Monday 13 July 2020

O is for Ochre

From the air, the flat Indian landscape looks like a huge dusty carpet. The monotonously regular fields form a huge patchwork where each square is a variation on the fundamental hue. Tan, dun, tawny, beige; fawn, bronze, khaki; bistre, sienna, umber, ochre: India exhausts them all in the infinite varieties of dull brown its earth assumes.

Nor does the sky offer any relief to this pitiless landscape. During the long summer it is an unbroken dome the colour of faded blue Wedgwood. There are no swirling cloudscapes to captivate the eye, no gradations of mist and vapour to provide variety. Apart from the occasional bird of prey wheeling in the sky, there is not a single breath or movement to break the mutual stare of the earth and heavens.

To this bleached-out brown and burnt-out blue is added a third element which seems another product born of the sun's furnace. The rocks of northern India, and hence the great forts built from them, glow with a dull hot redness which wearies the view like the land and the sky. To visit the empty palace of Fatehpur Sikri is to enter an oven for the eye as the stone throbs redly around you. Only the lush green grass of the abandoned courtyards provides any respite or offers any balm.

Perhaps as a defence against this stultifyingly narrow natural palette, the Indians love bright and varied colours. The saris ot the women are a blaze of impossible shades; the more they clash, the better. The moped rickshaws are often gaily painted with intertwined flowers and coloured patterns. And the cheap pictures of Krishna, the Indianised Christs, the saccharine-sweet images of chubby children - all are tricked out in the most garish and cloying combination of hues. Likewise the huge cinema hoardings everywhere, which seem to promise plots just as colourful and as unfettered by the constraints of subtlety.

The Kashmir valley is less afflicted by the sense of monochrome found on the plains. Partly this reflects the fact that it is the expansiveness of the colour which makes the brown plain or blue sky so exhausting, The essence of Kashmir is that the scale has been reduced and humanised. The valley is only a few tens of kilometres long, and even the sky's extent is bounded by the mountain peaks which rear up on all sides.

It is not only the fields which spawn brown: the Kashmiri houses, with their timber frames and mud-coloured bricks, contribute as well. And yet though the colour may permeate the region, it does not overwhelm. The landscape is saved by the trees, which stand like great fountains and torches of colour. Unlike those on the plain, they are deciduous. As a result, their myriad autumnal hues echo, extend and finally redeem the surrounding countryside. The gamut of scarlets, vermilions, russets and golds justify their staider setting.

Ultimately, the difference is that Kashmir's hues are those of an English landscape; with the trees in their full dismantling glory, it is easy to relate to the ensemble. The ochres of the plain are alien. They make no concessions to previous experience. They are the true colour of India.

A Partial India A to Z

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