Cover Story


Dec 09, 2014 |

It is often said no living creatures are blessed with more color sensibilities than the humans. In a man’s life, the importance of this unique gift of nature has remained so profound and so all pervasive that even a small and mundane human act revolves around and in the diversity of its shades. From choosing a right color of an apple to the right hue of a dress one has a preference for, it all converge to one point - the choice of a right color.

True but it has also remained true that no segment of a human society celebrates or plays with colors better and in more visible manners than the people called painters - ‘the artists’. Only they create visual forms called ‘Art or Painting’ with colors. And it is they who, since time immemorial, have enriched the human civilization constantly with colors since the hoary days. They do it today and would continue to do so forever in future too, regardless of the changes whatsoever but with colors.

A glance at the annals of art history would reveal how the art of painting has made constant evolution since the days of cave paintings in Altamira, Spain 13000 BC (?) and Lascaux, France 15000 BC(?) to the present day Post Modernistic art forms. For sure, ‘paints’ as we see today did not exist then. But the cave artists did manage to look for right colors out of the natural pigments found in nature then like earth, stone or even charcoal! No need to mention, the motives of paintings too have constantly changed at every interval of time since the caves were adorned with imageries of bison and other animals.

If art was served as a tool to appease imagined divinities or to ward off evil spirits then, it also transformed into an effective means of expression in later times. With the arrival of modern times and various shades of colors appeared in modern mediums like oil, water, pastel, and crayon and so on, it only ignited the imagination of the artists to explore more: and explore constantly through the colors available - emulate nature or express the inner feelings! The importance of colors remained and grew by each passing moment.

Although every civilizations held one or other meaning of a color, nowhere in the world ‘Colors’ connoted deeper meanings and had remained of paramount significance than in thecultural life and the art of Indian subcontinent. The tradition of Nepali Art too, had shared many of those values. Here, the beliefs and traditions has it that each and every hue of color has a different meaning and signified a different attribute – testifying the utmost respect and celebration of the chosen colors.

In a Hindu society, a vermilion red essentially connote a symbol of warmth, good luck and prosperity. Precisely so, immediately after the marriage, a married Hindu woman, with a very little exception, wears red dot or a Bindu on her fore head. Similarly, application of red or saffron powder in the parting of hairs over the frontal head also marks a woman as married. And as a bridal wear, women unfailingly only wear red sari and the rest of entire dress in red as a mark of good luck or Saubhagya.

For sure, we can assert that no other band of people understand the values and importance of colors as deeply as the ‘Painters’ do. This is precisely the reason for we’d say 'artists celebrate the Colors the most and the best.'

A detail from a cavepainting in Altamira, Spain(c 13000 BC). It is 'Two Bisons.'


'Sun and Moon' by Madan Chitrakar (2007 AD)

 A cave painting from Lascaux, France(c 15000 BC).It is popularly known as 'The Hall of the Bulls.'

But in a sub-continental cultural outlook, a hue of red is also essentially associated with a symbol of energy, anger, protest or even chivalry. These thoughts have had well remained reflected in our traditional art too. Since the earlier times, different shades of red has made a strong presence in traditional Nepali painting. Whenever there has been a need to show exceptional energy, power or a state of anger, red is liberally used as a halo, flaming aureole or even the complexion of the chosen divinity.

Moreover, even the religious holy texts dictates in the respective iconographies with different shades of colors of the skin or the complexions of a divinity to clarify the special attributes of a chosen god. This explains the presence of imageries of innumerable divine beings from both Hindu as well as Mahayana Buddhist pantheon, albeit presented in anthropomorphic forms, in unnatural various colors. The myriad shades of complexion seek to narrate the special powers and the attributes of each of such divinity.

But what has remained amazing is that in spite of such peculiar tradition however, Nepali painters through the ages, usually have chosen to create divine imageries in an idealistic earthly settings – often stylized mountains, trees or with architectural elements as backgrounds: more so in natural colors. But whenever there arose a need to emphasize a point or display an emotion like sorrow, anger or a glimpse of opulence or luxury, artists were found ignoring the traditional background imagery: instead found choosing a particular flat color – connoting or reflecting the desired mood.

