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procession painting

It’s one of those things that you realize only after you leave India. Actually you don’t even realize it when you leave India. You realize it when you leave India, and then find yourself in India again. You realize that your eyes have been parched for a while, and you didn’t even know they were parched. And once in India you look around and the thirst of your eyes gets quenched, but not by plain water, rather by something more complex, and sour and sweet and salty, like nimbu pani or aam panna or kokam sherbet.

One hour at a busy, chaotic street corner in India (and they are all busy and chaotic), and all the colours and designs surrounding you so fill up your eyes that you realize with a jolt what your subconscious has been missing all along. There will be the young women wearing traditional Indian colours and embroidery on clothes with a modern cut, there will be the vegetable seller in a nine-yard cotton sari, pink with blue flowers perhaps, and her orange blouse will seem mismatched at first, but its zari border just melds it into the scene. Women will be buying from her (and haggling), carrying cloth bags with busy prints and their purses will have beads or patchwork designs. There will be men in khadi kurtas, or wearing cotton shirts with block prints, and there will be laptop bags with motifs that are centuries old. Taking it all in after being outside India for a while is like rain after a drought.

Have you seen the BBC’s Wallander, the one with Kenneth Branagh? Set in Sweden, it has a colour palette entirely consisting of greys and white, with some black, dark blue or dark green thrown in for, you know, variety. The stories seem to take place in a land where it is permanently fall or winter, where there is little light and the trees are always bare. The bleak landscape fits the series’ mood and helps create it as well. And though I absolutely love their cinematography, it is only a little bit of an exaggeration to say that the typical western colour palette looks like that to Indian eyes. Wallander is to America what America is to India.

If Wallander’s art is modern and brooding, Indian art is baroque and ebullient. It does not know when to leave well enough alone. It is not satisfied with giving a sari, a bedsheet, a sofa cover, a scarf or a kurta a happy, cheery colour. It has to give it a print too, or a pattern, and bring in some other colours. It could be embroidery, or patchwork, or borders of zari. They might add a row of beads, or throw in a tassel or two for good measure. This tasteful lack of restraint gives the Indian landscape its trademark character. If the base colours are the chordal progression, these detailed ornamentations are akin to Bach’s 16th note embellishments — they run around like crazy on the one hand, and come together perfectly on the other. One keeps your aural interest, the other your visual. And at least for this Indian, that vivacity of colour looks exactly like home.