‘art and soul

Mystique about yellow

The colour yellow summons forth an endless train of images, each carrying an association, writes B. N. Goswamy

The filling of colours in a pichhwai with a detail of yellow leaves
The filling of colours in a pichhwai with a detail of yellow leaves

WHY don’t you think of working on ‘The Colour Yellow’?" I said once to a student of mine who was in search of a subject for his doctoral work. That was years ago, and even though I lost contact with him I take it that he is out there, somewhere, working on it still. But even if not, the theme continues to interest me greatly. Not from any scientific point of view, such as the physics of light, or the physiology of vision, but strictly from the art historical standpoint.

What does the colour yellow culturally stand for? How do artists of different schools handle it? What materials are used across the land? What psychological perceptions come to be associated with it?

When I think of the colour yellow, diverse images come rushing to my mind. The pitambara – yellow over-garment – of Krishna, for instance: glistening against his cloud-dark body; hinting at his presence even when he is not there in person; pulled at by ardent cowherdesses as they set up the raasa dance; picked up and worn in her state of confusion by Radha as she steals away from their love-chamber at dawn.

I think also of the hot, burning backgrounds of yellow against which wondrous events unfold in paintings that one sees from, say, centres like Basohli or Mewar – nayikas stepping out of their homes, Rama giving his clothes away before going into exile, lovers gazing at each other across empty courtyards –, binding things close and tight, lifting the spirit, bringing in great intensity of feeling. Vernal sights gather together and fill the mind at the thought of yellow: the vasanta season; hordes of people dressed in freshly dyed yellow turbans and dupattas; heaps of marigolds; mile-long fields of mustard flowers in bloom.

Even when one moves into other lands and climes, the mention of yellow raises visions of images by Derain, or van Gogh’s work: Cornfields drenched in sunshine, his own Chair, the Bedroom at Arles, those dazzling Sunflowers. It is an endless train of images that ‘yellow’ summons forth, as I said, each carrying an association, in each the colour negotiated differently.

I am well aware that there are also negatives that are linked with yellow: the poets refer to it as the colour of cowardice, at least in the west; sicknesses like jaundice come to mind. In a review of a book on Randolph Hearst I read this bilious sentence once: "Like others, the most infamous whorehouse in the (New York district of) Tenderloin, the Haymarket, was painted yellow, a colour long associated with Jews, whores, cowards, scabrous French novels and, most recently, London fin-de-siecle decadents."

But none of this truly affects my fondness for, and absorbing interest in, the colour yellow. And I was reminded of it all by the technical details about this colour that a recent book by Desmond Lazaro on the Pichhwais – those great temple hangings of the Krishna cult generally painted at Nathdwara – contained.

The book is rich and dense, and addresses a host of questions connected with the painting of Pichhwais: their cultural context, symbolism and meaning. But it is the section on pigments and their application that I found the most absorbing.

Gold apart, yellow pigments feature prominently in this section, of course, and one learns about the many sources from which yellow was drawn: hartal or orpiment, ramraj or yellow ochre, the gamboge resin extracted from the garcinia tree, haldi or turmeric, saffron, among others. But I was most interested in learning more about that most characteristic, and luminescent, of Indian yellows, the gao-goli.

There is a mystique that continues to surround the use and the preparation of this extraordinary pigment. Traditionally, it was known to have been derived from the urine of a cow that had been fed on mango leaves, consuming which produced uncommon heat in its body. The rich yellow urine was collected in flat, earthen pots, and left out in the sun for the liquid to evaporate, leaving a fine sediment of yellow at the bottom, which was dried and ground to such fineness that balls (goli) or pellets of pigment could be made from it.

Traditionally, again, most living painters claim that they, and their forebears, always used it in their work, despite the ban on its making imposed by the British in 1908. Lazaro speaks of gao-goli as now being virtually non-existent, his guru, famed master-painter of Jaipur, Bannu, being "perhaps the last Master to use it". What passes as gao-goli, he says, is in fact a chemical mixture of chrome and cadmium that is designated as peori, once another name for the real gao-goli, but now to be distinguished from it.

Mysteries have a way of persisting, and the last word on gao-goli/peori has not yet been said perhaps. But who could have thought of making a pigment using these means in the first instance, one wonders? The ancestors of the milkmen of Monghyr in Bihar, who are known to have been engaged in the manufacture of gao-goli and to have traded it for fancy prices to Marwari merchants? At least in the 19th century, they were doing this.