The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, June 29, 2003
Lead Article

It's a black world?
Roshni Johar

MORE than just being the darkest and a bold colour, black is shrouded in mystique. Undeniably the antithesis of white that lightens up the world, black reflects no light, is linked with darkness and symbolises all that is sinister and wicked. Even the black sky of the night is perceived as the mistress of darkness.

Satan and all sinful deeds have been deemed black. Magic or art that is black invokes evil powers. Witches have worn black robes and ridden on black brooms. Shadows are black too.

Black bordered letters convey sad tidings. ‘To go into black’ implies mourning. In the West, the funeral dress is usually a black formal one. Women in mourning cover their faces with black veils; fashionable ones like Jacqueline Kennedy wore lacy ones. However, ‘black widow’ is an American female spider, that devours the male. Some orders of nuns don the black habit.

A spot of black is smeared on the face, especially that of a child, to ward off the evil eye. Black parandis and black shoes dangling from vehicles and buildings imply the same. How often we read on the rear of trucks and buses: Buri nazar wale, tera muh kala!


Extorting money by threatening to disclose some discreditable secrets of the person threatened, is blackmail. A black economy, called black money in India, is illegal, undeclared wealth. Goods sold and bought in violation of law is black marketing.

As opposed to a white flag symbolising peace, black bands worn on the arms and black flags are a mark of protest. Black flags have signified piracy. Blacklist is not a list of black items but of persons or organisations under suspicion.

Black lends the English language more meaning than any other tint, though two blacks will never make a white. ‘Black in the face’ suggests that facial complexion has turned red or purple due to great anger. "Black mark’ is not a beauty spot but indicates discredit, failure or disapproval. A blackhead is a fatty substance clogging a skin’s pore. The term ‘black sheep’ does not stand for black-coloured sheep but for disreputable members of society. ‘Black ingratitude’ pertains to the worst of ingratitudes while ‘black look’ is a scowl, a look of temper. ‘Black mood’ means a person being silent and angry. ‘Black deeds’ are wicked. ‘To be in black books’ is not to have approval. ‘Black and blue’ means covered with bruises.

Incredibly enough, black is no longer a gloomy colour. High-fashion priests have lent acceptance to the colour black, making it universally ‘in’. Since long, black French Chantilly lace has been a must for a connoisseur of saris. It’s no longer a taboo to give black dresses in a bride’s trousseau. Ironically, the symbol of Indian married woman, the mangalsutra, has black beads. And the Chinese black pearls are famous. ‘Blackball’ is not a dance in black dresses, but is a negative vote or veto.

The Deccan Plateau has a rich black soil which is excellent for cotton. Black gold is nothing but precious oil. Coal, described as ‘the hidden sunlight of many years,’ is black too. Blackout is the extinguishing of lights and covering of windows to conceal existence from an enemy. A flight recorder in an aircraft is termed a black box.

Pindi channas, a hot Punjabi favourite, are blackened by adding ground roasted pomegranate seeds and tea leaves. Kala jeera (fine cumin seeds grown in the hills) and kala namak are cookery ingredients. Black coffee and tea have no dairy whiteners i.e. milk. Surprisingly, a black hen lays a white egg! All know the idiom — the pot calling the kettle black.

However, kala pani (so termed as not being good for health) is not a black-coloured drink but the Andaman islands where the British exiled Indian political prisoners. Indian history also has the black hole of Kolkata. Scientifically, a black hole implies the region from where matter and radiation cannot escape.

Indian poets are known to have sung eulogies to kohl-eyed and surmayi beauties having long black zulfein. Yeh kali kali aankhen is a popular Hindi film song picturised on Shah Rukh Khan, while Dimple Kapadia crooned jhoot bole kowa kaate, kale kowe se dariyo in the old hit Bobby. The Punjabi folk song Kala shah kala, mera kala hai sardar, goriyan nu dafa karo too celebrates the colour black.

Put in black and white, the world has more of black — black rose, blackboard, blacksmith, black forest cake, black berries, black currants, black granite, black clouds...

And still artists’ proclaim that black is merely the darkest shade of red. Wither the colour black?