Colour Me Blue

As we celebrate Holi, the Festival of Colours, here is a piece on the hues that brighten our lives.

And, in keeping with the mood of International Women’s Day, it references M.S. Subbulakshmi, doyenne of Carnatic music, and a path breaker.

Happy Holi, Happy IWD!

Last week I was reading an old-fashioned novel, where the hero’s sidekick was wearing a taupe coloured suit. Not being quite sure what ‘taupe’ was, I looked it up, and learnt that it is a dark brown colour between brown and grey and that the name originates from the French taupe meaning mole (the animal).  The name originally referred to the average colour of the French mole, but since the 1940s, its usage has expanded and blurred to mean anything greyish brown or brownish grey.

Names of many colours are derived from nature. Fuchsia was named for the colour of the flowers on the fuchsia plant, itself named for Leonard Fuchs, a 16th-century botanist. The word orange comes from the Old French orange, from the old term for the fruit pomme d’orange. The French word, in turn, comes from the Italian arancia, based on Arabic nāranj, derived from the Sanskrit nāraṅga. An inter-connected world indeed!!!!

Teal is a bluegreen colour whose name comes from that of a bird—the common teal (Anas crecca)—which presents a similarly coloured stripe on its head.

‘Puce’ is also one of the nature-colour names, but with a particularly yucky background. Puce is the French word for flea. The colour is said to be the colour of bloodstains on linen or bedsheets, even after being laundered, from a flea’s droppings, or after a flea has been crushed. Strangely it was one of Marie Antoinette’s favourite colours!

People too have lent their names to colours.

‘Mountbatten Pink’ is a naval camouflage colour close to greyish mauve. It was first used by Lord Mountbatten during World War II. When he noticed a liner ship of the colour seeming to disappear from view in the early morning light, he felt it was a good colour for naval ships to render them difficult to see at dusk and dawn, and so started applying them to his naval ships.

‘Alice Blue’ is a pale shade of azure blue, much liked by Alice Roosevelt daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, which sparked a fashion sensation in the United States.

MSBut for a South Indian like me, the most important person-colour association has of course to be ‘MS Blue’, said to be a favourite of legendary singer M.S. Subbalakshmi.  This colour became synonymous with her after she started wearing Kanchipuram silk saris of this shade at her concerts. These were specially made for her by Muthu Chettiar, a weaver from Madurai. The savvy businessman that he was, he carefully regulated supplies to ensure enduring demand from Madras high society ladies!  It has been clarified that MS Blue is not peacock blue but ‘mid-sea blue’.

Continuing on the theme of blue, the colour of 2020 (Yes, they announce a colour for every year! A good source of income for the interior design and fashion industries) is PANTONE 19-4052 Classic Blue whose properties include instilling ‘calm, confidence, and connection’. Additionally, it is claimed that ‘this enduring blue hue highlights our desire for a dependable and stable foundation on which to build as we cross the threshold into a new era’.

Another interesting fact I learnt was that research by several academics including linguists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay has revealed that if a language had only two terms for colours, they were always black and white; if there was a third, it was red; the fourth and fifth were always green and yellow (in either order); the sixth was blue; the seventh was brown; and so on.

–Meena