Colour: A natural history of the palette

Sometimes, we miss the forest for the trees. And sometimes, we miss the trees for the forest. Let me give you an illustration. Take a look at the painting below (click on the picture to see a larger view).

Source: The National Gallery, London

The painting is called “Bacchus and Ariadne”. It was painted by Titian sometime between 1520 and 1523. It depicts a tale from Roman  mythology where Bacchus (the God of Wine) sees the mortal Ariadne and falls in love with her at first sight. He is so smitten that he jumps out of his cheetah-drawn chariot towards her. The painting has captured Bacchus in mid-leap as Ariadne shies away from him in alarm.

I saw this painting at London’s National Gallery in 2009. I duly noted the story that the painting conveyed, the various characters in it, the lovingly painted animals, Titian’s trademark use of bright colours… and moved on to the next artwork. It was a nice painting, but not particularly impressive. Or so I thought. Today, I bitterly regret at only looking at the painting, but not seeing it closely enough. In only looking at the painting, I had completely failed to see the colours themselves, particularly the brilliant blue of the sky — a blue which came from the ultramarine paint made from the semi-precious lapis lazuli mined hundreds of miles away in the Sar-e-Sang valley (in present day Afghanistan).

The lapis lazuli from these mines would have travelled through ancient trade routes to the colour maker in Italy, who then transformed it into the very expensive ultramarine paint through a laborious process. First, the lapis lazuli was finely powdered and kneaded into a dough along with resin, wax, gum and linseed oil for 3 days, after which it was put in a mixture of lye and water. Then, this mixture was kneaded again, this time with sticks, to draw out the blue of the lapis lazuli into the liquid. The blue-coloured liquid would be collected in bowls and allowed to dry, leaving behind a powdery blue pigment, the ultramarine blue. The process would be repeated with the “dough” to get different qualities and shades of blue (pg.290-291). These days making the ultramarine paint is not so laborious as it is made synthetically.

I read about all this and much more in Colour: A Natural History of the Palette (2004, Random House, pp.448) by Victoria Finlay. The book can be considered as a travelogue; it can also be considered as a book on art history. But for me, it is a book on the micro-history of colour as explored through an artist’s paintbox holding the colours of the rainbow and then some more — violet (or purple), indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, ochre, white, black and brown.

In her attempt to trace and draw out the stories of how natural dyes, paints and colours were made for a European artist’s paintbox, Finlay travelled to Australia, England, China, Chile, Italy, India, Iran, Spain, Afghanistan and Lebanon. As each story, myth, legend of the colours come into life, we realise that:

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The two Cathedrals of Coventry

When I told a friend about my plans to visit Coventry, this is what he had to say:

Coventry is a rather nondescript little city in the West Midlands region of the UK. It has two universities (University of Warwick and Coventry University), two museums and a humongous Ikea. And, yes, it also has 2 cathedrals.

I didn’t really pay attention to the rest of his description as only the “two cathedrals” part intrigued me—a city has only one cathedral, and Coventry had two? This I had to see.

So are there two cathedrals in Coventry? Well, yes and no. There are two cathedrals in Coventry—the first is the ruins of the Old Medieval Cathedral, and the second is the modern, New Cathedral. But only the latter Cathedral is a place of worship today, so in that sense there is only one cathedral in Coventry. Both the cathedrals exist side by side, with the St. Michael’s porch connecting the two.

St. Michael's Porch. The glass-fronted entrance to the new Cathedral is to the right, while the steps on the left lead to the ruins of the Old Cathedral

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The Banashankari and Mahakuta temples: Examples of neglect and apathy

My recent trip to some heritage sites in North Karnataka (Aihole, Badami, BijapurHampi and  Pattadakal) was an eye-opener in more ways than one. While I was amazed to see the excellent work done by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in restoring and maintaining the sites, as well as the efforts taken by the Karnataka Tourism Board, I was appalled to see condition of heritage sites not maintained by the ASI. My visits to the Banashankari Temple and the Mahakuta Temple Complex, both near Badami, are perfect examples of this.

The Banashankari Temple site has been a place of worship for about 14 centuries or so, though the current temple building is only about 200 years old. The temple’s name is derived from its location in the Tilakaranya forest. The main deity, Banashankari is also known as Shakambari or the vegetable goddess. Banashankari was the kuldevata or the tutelary deity for the Chalukya kings of the 7th century.

Our tour group arrived at the Banashankari Temple after spending a magical and enchanted evening at the Bhoothnatha Temples and the Agastya Teertha, near the Badami Cave-Temples. And came back to earth rather rudely with a ride through narrow, dusty, potholed and dirty access road to the temple. It was an inkling to the state of the temple itself.

Outside the Banashankari Temple. The guard-cum-lamp tower at the entrance to the Harida Teertha in the centre of the photograph

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The temple ruins of Hampi – 3: The Krishna, Ugranarasimha and Ganagitti temples

The temples and other monuments of Hampi were built over 3 centuries, destroyed over a period of 6 months, and “seen” by our group over two, half-day sessions. Obviously, we could not do justice to all the monuments.

This meant that while we spent more time at the Hazara Rama Temple, the Vittala Temple, as well as the monuments of the royal family, we breezed through the Krishna Temple, the Badavilinga Temple, the Ugranarasimha or Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, and Kadalekalu Ganesha and Sasivekalu Ganesha Temples. We could not visit some monuments at all—the Hemakuta group of monuments, the Ganagatti Jain Temple, the octagonal water tank, Bhima’s Gate, etc., were pointed out to us by our guide in passing.

So, while I cannot write a detailed post on these quick visits here, I will compensate that with some photographic impressions of those “breeze in, breeze out” visits here.

Carved pillars at the Krishna Temple, depicting stories from the Bhagavatham. The Krishna Temple was consecrated in 1513 and is a complex with many sub-shrines and halls.

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The temple ruins of Hampi – 2: Vittala Temple

If Hampi was the showpiece of the Vijayanagara Empire, then the Vittala Temple is undoubtedly the showpiece of Hampi. Everything about the Vittala Temple is designed to make a statement—right from its settings and surroundings to its architecture to the temple complex itself. Everything. It is for this reason that the Vittala Temple is the most visited monument in Hampi, thereby making it the most talked about or written about or photographed monument. It is also the reason why our tour group was standing outside the Vittala Temple complex at 8.00 am one Saturday morning last month. Doreen, our tour organiser, was insistent that we visit the Vittala Temple before any other monument to avoid the tourist hordes. It was a good thing too, as the tourists started arriving in waves as we were leaving.

Located on the banks of the Tungabhadra with Anegundi on the opposite river bank, the approach to the Temple is through the stone ruins of a bazaar. We also pass a water tank and some manadapa-like monuments.

Bazaar outside the Vittala Temple

The temple ruins of Hampi – 1: Hazara Rama Temple

The simple and elegant entrance to the Hazara Rama Temple

For me, the Hazara Rama Temple is right on top of the list of temples I liked in Hampi. This is not one of the biggest or the grandest of temples in Hampi, but it is certainly the most intimate temple, a temple which felt like my own personal space. It is also the temple with the most intricate carvings, which begin with the outer walls of the temple complex itself.

Inside, the temple is no less ornamental. It is full of bas reliefs from the life of Rama or Krishna, both avatars of Vishnu. I was very proud of myself for being able to recognise the various characters in the panels and reliefs and the stories that were trying to convey. All thanks to the stories that my grandmothers and my mother narrated to me in my childhood. And of course, Amar Chitra Katha!