, St Clair says that her work is not intended to be “an exhaustive history” as she breaks down her account into 75 shades from broad colour families while including some “black, brown and white that are not part of the spectrum as defined by Sir Issac Newton”. And within each family, she has “picked out individual shades with particularly fascinating, important or disturbing histories”.

But when it comes to particular colours, French medieval historian and Western symbology expert Michel Pastoureau is the unquestioned authority – though his range of reference is largely the European society. In the lavishly-produced and illustrated books, he does not only give a historical review of a colour’s use through the millennia, but also a psychological and sociological examination of how the colour came to represent what it does/did in different eras.

Beginning with “Blue: The History of a Color (2001)”, where he shows how the colour – almost absent from ancient art – picked up interest to become one of the favourite down the millenia, as is reflected in possibly the single-most popular apparel globally (blue jeans), he then moved to “Black: The History of a Color” (2008).

Here, Pastoureau dwells how the colour – declared no colour at all by Newton – has been favoured by priests and penitents, artists and ascetics, fashion designers and fascists as it depicts strongly contradicting ideas: authority and humility, sin and holiness, wealth and poverty, and not the least, good and bad.

“Green: The History of a Color” (2014) shows the changing interpretation of the colour — long associated with nature – down the ages, including when it was associated with ill health, and other times, with its more usual representation of life and renewal.

“Red: The History of a Color” (2016) tells how the colour transformed from a position of privilege – including serving as the word for colour in several languages – to being seen as indecent, immoral and luxurious, to revitalising itself to mark progressive and left-wing movements, and finally, “Yellow: A History of a Color” (2019), Pastoureau moves beyond Europe to East Asia, India, Africa, and South America, to tell the entrancing story of its evolving place in art, religion, fashion, literature, and science.

There are many more dealing in more detail with some primary colours.

In “A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire” (2006) Amy Butler Greenfield recounts how the discovery in Mexico by the Spanish Empire of cochineal, a crushed insect dye which yielded a never before seen brilliant red colour, and the efforts to keep its origin a secret led to empire building, piracy, espionage, scientific advancements (and infighting), as well as the colour’s connotations through history

Catherine E. McKinley’s “Indigo: In Search of the Colour That Seduced the World” (2012) also shows how the precious dye created problems for another part of the world – as she traces its relationship to the infamous trans-Atlantic slave trade, apart from its influence on fashion, and its spiritual significance.

A work more akin to Pastoureau on this shimmering shade is Catherine Legrand’s “Indigo: The Color That Changed The World” (2013).

Then Simon Garfield’s “Mauve – How One Man Invented a Colour That Changed the World” (2002) justifies its title as it shows how the accidental lab creation of 18-year-old chemistry student William Pekrin, who was trying to synthesise artificial quinine, in the mid-1850s totally changed the spheres of both dyemaking and fashion, broke down the barriers between pure and applied science, and gave birth to industrial chemistry.

Ellen Meloy’s “Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky” (2003) is spell-binding look into what the colour – and the gem – mean to us.

There are many more but reading any of these shows how colours, which most of us take for granted, have had significance for us. (IANS)



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