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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Colour Yellow

When you think of the colour yellow in India, the yellow signifies the auspicious element of any festival.

Yellow is the colour that strikes the eye first in the spectrum of colours. It is a sign of auspiciousness in India and no function or festivity begins without turmeric. Just a blob of haldi paste is worshipped as Ganesha in all pujas. Wedding invitations are printed in South India in yellow and pink paper and smeared with haldi paste before being given personally or posted to invitees. The bride begins her wedding celebrations with a ‘haldi’ ceremony where the girl is liberally smeared with haldi and sandalwood paste by all the near and dear ones leaving her at the end of the ceremony in a yellow daze. The caterer draws up a list of all the provisions needed for festive meals beginning with haldi kumkum.

Women whose husbands are alive are honoured with haldi kumkum as the incarnation of Shakthi. Such women customarily smear turmeric on their faces after a bath and present a distinctly jaundiced look. It is also an important healing, anti-bacterial root with medicinal qualities that merits small print on tubs of off-the-shelf remedies for all possible illnesses. Gold too is popularly called as the yellow metal.

Traffic police in cities have liberally used their brush and yellow paint to decorate the middle of the roads with flourishes of yellow stripes that signal dangerous and accident-prone areas to the man or woman on wheels. For traffic on the roads, the colour yellow signals caution and has the best long distance visual impact. Though the middle light on traffic signals is traditionally amber, it is most often in this city just pure yellow—that is: when it works.

Yellow is also a priority sign and used as a switching light. School buses are yellow, signalling to other traffic to take care when approaching as such vehicles are normally loaded with screaming, undisciplined children. Life jackets, badminton and tennis balls are yellow as well. In many countries yellow and orange is used as colour for danger materials. Yellow-black stripes mark pedestrian or zebra crossings and it is also the badge of the blind. The "yellow card" is shown to football-players as a warning sign. A yellow flag on a ship means an epidemic disease on board. In the animal kingdom yellow—fire-salamander, hornet, wasps—as well as red means a warning and is a sign for poison.

Warm gold-yellow in its effect is quite different from the conflicting effect of shrill lemon yellow. The former symbolises light, cheerfulness and warmth and effects stimulation. In his theory of colours Goethe wrote "In its highest pureness it always brings the nature of the light with it and has a cheerful, merry, soft delightful quality…it is used for the shining things in painting”. Yellow was also the favourite colour of Vincent van Gogh. At the beginning he used yellow ochre and later added Cadmium yellow or Chrome yellow to his palette ("Sunflowers" of 1888). He converted the light of his landscapes into colour. For him light symbolised the sun of the South, cheerfulness, but friendship and love as well. In his paintings the yellow always appeared in accordance with his complimentary colour blue- the symbol of power and completeness of life.

Kandinsky describes shrill yellow in his book "About the spiritual in art" as inducing a disquieting effect. “If watched directly it disquiets you, upsets, excites and shows the character of the violence, ….an obtrusive effect on your mind. This quality of the yellow colour can be increased to a level, which the eye and the mind cannot stand….until it sounds like a very loud played trumpet."

As the colour yellow was easily "soiled" by other dyestuffs, it began to be associated with disgust, as the colour of pus and of leprosy. Yellow sputum is a signal of lung infection and yellowed eyes and urine signal jaundice. A yellow flag on a house showed that the plague was raging there. According to medieval medicine the cause for any imbalance in the human system was the gall bladder. A yellow coloured skin was a symbol for trouble, everlasting envy, jealousy and stinginess.

Jews, as a symbol of discrimination in the 12th century, had to wear a yellow hat. During the Nazi regime they were humiliated and forced to wear a yellow star badge on their sleeves. Western actors avoid the colour yellow—like the plague. Theatres never have yellow curtains, as this is said to cause misfortune.

The colour is also associated with prejudice and cowardice. A traitor or a lawbreaker in the villages of Tamil Nadu is dressed in a yellow loin cloth, seated back to front on donkeys, decorated with black and red spots and driven out of the village. On the other hand yellow clothes symbolised somebody observing a fast or undergoing a penance. The Muruga devotee bearing kavadis wears yellow and so do Tirupati Balaji’s pilgrims and mendicants. Lord Vishnu is traditionally dressed in Pitambaram, the lovely shade of yellow that contains the root word-umbre, which is common in Latin tongues as well

So wherever you see yellow remember it can mean anything ranging from warmth and cheerfulness, through warning and danger to disease and pestilence with associations of discrimination, cowardice, devotion and divinity as well.


  1. The one thing that I identify yellow with is the old childhood ditty - yellow yellow, dirty fellow.
    Your post has somewhat broadened my vision.

  2. I do associate yellow with India, as in dyes and spices. Well, yellows and shades of it through to red.