The first mango of the season isn’t what it used to be, a rite, sometimes devoured knifeless over the kitchen sink, pulp dripping to the elbows. No – that gives me away as one who eats alone, which I often am, but I know that a shared bowl of slices is how it usually goes. I am avoiding that sweetness this year, instinctively. I don’t need more heat. I don’t need more thirst. But I want that brilliant colour, the colour of the ambrosial flesh that bursts through as nails or blade break green skin. I call that colour, simply, “mango” – but for centuries it was recreated as a pigment known as “Indian yellow”, made from the urine of cattle that lived on nothing but mango leaves.
That too, a colour. Rain-dripped, in my imagination. The voice of a woman without a lover sears across millennia from the Kuruntokai, in a poem about the ardour of the body without an admirer. These specific words: “my beauty dark as a mango leaf.” She grieves its inevitable pallor from inattention; she grieves, in short, a lack of colour.
People went to great lengths to create pigments. They used the wrappings on mummies for a shade of brown, and went deep into Afghani mines for an ultramarine hue made from powdered lapis lazuli. I want to say the great artists of those times knew what riches and gore they held at the tips of their paintbrushes, but the truth is I doubt it. We do not think deeply about our consumption either: the dead trees of our libraries and furniture, the farmers’ tears in our food.
Today’s artists may not have pyramids and mines excavated for pigments, but they still feud over them. Anish Kapoor secured exclusive rights over the laboratory-produced Vantablack, the blackest known substance on earth, which absorbs up to 99.965% of light. Stuart Semple then one-upped him with The World’s Pinkest Pink, made available for sale to all, with the exception of Kapoor and his associates.
There are more imaginative names for colours, so striking in themselves that they change the way a fabric drapes or the way the eye drinks in an object. Verdigris. Oxblood. Bastard-amber. Rose madder. Coquelicot. Areca. And there are medical conditions – synaesthesia – which affect the way in which the senses perceive. So one may see music, words and numbers as distinct colours. To some, this cognition is a gift. I wonder if it’s a disorder too, the pleasure I get from language, how singular words are charged for me with emotive dimensions. Sometimes my mouth waters because of a word.
And my heart is somehow soothed by the sight of indigo, made with that dye that cannot dissolve in water but bleeds and bleeds once on fabric, like someone with a lot of fortitude, who cries often. A plant dye that evokes another one, and more poems still: the protagonist of Kala Krishnan Ramesh’s He Is Honey, Salt And The Most Perfect Grammar binds her manuscripts with thread dyed with hyacinths, a signature.
And let me just say: Kapoor is wrong, anyway. The darkest material in the world isn’t a colour.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 13th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.