Blue mirrored in the ocean and seas—tranquility and moods. In India, it is the very colour of the Gods themselves. Probably why houses in the old quarter of Jodhpur, Rajasthan, are painted in various washes of blue. Resulting from the addition of copper sulphate to lime, the colour gives the old city its unique identity. Various explanations are proffered for the practice—it provides cooling shelter from the desert heat of Rajasthan, offers insecticidal protection against termites and rodents, it is the colour of lord Krishna, or that it represents high class Brahmin houses. Whatever the reason, over time, most of the city has embraced the colour. There are even blue mosques in the heart of the city.
Walking on the ramparts of the stately Mehrangarh fort, I catch my first glimpse of the blue. Awakened by the first rays of the sun, the old quarter of the city emerges from a winter-morning haze, its squat, flat-roofed houses huddling astride snake-like alleys in a vibrant maze as far as the eye can see. It is a spectacular sight. As an outsider, painting my house or`doing it up’ is also fundamentally about making a statement about individuality and taste. I wonder what motivated an entire population to homogenise and structure the look of neighbourhoods.
As I head down towards the city on a paved pathway skirting around the fort towards Suraj pol (Sun gate), I make a mental note to ask a few people in the city later. The morning light intensifies, playing games with layers of colourwash, one on top of another, year on year. I have never seen such rich texture up close. The man made— in wood, stone, bricks, plaster and clay—transformed continuously over time. The pigments alter with the years. Materials warp and crack. The actual substance of the lime wash changes visibly. Successive coats of wash react in different ways eventually transforming a flat surface into interesting compositions.
There is a seemingly limitless range of different blues here—from light baby blue to rich shades of lapis lazuli and turquoise, a darker indigo turning to startling cobalt—every shade conceivable.
The blue kaleidoscope is punctuated with flashes of vibrant colours every now and then. Hot pinks and yellows in turbans and flowing skirts. Sharp greens and purples on windows and bright oranges built into wall recesses, and then a little later, a basket of ripe tomatoes and fresh pink lotuses at street side stalls. The entire drama is played out within a wider canvas of earth and brown represented by the Mehrangarh fort, which is behind me now.
Walking past blue temples with bright orange Ganeshas, blue schoolhouses and grocery shops, I wander, lost in a surreal trance.
I climb narrow precarious flights of stairs and descend into alleys on impulse. Stopping for a breath every now and then, ducking balls flying off bats of cricket-playing schoolboys, watching out for the sewage flowing in narrow open drains on the sides of the street. Here, the streets are too narrow to allow motorised traffic, but there is no stopping the cows— large, pointy-horned beasts occupying the street, completely at ease with their surroundings.
I am distracted out of the stupor as an inquisitiveness to look at the city from within strikes. Mustering enough courage, I knock at a random door, which opens to a family going through their early morning chores in an open-to- sky courtyard. The matriarch of the household promptly ushers me in. A low-strung seat is offered and cups of sweet cardamom-flavoured tea materialise.
I accept their hospitality a little awkwardly. The blue from the outside has seeped inside too. Hindu Gods and Goddesses smile and offer psychedelic benedictions from framed calendars encased in brightly coloured acrylic frames hanging on walls. Other colours—soft pinks and greens— also adorn rooms and ceilings. None of the colours look like planned after a strict scheme, yet nothing clashes. No tone too garish or jarring set against another. Somehow in the past hour itself I have learnt to accept the most startling colour in the most unusual of places.
In this house, as elsewhere in Rajasthan, nobody bats an eyelid as a lone Nikon-wielding woman knocks on their door first thing in the morning. The talk is friendly and only mildly inquisitive “ am I married?’’, “how did my husband allow me to travel all by myself?’’. Ah, the city is used to tourists all right but not the `Indian woman all by herself’ variety, perhaps. I am like them, one of them. Surely I understand the codes that tie the women folk? Friendly advice, travel and safety related, follow very quickly albeit without any disapproval or judgment.
I excuse myself in a bit and climb up to the roof for a better view of the neighbourhood. The kitchen of the small house visible through a wrought iron mesh on the roof reveals large earthenware pots stacked neatly in the corner. Inside the family room, a television set enjoys a commanding position, while an invisible radio blares the latest Bollywood music from somewhere. The interiors are frugal, function clearly dominating form. On the roof, I find a discarded green chair stripped of paint, sitting against a flashy wall. A few quick shots later, I thank the family for their hospitality and set out in my search for some more blue.
As for my question. Why the blue? So much blue? Everything blue? Nobody seems to have any answers. It is just so.
Read the full feature on Prismma Magazine
Chandan Dubey is a Mumbai based writer, art critic and photographer.
She is deeply interested in conservation architecture and urban planning.
She blogs at Girl About Home