Colour, light & darkness

Print edition : January 24, 2014

JOSE SARAMAGO’S riveting novel Blindness, written in 1995, opens with cars waiting at a traffic light. When the light turns from red to amber to green, the car at the head of the line does not move. As it turns out, the driver has, suddenly, inexplicably, lost his sight. Blindness rapidly spreads like a virus in the city and we are sucked into a dystopia of the unseeing. Imagine, instead, that the driver did not go blind, but that his colour references were suddenly all jumbled up and thrown out of sync, so that he saw green instead of red or amber instead of green, or any other colour at random instead of these three colours. Imagine a colour riot of a virus taking hold of the population. It would be the setting for anarchy of a different, seeing, kind.

What you see, or, as in the Saramago plot, do not see, need not be all what you get. What you name may get to be what you see, as in the case of another traffic light, this time outside fiction. Guy Deutscher, in his recent work Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, notes that the green or “go” traffic light in Japan has a bluish tint. It was not, he says, always so. In the 1930s, when these lights were imported from the United States, they were the same green as elsewhere. But the Japanese word for green, “ao”, was also the word for blue and in time became more applicable to blue than to green. Green came to be known by another term, “midori”. However, “ao” continued to be used to characterise freshness and, Deutscher explains, “in common parlance the go light was dubbed ‘ao shingoo’, perhaps because the three primary colours on Japanese artists’ palettes are traditionally ‘aka’ (red), ‘kiiro’ (yellow) and ‘ao’”.

So there was this problem of a mismatch of a light which is green, or “midori”, in colour being called “ao”, or blue, because of the latter term’s association with the greenness of freshness. “Nations with a weaker spine,” says Deutscher, “might have opted for the feeble solution of simply changing the official name of the go light to midori. Not so the Japanese. Rather than alter the name to fit reality, the Japanese government decreed in 1973 that reality should be altered to fit the name: henceforth, go lights would be a colour that better corresponded to the dominant meaning of ao. Alas, it was impossible to change the colour to real blue, because Japan is party to an international convention that ensures road signs have a measure of uniformity around the globe. The solution was thus to make the ao light as bluish as possible while still being officially green.”

Absence of blue

Deutscher launches into his discourse on how the perception of colour is mediated by the need-based vocabulary for colour in different cultures and periods by reaching back into the mid-19th century to dip into the scholarly tome Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age by William Ewart Gladstone, the Liberal politician and four-time Prime Minister of England. Gladstone parses the use of colour by Homer and concludes that it is neither poetic licence nor blindness (Homer as a blind poet was, he held, a later construct) that drives the epicist to describe, in the Iliad and the Odyssey, the sea or oxen as wine coloured, or the wool of sheep or iron as violet. Homer’s sky, observes Gladstone, “is starry, or broad, or great, or iron, or copper, but it is never blue”. Nor was such skewed attribution of colour peculiar to Homer. It was typical of his times. Pindar’s poems of the fifth century B.C. too refer to violet-coloured hair.

The burden of Gladstone’s finding, concludes Deutscher, is that there was “nothing less than universal colour blindness among the ancient Greeks”, that “they saw the world in black and white with a dash of red” (there was growing awareness and deployment of “eruthros” or the colour red), that “violet” or “wine looking” were probably proxy terms to convey shades of darkness. As for the absence of any specific allusion to the abundant blueness of the sky or the sea, Gladstone’s take was, according to Deutscher, “a masterstroke of ingenuity”: “His theory was that colour —in abstraction from the object that is coloured—may start mattering to people only once they become exposed to artificial paints and dyes. The appreciation of colour as a property independent of a particular material may thus have developed only hand in hand with the capacity to manipulate colours artificially. And that capacity, he notes, barely existed in Homer’s day: the art of dyeing was only in its infancy, cultivation of flowers was not practised, and almost all the brightly coloured objects that we take for granted were entirely absent.”

The next protagonist in Deutscher’s colour narrative is the philologist Lazarus Geiger who, in his lecture titled “On the Colour Sense in Primitive Times and its Evolution”, delivered to the Assembly of German Naturalists and Physicians at Frankfurt in 1867, dwells on why the preponderant blueness of the sky finds no mention in recorded artistic expressions or religious evocations of ancient times. Geiger draws the example of the Vedic verses: “These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked so frequently. The sun and reddening dawn’s play of colour, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and the ether, all these are unfolded before us over and over again, in splendour and vivid fullness. But there is only one thing that no one would ever learn from those ancient songs who did not already know it, and that is that the sky is blue.”

Geiger found that this was as true of biblical Hebrew, which had no word for blue. He, moreover, hazarded the idea that blue was an etymological construct and combination of the colours black and green and that, therefore, in earlier cultural contexts blueness was either included in black or was part of green. The description, then, in ancient literature and verse, of black sky or wine-coloured sea begins to make some sense. Similarly the colour green, he argues, although lexically anterior to blue, is younger than yellow, which in turn is derivative of hues of red. He was thus getting to an arrangement of a chronological awareness of colour “according to the schema of the colour spectrum”, where red came first followed by yellow, then green and then blue and violet.

