First Published in Verve, July 2009
We were introduced to the politics of color very early on in our lives, in the most surprising of places: in children’s comic books. And in all probability the illustrators did not even known what they were doing. There was nothing strategically racist/colorist in what they did – though hindsight may not give them the benefit of doubt. And so we had gods who were always pink, demons who were always brown and dark gods who were always blue. Indra, Brahma and Durga were pink, Asuras and Rakshasas were brown. Vishnu, Ram and Krishna were blue. Somehow, an unnaturally blue Krishna was preferred over a naturally dark Krishna. ‘Because blue is the color of the sky, of ether, of divinity,’ we were told. No one dared point out that Krishna and Shyam were both proper nouns and common nouns which referred to gods as well as the color black. We forgot to refer to traditional Patta chitras in Orissa where Krishna and Vishnu are always shown using black paint while Balarama and Shiva are always shown using white. When making Krishna blue, we forgot all folk songs, even Hindi film songs, where there is constant reference to Krishna’s dark complexion. So in Raj Kapoor’s ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram’, is the song, ‘Yashomati mayya se bole Nanda-lala, Radha kyon gori, mein kyon kala? (Nanda’s son, Krishna, asks his mother, Yashoda, why is Radha fair and why am I dark?). In the song, the mother offers many explanations to pacify the son, the angst ridden son who clearly would have been the target consumer for Fair & Lovely. Our discomfort with black is so deep that even today we don’t mind being publicly racist – what according to Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion is the lowest a fair model can sink to? Sleeping with a black man! Kala kaloota, baingan loota! Even a channel called ‘Colors’ uses a fair child to depict the black, or blue, Krishna. And no one is outraged.
Wherefrom comes this love for gori-chitti complexion, this desire for fair brides in matrimonials? People say it is the hangover of our Aryan past – that the nomadic tribes who came from the North West held the dark skinned settled communities of the subcontinent in disdain. Aryan gods like Indra were white. But this white supremacist flavor does not hold firm in the face of other evidence. Some say Shiva was a Dravidian god, a god of the settled communities – but he is described as Karpura-Goranga, he who is as fair as camphor. Some say that Vishnu and Ram are gods of the Aryan imperialists – but both are described as dark. This theory of Aryan invasion, with roots in 19th century racial theory, seems too simplistic and rather pedestrian to modern scholars despite its great popularity, no thanks to its acceptance and propaganda by many founding fathers of our nation, who were educated in Europe.
As colors, black and white have great symbolic meaning, and more than racial memory, these mythic codes perhaps yield a great influence over our views about complexion and our color prejudices. The Goddess in her more primal form is dark, dark as the night. She is Kali, the dark one, who is wild – so wild that she unbinds her hair, dances naked, copulates in public and drinks blood. She is indifferent to disapproving stares. This is not defiance. This is her prakriti, her nature, her being. In calendar art, this blackness of Kali has turned blue and purple, and ornaments are strategically placed to hide her nakedness and she is shown merely stepping on Shiva, not copulating with him. But this, say the devotees, is Bhadra Kali, the modest Kali, a slightly domesticated form of the Goddess who devotees can enshrine in their homes and worship. The other Kali, the truly wild and primal one, who cannot be brought into the house is not bhadra. That Kali is a-bhadra – dark, naked, ferocious, gaunt, aroused and bloodthirsty. Her name is rarely spoken; she is worshipped in the wilderness, in crematoriums, by followers of Tantrik doctrines that are best kept away from the household.
Black color then means nature red in tooth and claw, the most primal of elements, the undiluted rawness of being which thrives in sex and violence. One day, says the scriptures, the gods begged her to seduce and marry Shiva, the ascetic, who shut his eyes in indifference to the world. Kali then took a dip in the river Yamuna and emerged as Gauri, the radiant one, the golden one, the fair one, smeared with turmeric. If Kali was Chandi, the wild one, then Gauri was Mangala, the auspicious one. If Kali was Bhairavi, the fearsome one, then Gauri was Lalita, the graceful one. If Kali was Raktapriya, the one who loves blood, then Gauri was Kamakshi, the one whose glance stirs desire. Thus black and white become symbols of wildness and domestication in the context of the Goddess.
Kali’s blackness percolates into the river Yamuna which is constantly described by poets as being a sad river, sluggish in its flow, morose in its character. Her vahana or mount is the river turtle. She is linked with Yamini, the goddess of the night, who mourns for her brother, Yama, the god of death, who lives on the other side of the Vaitarni, the river that separates the bright land of the living from the dark land of the dead. Yamuna needs to be contrasted with Ganga, the fair river-goddess, who bounds over rocks and cascades down mountains, gurgling with foam, riding river-dolphins, cheerful and mischievous and full of life.
Yamuna is associated with Vishnu. On her banks, he dances as Krishna. Like her, he is dark. Ganga is associated with Shiva. She emerges from his topknot while he meditates. He, like her, is fair. Just as Kali is what Gauri is not, Krishna is what Shiva is not. Krishna is full of life, a lover, a dancer, a warrior. Shiva is the still, serene mendicant. Krishna lives on river banks in pastures and fields. Shiva lives on icy mountain tops away from civilization. Krishna is dressed in silks and gold and pearls and anointed with sandal paste. Shiva wears animal hide and is smeared with ash. Krishna is a worldly god; Shiva an otherworldly sage. Krishna is black, Shiva is white. Why? Perhaps physics has the answer.
Physics informs us that when light is thrown on a surface and all colors of the light spectrum are absorbed then what we see is the color black. If instead all colors of the light spectrum are reflected back then what we see is the color white. Krishna, who is Ranganatha, lord of colors and drama, embraces all the colors of life, and who celebrates all the emotions of worldliness, is therefore black. Shiva, the ascetic, who reflects back all emotions and chooses to stay disengaged, is naturally white.
Thus the colors convey deeper truths. On the body of the Goddess, black is about wild nature. On the body of God, black is about worldliness. On the body of the Goddess, white is about domestic culture. On the body of God, white is about ascetic transcendence. Perhaps in our desire to be cultured and in our aspiration to be otherworldly, we choose white over black. But then the wild side beckons and the thrills of simple worldly joys enchant, and we surrender to the black. And as we struggle between white and black, we realize it is human to be grey.