India has always been a country of colour; from the vibrant hues of our market places and the diverse palettes of our natural landscapes, to our colourful festivals and the vivid shades of the clothes we wear. In South India, traditional colours are deeply entrenched in the cultural fabric of our lives, their symbolism closely tied to what shades we wear on different occasions. The colours of the kanjivaram in particular hold immense importance – each one drawing from daily life and representing a mood or having historical and religious significance.
In this first edition of Varna Sutra, we turn to the colour green or ‘Haritha‘ in Sanskrit. Green, the colour of life, comes alive in a myriad shades on the lush silks of the kanjivaram. It was one of the essential colours of the ancient craft, at a time before synthetic dyes came to Kanchipuram. The colour has always been associated with fertility and new life, evoking a sense of freshness and positivity.
There are no colours more versatile or closer to nature than ‘haritha’ – the various shades ranging from brilliant jewel tones to soft pastel hues – and it is a delight to see the dyer’s nomenclature for the various shades of green in Tamil, drawing from daily life, food and culture….
- Elakkai Pachai – the light shade of green which takes its colour from cardamom pods
- Ilai Pachai – the vivid colour of chlorophyll in leaves
- Kili Pachai – the vibrant colour of parrots.Kamakshi, the prime deity of Kanchipuram is represented with a parrot in her hand. She embodies the autonomy of nature, depicted holding symbols associated with Kama, the god of love. She holds the sugarcane bow, arrows made of flowers, and a parrot
- Manthulir – a stunning “green-red” colour which symbolises the onset of summer, and best describes the beauty of tender mango leaves
- Mayil Kazhuthu – a shade which brings together the shimmering blues and greens of a peacock’s neck in the warp and weft
- Paasi pachai – a raw and earthy shade of moss green
- Pon Vandu – the iridescent golden glow of the golden beetle, captured in a shot of green and yellow
- Alli Pachai – the symphony of white and green of water lilies in a pond
- Emerald green – one of the colours in Navarathnams or the traditional nine gems in jewellery, and representing planetary influence; this brilliant green stone is believed to belong to the planet Mercury
- Bottle green – the rich colour of the dark green glass of bottles.
Apart from its ubiquity in nature and our kitchens, the colour green also has a deep auspicious and spiritual connect in the South – consider these beautiful examples –
- Set on the southern banks of the Vaigai river, the Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple is a historic Hindu temple which forms the heart and lifeline of Tamil literature. Here, the deity Meenakshi takes the form of Raja Matangi (a form of the goddess where she is born as the daughter of Sage Mathanga), and she is always represented in a vivid shade of emerald green.
- Meenakshi’s brother is the supreme Narayana, the lord of Azhwars (the Tamil poet saints of the Vaishnavite sect in South India), and is also depicted in green. In a beautiful pasuram (a hymn praising the Lord) – ‘Pacchai Mamalai Pol Meni, Pavalavai Kamala Sengkann’ – penned by Thondarradippodi Azhwar, the Lord is depicted as a green mountain, with red lips and lotus eyes. You can listen to Bombay Jayshri’s melodious rendition here.
- Kanchipuram is home to the temples of ‘Pachai vanna perumal and pavala vanna perumal’ – a twin temple of Divya desam which has an “emerald and coral hued Perumal”.
No wonder South India celebrates green as a philosophy, a concept and a way of life!
Colour is also an element of the auspiciousness or ‘rasi’ of a sari. Alongside green, people choose vermillion, kumkuma arakku and yellow for bridal saris. These drapes must also be complete with a classic korvai border and a grand pallu or ‘thalaippu’ for brides.
The Kanjivaram relies on a careful interplay, and deep understanding of the balance and tension between structure and colour – a typical Kanchipuram silk sari is known for its distinguishing characteristics of bright and contrasting colours in the body and the pallu or thalaippu, and uses structure to highlight and nuance colour play. The Kanjivaram’s distinct structural identity – the way they use two different warps to create different thickness and colour contrasts in the border and body of the sari – form the perfect framework for its use of colour.
This foundation of the importance of structure in form and design flows from the mindset of the Tamil heartland, in its grammar, defining its geographical landscapes (Kurinchi – Mountainous regions; Mullai – Forests; Marutham – Cropland; Neithal – Seashore; Palai – Desert) or even in something as elemental as the ‘pulli kolam’ (the starting point for any kolam design) in which a dotted grid is mapped out prior to the actual kolam form that is finally created, using the grid as reference for symmetry and balance.
In India, colour is everything – it bolsters our ideas, emotions and sensory perceptions, in our food, clothing, paintings and even in the ragas of classical music! A look at the pages of history shows us that colour has always defined our artistic compositions.
Note : This is a blog I had written for Kanakavalli (Varnasutra) Pic Credit : Kanakavalli