Knowledge Center



By Hamsini Shivakumar

Holi, the festival of colour has just come and gone.? That makes it a good time to reflect on the connection between culture and colour.? In a previous post/article, I had tackled the misperception of colour meanings being fixed in the mind through a mental process and stated that colours are polysemic.? Colours have multiple meanings that are governed by context where the colour is used and by object the referent that comes to mind when seeing the colour and the conceptual associations with that referent.

Colours also acquire cultural meanings as symbols.? Given the recency of Holi, it is useful to think of colourfulness alongside white and black as cultural symbols.

In many Western cultures, white is equated with birth and baptism. The beginning of life is associated with purity and innocence. So, babies wear white at baptism and priests and nuns wear white, angels are depicted in white. The wearing of white is a reminder to stay pure of thought and deed. On the other hand, black is associated with the end of life and the void of death. Hence, widows wear black as the colour of mourning.

In many Asian cultures, and more specifically, in North India, white carries both meanings. White is associated with purity and innocence. But, in the matter of life and death, white indicating the absence of colour, indicates the absence of life, hence death. Thus, white is the colour of mourning and worn by widows.

Colour is central to the understanding of life force and vitality in (North) Indian culture. And there is a celebration of that life force as shared and collective enjoyment through the festival of Holi (whatever be the religious story that has also got told about the festival). Subliminally, that could also be the reason why Indians on the whole like wearing bright and colourful clothing, especially on joyous occasions such as festivals and weddings.