Eastern and Western approaches



In an article "Celebrating the return of spring with colour" appearing around the time of Holi in the Times of India of March 13, 1998, Ms Namita Devidayal quoting musicologist Ashok Ranade, explains how the Indian word "rang" says much more than just colour - it "evokes a positive quality well beyond the visual and manifest. It symbolises a metaphysical condition, containing within it emotions, passions, personalities and moods." On the other hand, she points out, colour in English, derives from the word meaning to cover or to conceal.

This is a valuable insight but it would be wrong to assume that, therefore, "colour" in the English language or in Western thought generally has no great spin-off of its own. In fact, the product or outflow is quite considerable and it is both intensive as well as extensive.

Consider, for example, the following passage from only the Introduction to her book "Colour" by Hazel Rossotti. She had received many suggestions from friends and colleagues and total strangers for her book :

"Did I know about such and such an article, picture, word, exhibition, lecture, poem, book, phenomenon? Usually, I didn’t, and much enjoyed following their leads, which took me down many unlikely pathways, to learn about fluorescent scorpions, textile designs, colour words in biblical Hebrew, new forms of street-lighting, the rainbow in Celtic mythology, Newtons’s influence on English poetry, the tattooing of seamen, wavelength discriminatiion in bees, Minoan wall-paintings and much else besides….. And, in particular, I learnt that almost everyone has some interest in some aspect of colour."

The two ways of thinking, namely, the emotional, the imaginative, the speculative in India and the measured, the studied, the rational or scientific way in the West, epitomise two wholly different approaches to the same subject. Do they have the same validity or is one better than the other? Are we required to choose?

We must guard against the tendency to only see merit in ourselves and our own kind of thought. Indeed, there is much to be said for the West’s study of colour as a phenomenon. It all began, of course, with Issac Newton’s pioneering experiments with ordinary sunlight and a prism. By first passing light through a prism, Newton observed that white light consisted of seven colours. By re-passing these colours through another prism, Newton discovered that they joined together to form white light.

Today, some 350 years later, as a direct result of the scientific and industrial revolution that began with experiments in optics and other phenomena by scientists like Newton and others, we have available to us colour television, colour printing and even instant colour paint mixing by computer to any kind of shade required. It could not have been achieved by mere philosophising or pure speculation. In its essence, this is also, of course, the reason for the large gulf today between the developed and the developing countries.

In one of his books, Nobel Laureate and physicist Richard Feynman speaks about how his friend objected to his analysis of the petals of a rose. It spoils the pristine beauty of the flower, his friend said. Feynman cannot bring himself to agree. He says he enjoys both the romance of the rose as well as a study of the make-up of its parts. He thinks this adds greatly to his pleasure, he does not see why it should subtract.

Ms Devidayal expresses the hope that if the Indian people somehow realise that they represent the different constituents of white light (specifically, orange for Hindutva and green for the Islamic world), we may yet be able to come together and recognise that we are one nation. This must remain a pious hope. In the real world, things don’t happen in quite this way. She means well, of course, and I don’t wish to be critical of her hopes and aspirations but this is precisely the difficulty with the emotional or philosohpical approach.

Hard reality requires that we base our wishes and our desires on a much firmer foundation. Unless India becomes a fully literate, properly educated and a much more prosperous nation - all this to be accomplished only through the twin tools of modern science and technology - it is unlikely that the communal problem will be fully solved. As science and technology advance, so people are also released from the vice-like grip of religion. This is also how it happened in Europe. Until 200 years ago, Catholics and Protestants were regularly fighting each other all over Europe. To fight on account of one’s religion would be considered bizarre in Western Europe today.

There is no reference in Ms Devidayal’s article to the actual practice of Holi or Rang Panchami in our cities today. Decent, law-abiding citizens who do not wish to participate in the revelry are well-advised to stay at home. There is the general messiness and disorder that goes with coloured water and powder, the danger of this being ingested in the eyes, organised sexual harassment under the guise of merriment and the reckless and spiteful throwing of balloons filled with water and even the throwing of stones!

All this in the name of a religious festival! This is the advantage of the Western or rational approach. If religious or other festivals exceed their exuberant limits, they need to be curbed.

What does all this amount to? If we follow the Western way of sane, logical, reasoned thinking, must we jettison our own way of instinctive life and thought? Not at all! Like Feynman, it is possible to combine the two in one grand intellectual scheme. We school ourselves to enjoy Indian as well as Western music, Indian as well as Western dance forms, Indian as well as Western food. Why not treat Indian mythology as mythology, Indian religious works as great epics and not all-time blueprints for the future, Indian philosophical thought as great contributions of the past to a study of the human mind, Indian customs and practices as singular, attractive events while basing it all - as indeed we will be compelled to do in the modern world - on an overall firm foundation of logical, scientific, rational thinking? With a rich cultural heritage such as is ours in India, we are in the unique position of being able to do this. We neglect doing so only at our peril.