It was Geiger who introduced the idea that the ancients may not have been deficient in their perception of the full range of colour as we see and know it today, but perhaps had a limited range of language to express colour. They anticipated, without of course being aware of it, Wittgenstein’s wisdom (in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. It was a short step, although it took a century, from Geiger to Brent Berlin and Paul Kay’s Basic Colour Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Published in 1969, it became the definitive study on the sequence in which different cultures and languages discover, as in name, colours. They invariably begin with black and white, then proceed to red, then interchangeably to yellow and green, then blue followed by violet and so on. This, suggests Deutscher, was what Geiger was already on to, and “Berlin and Kay rediscovered Geiger’s 101-year-old sleeping beauty essentially unchanged and woke it up with a smacking great kiss.”

The intervening decades had seen a few wild goose chases in the direction of a nod by Gladstone to define the progressive acquisition of colour sensibility as a Lamarckian phenomenon of transmitting, like the classic misunderstanding of the evolution of the giraffe’s neck, acquired characteristics down the generations. The retina’s sophistication in distinguishing colour, roughly went the thought process, evolved over time and in keeping with the necessity to see the world in fuller colour, and was passed on, with improvement, from one generation to the next. But, as Deutscher sums up, “by the first decade of the 20th century it had become clear that the tall story about recent physiological changes in vision had been a red herring. The ancients could see colours just as well as we do, and the differences in colour vocabulary reflect purely cultural developments, not biological ones.”

In the realm of aesthetics, though, counterfactual thought and expression can be privileged. A wine red sea or a black sky can be irresistible. A retreat from colour and light can denote artistic rigour. The Japanese novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s ruminations on the Oriental and Occidental artistic and utilitarian approaches to sound and colour and light, published in the 1930s in a slim volume titled In Praise of Shadows, makes a refreshing study of differences and contrasts between the two. He ascribes to the Western aesthetic a shine and glitter and brilliance and burnishing which is far removed from the look and feel of grime and dust and “importance to age and patina” of the Orient.

For him “the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows—it has nothing else. Westerners are amazed at the simplicity of Japanese rooms, perceiving in them no more than ashen walls bereft of ornament. Their reaction is understandable, but it betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows. Out beyond the sitting room, which the rays of the sun can at best but barely reach, we extend the eaves or build on a verandah, putting sunlight at still greater a remove. The light from the garden steals in but dimly through paper-panelled doors, and it is precisely this indirect light that makes for us the charm of a room….” And so he goes on, celebrating the shades of shadows and arrives at darkness made visible by candle light which is “different in quality from darkness on the road at night… a repletion, a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow”.

Darkness of villages

This comes so close in ethos to the darkness of village homes in India before the electric light, a darkness so palpable that, as Tanizaki says, you almost blink to keep it out of your eyes. It is darkness that responds varyingly to the flickering pinpoint luminescence of fireflies, to the flaming torch of dried and bunched coconut palm leaves, the lit, oiled, cotton wick, the kerosene lamp or the petromax paraffin pressure lamp, the battery-powered torch or beam of electric light. In his Malayalam film Oridathu (1986), the filmmaker G. Aravindan deals delightfully with the arrival of electricity in a village wreaking havoc with the lives of its inhabitants. The film arrives, even if via satire, at the same lament as of the highly regarded poet Akkitham: “Light is sadness, son; darkness is bliss.”

The muted colours and lengthening shadows at the tail end of day, the light flung like a parting shot by the setting sun and the quiet colorations it evokes in nature became the thematic mise-en-scene of Aravindan’s earlier film, Pokkuveyil (1981), shot, to capture its natural tonal form, only in the short span of twilight each day of the filming schedule. There are, of course, the more formal experimentations of chromatic scaling in some of the best of European cinema, like the work on a colour axis by the masterly director, Robert Bresson. But the brooding colours and shadows at the cusp of light and darkness endowing a peculiarly Indian moment give Pokkuveyil a home-grown aesthetic feel. The ethos of that moment is perhaps also a subconscious derivative of a momentous mythos: that of the slaying of the demon king Hiranyakashyap by the Narasimha avatar of god Vishnu.

As the legend goes, Hiranyakashyap had protected himself with a boon against being killed by either human or animal, by any weapon, either inside or outside, either on the ground or in the sky, either during the day or at night. Vishnu takes the form of Narasimha (a combination of a lion and a man), drags Hiranyakashyap to the threshold (so that it is neither inside nor outside), places him on his lap (so that he is neither on the ground nor in the sky), disembowels him with his claws (so no weapon is used). All this happens at twilight so that the neither-day-nor-night stipulation of the boon too is not violated. Twilight, then, also portends a neither-nor time for wily, godly, and not very aesthetic, retribution.