Examples of Color Power
To drive the point, an interesting example is cited here from an exquisite work of Nepali Painting dated circa 1470. This was painted at a time when religious imagery reigned high and to think of a human portrayal was exceptional and unthinkable. The subject matter is a noble known as 'Gagansim with his two wives' and he was believed to be the governor of Dolkha. In the annals of art history, this painting remains extremely unique and exceptional for many reasons. Firstly, this work represents one of the examples of a collaborative exercise. For, the artists credited as the painters of the work as Adayraja Pun and Udayrama Pun – both from modern day Kilagal, Kathmandu. The second peculiarity is the choice and the audacity of the painters – to paint human forms as said earlier.

But the most important reason we cite the work here is the overwhelming presence of vermilion red in this painting. Even unlike the divine imageries with earthly background, the artists apparently, wanted to over emphasize the grandeur and the opulence life style of the subject matter – the noble state. Here the noble is seen with his two wives – entirely surrounded by the symbols of luxury, the utensils used as the typical Newar toiletries – 'Shringar'. But the most amazing part is the liberal flat red color as the background – ignoring the conventional natural setting needed in a human portrayal, more so during an amorous mood. The overwhelming dominance of vermilion red radiates the entire composition to an unusual level and provides an exceptionally warm setting. In short, the painting represents a tantalizing display of raw power of color: and the color of red is hard to ignore here.

Nearer the modern times, as time passed by, the Art or Painting continued to change in all the possible manners – shapes, styles and the subject matters and the most significantly the driving motives. Art long ceased to be a tool or medium of religion or religious thoughts. Artists are set free from the iconographic bonds in shapes and colors.

An untitled work by Mark Rothko (1967 AD)

But what did not change, regardless of the changing times and medium, is their appetite and profound love for the power of color. Let's cite a modern example from an image of iconic horses of noted artist Shashi Shah. Shah is best known in Nepali art for his constant rendering of horses as his principal elements. He does not create horses as mere natural animals – instead as a metaphoric representation of power, dynamism and endless energy. To express it all, all along he has more than once, makes liberal use of flat and strong colors in the background as well as in the chosen forms.

But Shah becomes more successful when he is found using raw warm colors – specially the vermillion red in a dominating manner. His objectives and inner feelings become much more prominent and visible. The image illustrated here narrates effectively the strength of red color as his tool: and it also well testifies our point. The presence of overwhelming red not only drives well with his inner desire but also displays the unmistakable power of a pure color.

Colors in a Flag: A Collective Identity
A common wisdom has it a national flag of any chosen country represents the collective trust, aspirations and, of course, the identity of a given set of people. What has always remained important, in addition to forms, is the choice of often pure raw colors in it. It may represent a heritage or political thoughts – but the importance of colors remains. And whenever an artist seeks to comment on the collective concern, nothing can be more expressive than the colors found in a flag.

Even this scribes when incarnated as an artist. When disturbed with the happenings in the country and sought to express his reactions, he is found using the two colors seen in the national flag of Nepal. An image of instability and continued disturbances was best represented in the tattered pieces of the colored pieces. At a glance, the viewers are instantly prompted or even provoked to imagine or think about the reasons behind the scattered forms and the strong flow of pure colors. It presents an unlimited strength and power of a color – a true celebration of color!

Aesthetic Quest: Colors a Spectacular Tool
The instances cited above, it is true that all remain within the bounds of certain thoughts or the motives to achieve – irrespective of the success and an effective use of given colors as tools. But the history of art has taught us that nothing demonstrates as better and vivid as an artist when he is totally set free to play with a chosen color or colors – while seeking an absolute aesthetic pleasure. An astonishing example is presented by the American artist Mark Rothko (1903–1970). In the annals of modern art, Rothko is best known for the large expanses of limited colors in huge canvases. Yet within the limited chosen colors, he was highly admired for his judgment in his choice of use and the colors in the given space. His works have remained as iconic display of blatant color power. An untitled work by Rothko, 1967 and cited here reveals the raw strength of black over the overwhelming red and crimson.

For sure, we can assert that no other band of people understand the values and importance of colors as deeply as the 'Painters' do. This is precisely the reason for we'd say 'artists celebrate the Colors the most and the best.



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