Varna Sutra : Haritha - The Colour Of Life

India has always been a country of colour; from the vibrant hues of our market places and the diverse palettes of our natural landscapes, to our colourful festivals and the vivid shades of the clothes we wear. In South India, traditional colours are deeply entrenched in the cultural fabric of our lives, their symbolism closely tied to the shades we wear on different occasions. The colours of the kanjivaram in particular hold immense importance - each one drawing from daily life and representing a mood or having historical and religious significance. 

In this edition of Varna Sutra we turn to the colour green or ‘Haritha' in Sanskrit. Green, the colour of life, comes alive in myriad shades on the lush silks of the kanjivaram. It was one of the essential colours of the ancient craft, at a time before synthetic dyes came to Kanchipuram. The colour has always been associated with fertility and new life, evoking a sense of freshness and positivity.

Apart from its ubiquity in nature and our kitchens, the colour green also has a deep auspicious and spiritual connect in the South, beautifully captured in ancient texts and references. Set on the southern banks of the Vaigai river, the Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple is a historic Hindu temple which forms the heart and lifeline of Tamil literature. Here, the deity Meenakshi takes the form of Raja Matangi (a form of the goddess where she is born as the daughter of Sage Mathanga), and she is always represented in a vivid shade of emerald green. Meenakshi’s brother is the supreme Narayana, the lord of Azhwars (the Tamil poet saints of the Vaishnavite sect in South India), and is also depicted in green.

Another example is the beautiful pasuram or hymn - 'Pacchai mamalai pol meni, pavalavai kamala sengkann', penned by Thondarradippodi Azhwar. In this verse, the Lord is depicted as a green mountain, with red lips and lotus eyes. You can listen to Bombay Jayshri’s melodious rendition of this hymn here.

In Kanchipuram, one can find the pachai vanna perumal and pavala vanna perumal–twin Divya Desam temples, of which the first is home to an emerald-hued Perumal. No wonder South India celebrates green as a philosophy, a concept and a way of life!

There are no colours more versatile or closer to nature than ‘haritha’ - the various shades ranging from brilliant jewel tones to soft pastel hues - and it is a delight to see the dyer’s nomenclature for the various shades of green in Tamil, drawing from daily life, food and culture.

Elakkai Pachai (cardamom green) – The soft pastel green hue of elakkai or cardamom pods—an essential spice in the Indian kitchen—is unusual on the kanjivaram, but lends the drape a delicate elegance.

Ilai Pachai (leaf green) – From the world of nature, the kanjivaram weaver draws ilai pachai, the vivid green of chlorophyll in leaves that are symbols of new life, fertility and abundance.

Kili Pachai (parrot green) – The vibrant green hue of parrots. Kamakshi, the prime deity of Kanchipuram, is represented with a parrot in her hand. She embodies the autonomy of nature, depicted holding symbols associated with Kama, the god of love. She holds the sugarcane bow, arrows made of flowers, and a parrot.

Manthulir (tender mango leaf) – Unique to the kanjivaram, manthulir is a stunning shade of green shot with red; the colour of tender mango leaves that symbolise the onset of summer and evoke nostalgia.

Mayil Kazhuthu (peacock’s throat) – Mayil kazhuthu refers to the specific shade of a peacock’s throat. On the kanjivaram, this hue brings together exquisite greens and blues in the warp and weft.

Paasi Pachai (moss green) – Pasi pachai or moss green is a much-loved shade on the kanjivaram. Raw and earthy, the colour is often set against classic borders in shades of maroon or red.

Pon Vandu (golden beetle) – Pon vandu is the Tamil name for the golden beetle, whose iridescent golden-green glow is captured on the kanjivaram in a delightful shade of green shot with yellow.

Alli Pachai (lily green) – The gorgeous white lily with its green stem is a striking visual, transported onto the kanjivaram as alli pachai, a shade best described as a symphony of green and white.

Emerald green – One of the colours in the Navarathnams or the traditional nine gems in jewellery that represent planetary influence; this brilliant green stone is believed to belong to the planet Mercury, and is a deep and gorgeous shade on the kanjivaram.

Bottle green – The dark green glass of bottles is a rich shade on the silk sari. Often shot with black and paired with red or pink borders, bottle green is a much loved kanjivaram classic.

Rexona green  Rexona, a popular and easily recognised brand of soap and other cosmetics, lent its distinctive green hue to the kanjivaram's lexicon.

Sneha green Named for the actress Sneha, this vibrant shade of green has become popular in the recent past.

Colour is also an element of the auspiciousness or rasi of a sari. Green is a favourite choice for bridal saris, alongside vermillion, kumkuma, arakku and yellow. With classic korvai borders and a grand pallu or thalaippu, the green bridal sari is striking in its beauty.

The kanjivaram relies on a careful interplay, and deep understanding of the balance and tension between structure and colour - a typical Kanchipuram silk sari is known for its distinguishing characteristics of bright and contrasting colours in the body and the pallu or thalaippu, and uses structure to highlight and nuance colour play. The kanjivaram's distinct structural identity – the way they use two different warps to create different thickness and colour contrasts in the border and body of the sari - form the perfect framework for its use of colour. This foundation of the importance of structure in form and design flows from the mindset of the Tamil heartland, in its grammar, defining its geographical landscapes (kurinchi – mountainous regions; mullai – forests; marutham – cropland; neithal – seashore; palai – desert) or even in something as elemental as the pulli kolam (the starting point for any kolam design) in which a dotted grid is mapped out prior to the actual kolam form that is finally created, using the grid as reference for symmetry and balance. 

In India, colour is everything - it bolsters our ideas, emotions and sensory perceptions, in our food, clothing, paintings and even in the ragas of classical music. A look at the pages of history shows us that colour has always defined our artistic compositions.

- Sreemathy Mohan for Kanakavalli 

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