A sharp look at the growing visibility of saffron everywhere – from zebra crossings in Western India to elections in the east. A thought provoking essay by Rini Barman.
Colour, colour, which colour do you choose? How many of you remember this catchy line from a silly paper game we would play as kids? Little folds of paper secretly destined to be fortune tellers. You will become Miss World/ You will meet Harry Potter/ Trip to wonderland. Today,I may not be able to make up my mind at all and there is a chance that the colours I love are not even included in the game.
Empirical data also shows that children who are passionate about colours, sketch-pens, crayons, fabric are asked to concentrate more on their studies lest he/she meet with an early career crisis. I was told in my art class that we abandon colours for shading pencils as we grow older. So a kid who would draw a colourful riverside would instead draw a portrait of boring vegetables on a table—a black and white “still life”. This is a coming-of-age story, the elders say. With time, we must be able to confront the darker shades within us. I suspect that this distinction, apart from being an artistic one is motivated by social politics. If Krishna and Kali were dark-skinned and they are painted blue in most popular incarnations, it hints at a society with rigid connotations about the colour of one’s skin.
The point is, once a colour is imprisoned with a singular meaning, it loses its fluidity. This process cages individuals and their dreams. In Jan 2016, some of my friends from Assam, inclined by scientific reasoning, were witnesses to strangely coloured rainbows. They concurred it was a result of some weather disturbances. The outer layer of the rainbow had a water-colour tinge of saffron, quite a rare occurrence. Very few have the time to speculate on meteorology when the state was gearing up for a harvest festival. Bright jaggery filled ladoos, diverse homemade sweets, curd, fish, mutton and so many colourful recipes to behold. But, unlike a decade ago, when the blue, green, red or yellow held diverse meanings, a single colour—saffron has now eclipsed all colours leaving no scope for any interface. The fields, crops, city hoardings and the roads have never seen so much of this colour before. The war of colours has begun.
Known as Bhagwa, Gerua or Kesariya in north India, its invasion into the northeast didn’t come through the route of the kitchen. Common recipes here do not use saffron as a key ingredient. This year, as the festival of colour approaches, a local rumour tells us that markets will only sell shades of saffron. How shall we break this sad news to the lovers that stare at the bright twilight at Machkhowa Chowk? They have continually been framed by families as enemies of love. An omnipresent army of saffronised folk keep waiting for these couples; nobody knows who orders them to do so. They play a different kind of Holi throughout the year where pichkaris and water balloons spray only red colours.
Other incidents like the one about saffron zebra-crossings in Ahmedabad further reinforce my observations. A Delhi publication stated: “A top police officer, after being informed about it, said, ‘This is laughable as saffron doesn’t reflect in the dark. It must have been done in ignorance’.”
In some newly-crowded cities like Dispur, saffron-coloured public property may not be a laughable matter at all. For example, the saffron hoardings here carry tall claims about the onset of development in the region. If you care to bend a little bit more, all you see are muddy roads, traffic jams and betelnut spit. A local bus conductor, going to Narengi (some say, it used to be the hub of oranges once) was asked a similar question by a woman: “Why is the city suddenly all orange in colour?”
No easy answers, now, are there? The other counterpart to the all-pervasive saffron is its popular brand of purity, swachhata as it is called. Colours of soil, rainfall, smog, flowers, herbs, vegetables and even colour pencils too, had to be 100% pure. One of the funniest instances of swachhata can be found on covers of aphrodisiacs—“100% country made product with great zest and zeal to make the country strong”. Ahem.
This winter I asked Pehi, the mother of a newborn, “Summer is almost here, how many boxes of Holi colours have you brought this time?” She said, “Sob loi ahisu. Eta rongere rajniti he khelibo pari, Holi nuwari” (I brought all colours, with a single colour you can only play the game of politics, not Holi). Thereafter, as we chatted, she told me that a small shop nearby “Sudha Dairy” was coaxing her to buy a packet of Potonjoli milk. They claimed it was the ‘purest’. I am not joking when I recall Pehi who retorted “Accha, is it purer than my breast milk too?”
Legends have it that saffron is the colour of fire, a natural force which can cleanse all dirt of the cosmos, to make it pure. Tales of Sita and Sati reverberate across Indian myths as having proven pure by fire. However, for the modern-day Sati/Sita figures, like the eight-month pregnant woman in Nalasopara who threw herself into fire because of dowry pressures, swachhata took away their precious lives. Alternatively, they may have found that the colour of fire is black and grey, because they were the ones to have been burnt down into ashes.
In my damp mohalla in Delhi, colour-defining Babas often pay a visit, and their saffron rains have cast a very unique rainbow. Late night noisy jagratas spreading celibate messages far and abound.
On the next day, a small corner of your newspaper carries a story that these self-proclaimed sages have grabbed peasant land in places like Chirang district of Assam. So, it is not only the colour of sweets, rainbows and skin that is in danger but greenery too. And if that happens, we might not be able to differentiate green crops from saffron crops. A lot of farmers have been pressurised to switch on to herbs and plants arbitrarily chosen as pure to aid the doctrine of Made in Bharat, while local grains are dying out very fast. Will the poor eat colours, then?
I suggest this Holi, we give colour imperialism a thought, maybe use self-righteous colours in a way that can smear them to their poton (meaning destruction in Assamese),- indeed a Potonjoli.
Thinking of which, I am distracted by the rainbow usually drawn by children in their Art classes on white A4 sheets. In a toddler’s life, rainbows are the first stepping stones to grasping the real world—it’s garish shades in a never-ending chase for owning the spectrum. I often wonder if we would be a better race if stories were taught to children through the medium of colours instead of words. And not colours in the singular.