What Red Means To Shakti And To Indian Art
Her colour is Red.
It is her manifested form, the primordial bindu, and the background for the depiction of heightened emotions in Indian art.
Poor demon Mahishasura. Durga’s appetite for red is ferocious. Against a perilously close distance from her devouring anger, evil would prefer to remain in the folds and crevices of darkness it thrives in. But Mahishasura makes a dangerous assumption. He thinks the beautiful Durga would be rendered helpless. He wants to overpower her. She launches her weaponry soaked in red. She charges ahead with her energies and wrath into another battle of her own. Her eyes are red, in anger, red, her sari, red, her complexion. Red should have warned him. Raktavarna is her name. “Sindurarunavigraham Triyanayanam”.
She is the divine mother whose body is the colour of vermilion. She is Durga — the goddess with three eyes, celebrated in a thousand titles of the abundant and embracing Lalitha Sahasranama.
The mighty lion, her vahana, has a paw ready to puncture the repulsive evil out of the demon. Mahishasura is torn and dead. His tongue sticks out, lifeless, or may be still writhing in wonder. Durga’s blood-thirsty lion, her vahana, has blood on his paws, blood on his tongue. The red of the lion’s blood, the red of the blood hurtling out of demon Mahishasura and the red of Durga’s own drape, a flowing sari, are not the same. But, they are red — in the flux and reflux of her conquests and the entire eternal exercise of replenishing the blood of good and evil. Dushtadura is her name. She believes in reinforcements – of red, this goddess warrior, warrior goddess, inspiration to the bravest of the brave and the mightiest.
Red is the extract from her moving weapons and wrath — two elements that emerge from her powerful image and imagery. Red is the seed and the resultant essence of the rhythm that sets in motion, when Durga decides to pick her battles, and when she gently turns away from the battle pitch, after the theatre of action has drawn to an end, and blood flowed. Here, maya — the formidable, positive, unfathomable and mysterious Durga walks away, to be and unravel as Prakriti. The theatre of action, revenge and benevolence of the warrior goddess goes on and on. Can any other colour drape her, then, as rightfully as red?
Her depiction changes with every human imagination and mind. But red stays, as stays blood. One of them is displayed at the National Museum, New Delhi. Based on the story of Devi Mahamaya of Markandeya Purana, the painting dated between 1710 and 1720 AD is warm and brave depiction of Durga’s form, especially her ashtabhuja (eight arms). The ashtabhuja are shown as beautiful bearers of Durga’s weaponry and destructive creation. The imagery would find mention in musical compositions dedicated to the devi, in folk painting and theatre narratives, over the years, decades and centuries that have followed this work.
She is dressed in a red sari. A blouse to contrast. Her demeanour is calm. Shown mounted on simha, her vahana, even as the gods (all male) stand in respect for her after she killed Mahishasura, speaks more of her own identity and less about gender of Mahishasurmardini. Noteworthy is a snake dangling around her neck and lotus adorning her crown.
Seemingly, in this painting, Durga presents no urgency of response, except of acknowledgement of respect from the gods, who stand facing her. In contrast to this demeanour, is the depiction of Goddess Bhadrakali in another painting displayed in the museum’s collection. The goddess, also dressed in a red sari, is shown dancing on a dead body in this work based on the story of Devi Mahamaya of Markandeya Purana. The aspect of rhythm is denoted subtly and does not mingle with the imagery of mridanga being played by her in the act.
The worshipping of Durga during Navratras, can also be understood as the most invigorating worshipping of Shakti, the source of inner strength and the great warrior mounted on a lion. Red, the beeja of the feminine, the bindu of femininity, also becomes a flowing source of that Shakti. Navratra, the autumnal perusal of Shakti, in soul and exterior, arrives as the celebration of that red, Shakti’s red. It arrives in mantras that invoke sindura and rakta, in sindura and kumkum, it arrives in japa, the flower, in red drapes.
Red is the foreground, background and canvas of her destroying power. It is a witness, too. It sees her reducing gods and demons powerless in her brave creative oeuvres. Red manifests itself repeatedly, as she destroys to protect and protects to destroy. Red is intervention — in her gentleness and rage. Red takes over as a symbol when Durga is helping and assisting the other gods, when she puts a face and colour to tasks assigned to her in protecting and upholding the rhythm of the cosmos. It is something that Shiva does being the eternal rhythm himself. She is Shivashaktaikyarupini — in the unity of form — her form and Shiva’s. She is Shrishiva — the auspicious and divine Shiva. She is Krodhakarankashojjwala.
Yet, she is tender like the japa flower. The flower red. So, she wears japa in garlands and ornaments. Red on red. There is more red in her eternal palette. This ardent colourist with her enamouring love for red can’t have enough of the colour. She is adorned in kumkum and love. She is radiant.
Removing red from her is removing the sacred. She is too red for any mischievous depiction in monochrome in the name of depiction on canvas or the battlefield.
