The most common colors on the market are the kind you cannot name, the not quite blues, not quite grays and the not quite yellows that are used only for background and referred to as neutral colors, camouflage, “civilized colors,” or secondary colors. Amid these secondary colors, there are splashes of enigmatic brilliance and coy allure, like the sun of another world shining on one’s body. But I always feel that even these splashes are never enough, like Van Gogh, who always bemoaned that his colors were not strong enough, until he painted sunflowers suffused in the intense sunlight of southern France and was finally compelled to pile colors on top of one another in such staggering amounts that layers of oil paint began to protrude from the canvas, transforming painting into a kind of sculpture. Written on Water, Eileen Chang.
I can’t wear these wishy-washy English colours with my sarees. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay.
Returning to India the first thing your eyes drink in is the colours in the market, a change from racks and racks of civilised and fashionable “neutrals” in many parts of the world. But the Indian love affair with colours is not a simple matter of a love of bright colours or a fixation on certain colours (Pink is the Navy Blue of India!).
Of course we have colours that dominate since they are auspicious (e.g. red. green, yellow). And we have a history of colours thatwere considered classic or fashionable (e.g. MS Blue, Chandrakala aka the midnight blue-black of Paithanis, the red and white checks of Orissa’s pasapalli). But the market is rarely restricted to a few colours, both colour and pattern are varied and combined in many different ways.
Having said that the simplest kind of sari worn in India up until the polyester explosion and the use of synthetic dyes was off white or what may be called a sandalwood colour. However in almost all parts of India such a sari would have a coloured border and its pallu or free end would have at least a few woven motifs. Further it could be worn with a printed or embroidered blouse (or even a petticoat) to dress it up a bit. And almost always ornaments or bright blooms set off such saris. But India’s rich dyeing history also meant that our woven and printed cloth used colour abundantly and well.
In cultures that used to use colour extensively (e.g. hanboks), it was often employed in a regulated and symbolic manner. Modern culture which often draws on Western aesthetics strictly regulates colour – as an e.g. a single colour dominates the entire life cycle of a fashion trend as shown in The Devil Wears Prada.
For the most part the Indian use of colour is however freer than elsewhere in the world. Partly this is because our weaves can range from the simple off white to the satrangi (7 colour) leheriya to the shaded weaves like ganga-jamuna (rivers) or dhoop-chaon (light and shadow) to much more. Further you can play with colour in parts of the sari e.g. the border, the pleats, the pallu.
Saris can also have further additions as with Assam’s mekhela chadar where borders are sold separately or as with the current border styles for sari. As an e.g. a few months ago I was in a slightly downmarket part of Mumbai. Polyester saris, most from Surat mills, are sold on the pavement for as little as Rs 100. These saris come in many patterns and colours. Alongside are sold sari borders embellished with velvet, sequins, zari and so on. Each woman can therefore create her own sari deciding on the patterns and colours pleasing to her eye.
A further individualisation of the garment of course comes through the blouse which can be matched or contrasted as desired by the wearer. An additional colour effect therefore takes place.
Similar variations can be seen in the three piece garments we use like the chudidar-kurta, the salwar kameez or the ghaghra choli. You can play with colour in each component of the attire and in the way you bring it together. Further such combinations are not restricted by the requirement of pure colour or colour blocking, prints in various colours are freely mixed.
So in a way we cannot be reduced to a single colour like pink, perhaps that is best left to Western fashion aesthetics. Sometimes we cannot have enough and pile it on like van Gogh’s sunflowers to dazzling effect, sometimes we rely on our folk art that often uses a satrangi palette (red, green, yellow, purple, orange, dark blue, and white) combining it in different ways. Whichever route we choose our garments require us to bring together disparate elements harmoniously hence colour persists in India as opposed to neutrals. There are no specific rules here, no Colour Theory 101…..but every Indian woman also knows the rules and how colours and patterns can be made to come together:).
PS: Not to exclude men – there are splendid examples of the use of colour in male costumes in India – but in post-Independence India it is not that common. Where they exist they tend to be traditional wear or “tapori” styles so it is a little hard to break down the components.
PPS: Eileen Chang is one of the most astute writers on clothing – her essay quoted here is an ode to colours and also Japanese fabrics.