For two weeks now I have been traveling in India. The sensory life here is deep and rich, historical and immediate. Everywhere, city or countryside, wealthy or poor, women wear the astonishingly graceful and beautiful saris, most often in subtly striking combinations of colors that we might describe as saturated and jewel-like. All kinds of pinks…from deep magenta to almost lavender. Greens of chartreuse to a clear deep forest green. Blues of aqua, turquoise and indigo. The most beloved color is a saffron yellow that you might remember as “yellow-orange” in the Crayola box. Sometimes men show their love of color with all manner of turbans…regionally coded…beautiful against their dark skin.
Many, many things are decorated with multiple colors…from scarves and shawls to the backs and fronts of trucks which are covered with intricate patterns and very often include words that ask you to “honk please”…a system of traffic management that westerners find overwhelmingly noisy and terrifying. It seems to work remarkably well however, reminding me of the way schools of fish can somehow pass each other without colliding.
Often the patterns you see in the woven bands on the borders of saris, the mosaics of floors and the carvings on the columns of buildings are very complex, symmetrical and precise…most likely echoing the deep mathematical heritage of Persia. Brightly colored flowers, often orange marigolds combined with pink and yellow blooms of different kinds, greet us at entrances of hotels and restaurants, floating in big shallow bowls on floors and tables, carefully and geometrically arranged. Every pattern and design imaginable is seen in the saris reflecting the old knowings of tie-dyeing, ikat and block printing along with many other fabric coloring techniques.
Smell is also a well-considered sensibility. More than once we have walked through strings of jasmine hanging in doorways that send out streams of fragrance as you brush by them in passing. Incense is a tradition. Food is abundantly spiced with pungent and enticing aromas of cardamom, ginger, anise…Masala Tea (chai) is spicy and comforting…and each family has their own favorite blend of flavors.
Indian experts, working in conservation here, are well aware the 5000 years of sustained cultural knowledge that is the real wealth of India…resides in the minds and hands of the people here…passed along by watching and listening, trying and practicing. Not learned from books. The Indian imagination is deeply connected to the earth and passionately expressed in many media. There is much to learn from India.
And the national bird is the noisy, colorful and elegant peacock…a perfect metaphor.