The Happy Colours of Holi

The Happy Colours of Holi

Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, issued a statement a few minutes ago:

“Today, we join Hindu communities in Canada and around the world to celebrate Holi.

“Also known as the Festival of Colours, Holi marks the arrival of spring. It is a time to celebrate peace, renew and strengthen friendships, and look to the new season ahead with optimism and joy. It is also an opportunity to reflect on the traditional notions of good and evil and the triumph of light over darkness.

“On this occasion, family and friends will sing and dance, share seasonal delicacies, and paint each other with brightly coloured powders and dyes.

“Holi is one of the most celebrated festivals in South Asia, and in many parts of the world. Here in Canada, these celebrations are a reminder that diversity and inclusion build stronger and more vibrant communities. They are also an opportunity to recognize the important contributions Canadians of Hindu faith make to our country every day.

“On behalf of the Government of Canada, Sophie and I wish a fun, colourful, and joyous festival to everyone celebrating.

“Holi Hai!”

Even as the world’s neural laboratories explore, explain and argue about the science of the art of colours, the Indian festival of colours – Holi is being celebrated with much enthusiasm world over.

21st century Neuroaesthetics, which seeks to bring scientific objectivity to art was pioneered by Vilayanur S Ramachandran, a medical doctor originally from Tamil Nadu and now Head of the Center for Brain and Cognition at UCSD (University of Califorina, San Diego) and author of the path breaking book, Phantoms in the Brain. His influential theoretical perspectives in visual neuroaesthetics help understand how people perceive colour.

Colours have moods and create moods, as we saw in Inside Out, one of the world’s most popular animations of all time, where teenager Riley’s emotions are controlled in the ‘headquarters’ of her brain. The movie is about five emotions: yellow for joy, blue for sadness, red for anger, purple for fear, and green for disgust and by the end of the movie, the colours mix in multi-coloured swirls of bhava.

Wonder whether the producers of Inside Out have heard of Bharata’s Natyashastra. Bharata Muni proposed Navarasa (nine emotions) in his treatise Natyasastra, between 200 BCE and 200 CE, in human beings in response to situations they face. Each rasa, according to Natyashastra, has a presiding deity and a specific nuanced colour.

In Natyashastra, all these nine emotions have been connected with colours that signify all emotions or rasas. The aura of a frightened person is black, and the aura of an angry person is red. The nine colours that signifies each emotions are Green (Shringara, Love), White (Hasya, Laughter), Grey (Karuna, Compassion), Red (Roudra, Anger), Orange (Veera), Black (Bhayanaka, terror), Blue (Bheebhatsya, Disgust), Yellow (Adbutha, Surprise) and Perpetual White (Shantha, Peace).

Even a cursory understanding of colour in Indian culture, psychology and art shows that they are really the precursors to much of the scientific explorations happening in neurology labs today.

Kanada's Vaisheshika Sutras dating to 6th century to 2nd century BCE, describe six fundamental categories (padartha) associated with reality each of which is further subdivided into 17 qualities (guna), one of which is colour (rupa) (Ref: Bhaskar Anand and Umesh Kumar Das). Of colour, Kanada says: Colour is the joint effect of many colours.

The Nyaya system or darshana of Indian philosophy, emphasising logic and epistemology was formally written by Gautama in the 3rd Century BC. Gautama’s says a colour is perceived only when it abides in many things intimately and possesses obviousness (Bhaskar Anand and Umesh Kumar Das).

In the Brihamatsamhita, Varhmihir, an Indian astronomer, mathematician and astrologer speaks of the rainbow as the dispersion of light through the atmosphere. “The multi-coloured ray of the Sun, being dispersed in cloudy sky, are seen in the form of bow, which is called the Rainbow.”

Tourists to India cannot but be moved by the Indian cities which have their own colours especially in North West India. All of us know that the three cities which draw a lot of traffic are Jaipur, the Pink City; Jodhpur, the Blue City; and Jaisalmer, the Golden City.

Holi in Utah, United States

Holi in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Holi in Malaysia

Holi in Russia

Victoria Finlay, the author of the 2014 book The Brilliant History of Color in Art, had stayed in Himalayan India and experienced Holi which she wrote about in an essay for the Smithsonian. She writes: “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 colourful places on the planet.”

Apart from the blue of Krishna and Shiva, she talks about Indigo which literally means ‘Indian’ or ‘from India’. Nearly 5,000 years ago our ancestors invented the blue dye derived from the Indigofera Tinctoria plant to dye their clothes.

She talks about James Lewis, an archaeologist who was among the first to discover the Harappa and Mohenjadaro sites in North India. He described the discovery in his book Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan and the Panjab. While the site was being excavated, they discovered a small piece of fibre attached to a silver vase.

“The fibre 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 colour as modern India is,” writes Victoria.

Today, as Holi is celebrated around the world, Victoria gives a peak into why the world is crazy about this festival. “On the surface, they (colours) provide pleasure as well as useful signals of tradition and ritual. But if we’re attentive, colours 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.”