Colourful Musings

Have your ever been green with envy when your neighbour traded his run-down Alto for a posh-red Swift? Turned purple with rage when a speeding car liberally splashed your new milk-white shirt with mud?  Felt blue when your best friend left town? Literally seen red when viewing your son’s mark sheet? Felt green around the gills after a roller-coaster ride at the amusement park? Felt in the pink of health suddenly on a bright Saturday morning after a long bout of illness?  Argued till you were blue in the face about the merits of your favourite football team? Been tickled pink when your husband got you flowers for no reason? Been red in the face when you were caught snacking on sweets in the middle of the night? We often use colours to describe our moods and emotions. Ever wondered why?


Colours are visible light energy of certain wavelengths. When the energy of a colour enters our bodies, it stimulates the production of certain hormones and affect a variety of physiological processes. This explains why colour has been found to have such a direct influence on our thoughts, moods, and behaviour. Right from the ancient times, Chinese, Indian, and Tibetan Ayurvedic practitioners have used colour for healing not only emotional and mental but also physical and spiritual ailments. In ancient Egypt, people often immersed themselves in vats of coloured pigment as a curative measure. The ancient Indians believed that each colour is associated with one of the seven chakras of the body, and every colour has its complementary colour. Single colours or combinations of complementary colours can be used to treat imbalances in the chakras or illnesses associated with that bodily region.  However, colours that work for one person need not necessarily be as effective for another person. This is because every human brain reacts differently to colour.


That apart, every culture perceives colour differently. For example, red is the colour of wedding and fertility in India. In China, red is the colour of prosperity, luck and celebrations. In most Asian countries white is the colour of death and mourning. The association of white with death in Eastern cultures could come from the white cloth used to enshroud corpses from ancient ages, for example, in Egyptian mummys. In the western culture, however, white is the colour of purity, as symbolized by the wedding gown. Interestingly, in Celtic myths the Green Man was the God of fertility and the colour green was best choice for a bridal gown. Later early Christians banned the colour because of its pagan associations. In India, married women wear green bangles to denote fertility. Green was a sacred colour to the ancient Egyptians representing the hope and joy of spring. Green is a sacred colour to Muslims because it is associated with heaven. Purple, the colour of mourning for widows in Thailand, was the favourite colour of Queen Cleopatra. In Netherlands, orange is the colour of royalty, while for the Hindus and the Buddhists orange is the colour of renunciation.


Colour also has rich racial undertones. Apartheid is still an ugly reality for many beautiful ‘colored people’. In a world where white skin is still perceived as civilized and beautiful, the lack of it may often bring a sense of inadequacy. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the Indian-American novelist and poet, writes in one of her articles "Born in the USA; Yet the Question ‘Where Are You From?’" how once her five year old son Abhay, after coming back from school was frantically trying to, as he put it, wash away the ‘dirt color’ of his skin. Advertisements for fairness products guarantee that a fairer skin will take the consumer to dreams heights, find her a dream prince or at least a dream job. Fairness products for men now associate fairness with being handsome, instead of the traditional ‘tall, dark and handsome’. In a popular Bengali folk song the singer questions this paradox: ‘If dark is evil, why lament oh Mother, when your hair turns white?’ A young African in the poem nominated by the UN as the best poem of 2006 tries to make sense of the ‘white world’.


When I born, I black

When I grow up, I black     

When I go in Sun, I black     

When I scared, I black     

When I sick, I black     

And when I die, I still black   


 And you white fellow     

When you born, you pink     

When you grow up, you white   

When you go in sun, you red   

When you cold, you blue     

When you scared, you yellow   

When you sick, you green     

And when you die, you gray     

And you calling me colored??


A host of other colourful associations crowd my mind, some personal, some cultural…but I shall leave them for another day and wait to hear your stories instead.

 Soumi Basu is an editor at Oxford University Press (OUP), India.





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