With every name in her sahasranama, Durga or Lalitha, leaves red to the bhaktas’ imagination. The red for a devi, who likes turmeric would be so fragrant and billowing in rich thickness. The red for a devi, who is adorned in japa, precious stones and red itself, would be like her own moods — various and vibrant. The red for Shiva’s own — a whirl in whimsical blue and ash grey. While some contemporary artists have burned midnight oil and cigars over demystifying Durga’s garments — owing to their skin in the art market game, it is really the unknown painters who have delved deep into the ancient texts to put on paper their honest depiction of Durga and other goddesses. These artists come from the various schools and styles of Indian art history — scattered in different regions. These unknown artists have also done the extraordinary work of poring over small details in texts and bringing them in harmony with their own imagination and technique passed through oral tradition and practice. For Durga, they derived the reds from different sources in their continuous experimentation with colour to arrive at pigments. The inspiration was one. Red.
Red from dry rose petals mixed with gum from trees, sometimes with animal milk, red from madder plant, red, of vermilion. Thinning and thickening it with elements and material available to arrive at red, they gave the reds derived a new purpose every time. Oil on canvas awakened a new repertoire of red and work in red that would open the field for details and decorative elements. The red of Ambika, where she sits calmly surrounded by women offering music and seva leaves red to soak the senses. Then came pigment from more practice and influences – Vermilion, Victoria Madder, Monopol Red. Meeting the needs of oleograph production, especially in line with the tall works of Raja Ravi Varma, enriched the palette. More recently, artist Madhavi Parekh would concoct her own red out of natural sources to arrive at her depictions of the devi that are nourished and inspired by the local stories in Gujarat. Serigraphs (like this serigraph of an untitled work of K G Subramanyan) of works of some of India’s renowned contemporary artists have made red travel faster and wider in ‘editions’ to Western audience, along with the imagery of the Indic woman propelled by the imagery of Durga. The face, arms and belly in the untitled serigraph of this work are in red. Rest is left to imagination.
Red is Durga’s. It is her colour. Red is the colour of shakti (power and strength). Durga is shakti herself. Red is shakti – her adjective, power and powerful. How red is her red, especially after she devoured Raktabeeja, killed Mahishasura, vanquished Shumb and Nishumbh, defeated Madhu and Kaitabha? So red, it humbles Parashakti herself. It humbles the red that the act of destroying engages with. Vedajanani – mother of vedas. No, she is not the material for monochrome depictions. Even red, her red, is so many reds.
In an article on painter M F Husain, who became embroiled in a controversy surrounding some of his works, including a work where he depicts a female figure in red postured as the Indian peninsula, The Guardian says, “further outrage followed his unclothed female figuration of the national map – the title of Bharat Mata (Mother India) did not come from him, he maintained – in 2006.”
This painting was different from other controversial ones in one way. That it had taken personification of a figure into another figure, to another level – a geographical one, is a different field of argument and matter. Colour establishes perception before, and often when it is used to turn around perception in and through contemporary art. The figure painted in red in Husain’s work stays in the viewer’s memory. Against the undeniable and wrenching power of red, stands India’s art history and the use of red in art and the politics of art – eventually tumbling over to the chaos of ideology and ideological debates. Uncannily, it also includes ‘Durga’ depicted not in red.
The acceptance of red as the colour of the idea of revolution, especially of those who do not believe in Durga, her worship or the idea of worship in general, is bloodless, lifeless, plain and futile in this celebration of colour. Red, in tradition, is the colour of devi. Bhaktas, the beholders of the devi in her relentless celebration, are her audience. They stand alongside the idols of Ganesha, Kartikeya, Lakshmi and Saraswati as she is offered the holy waters of the rivers, fruits and japa – the red hibiscus by priests. They hold her red, in kumkum settled on hair parting, in japa cradled in palms, during puja. They smear the red — in sindoor khela, after the culmination of her celebration in the Navratras.
Durga is not only the propeller of action, and the theatre of action, but the slayer of despondency. Her bhaktas need her for even turning away from and evading that patch of despondency which delays action. Some turn to the Devi Bhagavata Purana for that much needed push out of procrastination, and other bhaktas like Lord Ram, turn to the devi — the great source of energy, inspiration and strength herself. Depictions inspired by and based on episodes from Ramayana would indicate that red flows out into this aspect, to inspire action. The mid-seventeenth century Malwa style painting showing Ram piercing the seven sal trees with a single arrow from National Museum’s collection (Ramayana in Indian Miniatures) conceals the beautiful Kishkinda in a brilliant play of reds. Another mid-seventeenth century Malwa style painting shows Ram’s army on the march. Ram is carried on the shoulder of Hanuman and the vanaras are moving fearlessly towards Lanka. The vanaras look pretty happy with walking against deep red, towards Ravan. Yet another mid-seventeenth century Malwa style work shows Ram writing his own name on the stones to make them float. The vanaras help him — against deep red.
Earlier this year, Swarajya had seen and covered Ram Abhiram, a milestone display of works based on and inspired by Ram and Ramayana. These works from the National Museum’s own collection painted in the different styles of Indian miniature, are important to Ram, Ramayana and red from the Indic artist’s view.
Red remains a constant in sorrow, confrontation and celebration, mostly in the depiction of the garments worn. It is in abundance against friction, aggression, movement and action. It is used as a backdrop to some of the crucial meetings and moments between Sita-Ram-Lakshman and others.
Ravan, the powerful king, mostly, is painted in red garments. Red is also used to depict maya, the negative hues of maya. A nineteenth century Kalighat painting showing Ram and the golden deer Maricha is awash in red. Red deepens with the deepening of intrigue around Maricha disguised as the golden deer. Kalighat has given a narrative and style that would inspire Jamini Roy and his works.
In a Kangra style early nineteenth century Pahari painting Ram, Sita and Lakshman are shown paying respect to the three queens. As the vanaras watch their arrival and welcome in Ayodhya, Sita is depicted in a red garment. The viewer’s attention shifts to the repetition of Sita’s garment in this work more owing to the fact that she has been shown prostrating twice with Ram before the royal mothers. First, before Kaushalya, and later, Sumitra and Kaikeyi. All three royal mothers wear red too. Kaikeyi’s palm, decorated in red, stands out. A mid-seventeenth century Malwa style painting on paper shows Ram, Sita, Lakshman and the vanaras returning on the pushpak vimana. Sita’s garment wears red on its border against Ram’s red dhanush, which is in harmony with a red pitambar, the tarkash and his crown.
The Navratras culminate in Dussehra. When the goddess sees her celebration unfold into the worship of weapons on the tenth day — which marks the defeat and end of Ravan, the man of mayas, in negative connotation and contexts. The idea of creation and protection makes her known and embraced by her bhaktas as Prakriti herself.
Bindu is the seed of Prakriti. Durga is Bindutarpanasantushta — the one who is pleased by the offering to bindu. Among the artists who have made India the destination of painting and viewing in contemporary art expressions is Sayed Haider Raza. In his own spiritual journey that stands unparalleled in colour and depiction, Raza has offered his tribute to the bindu.
Red, in its different manifestations would perhaps be the first sight to be picked by the untrained eye in Raza’s work, Prakriti Purush. While all other colours, including black, seem to take their own depths and directions, red remains stable before the viewer’s inner vision, in lines, circles, triangles and an arch. It seems as stable and necessary as punctuation, often propelling the understanding of the colour itself, which, for the untrained viewer often comes before the understanding of the work. Red gives the blood to Raza’s work, where he wanders through colours and bindu, an important symbol that helps him unfold his own ideas and thoughts on cosmic emergence of life, the male and the female. Look at how red makes him wander in his work Tapovan. It is one of the works of this stalwart which celebrates red like it is meant to be celebrated — in streak, smudge, strokes, streams and swabs, before he takes control over the colour, as if, finally and forcefully making it meet grim blends of green, yellow, red and black. Red holds life in his works under the Nagas series.
If bindu, a recurring symbol in his work is the centre of his own meditation and focus, the field of his dhyaan, red is the centre of primordial energy in his internal quest in colours. His work Sapta Ras, a serigraph, shows how Raza understood the presence of red in its conversation with other colours.
Red could easily be called Raza’s Paris. The city and space for his learning, living, maturing, accommodation, performance and study. Paris is from where he went on to make, along with his contemporaries, India the destination of art, viewing, and the seed of spiritual aspects he was turned towards. And red is from where he sometimes even travelled Bharat, as you see in Bharat, his work, in Saurashtra, in Jaipur.
Red has been the malleable metal of maya in visual art.
Red is the personification of mystery and Durga of maya. She is maya herself. “Ya Maya Madhu Kaithabha Pramathini, Ya Mahishonmulini, Ya Dhumrekshana Chanda Munda Mathini, Ya Raktabeeshashini.” The words held (early) in memory and memorising settle red in the consciousness as a colour of necessary action. Know red as Durga’s red and it would never be attributed to your deity under alien connotations and contexts. The more you drift towards Indic texts, the more you would understand red in art and its clever use.
Red will see what you see not, and not show or even weaken what you wish to see. This aspect often drives the use of red even in contemporary art expressions. The display and act of firing deep red wax pellets from a cannon, on a white wall, in Anish Kapoor’s thoroughly moving and disturbing work (seen in 2010) helped understand in retrospect that Durga’s red is as gentle as the japa flower. It is not a clot of negative pigment.
From japa’s red would Sukhaprada, the giver of happiness, arise. Rub japa against your sight. Make its red burn under your gaze. It would bring you closer to Durga – Bandhamochani — the one who is free from bonds and helps release from bondage. The real icon of freedom from darkness, and Indic gender revolution, is Durga. And the colour of Sarvaruna is red.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.