SUNDAY FEATURE: Power Purple

The sedimented meaning of purple can be destabilised but it power and profoundness still stays.

When Kamala Devi Harris walked inside the Capitol, chin up, shoulders square with utmost grace alongside her husband Doug Emhoff for the US Presidential inauguration ceremony – the historic moment was made even more striking by her choice of Tyrian purple outfit that swayed the masses rekindling the rhetoric of purple.

The fashion diplomacy of purple interestingly has a mythological story to begin with when nymph named Tyrus subsequently asked the mighty God Heracles to make a garment of the colour that Heracles’s dog had smeared his face with on biting into a mollusk. It was the colour purple that the sea snail secreted. The colour was novel in its origin and exclusive in its access. Around two and a half lakh mollusks could hardly yield an ounce of usable dye. This gave it a regal reputation becoming the colour of high priests and royalty from Roman and Persian empires to the Japanese in the east who extracted purple from shigusa, a purple gromwell plant which is equally difficult to grow. 

In spite, of purple’s association with royalty, the meaning and perception of purple is a cultural construct and is very contextual. In Thailand and South America (particularly Brazil), purple is the colour of mourning and grief. Purple is also considered a jinxed colour to date in many regions across the world, associating it with mystery and magic. No wonder why in antiquity oracle of Delphi had a purple veil as mentioned by authors like Aristotle and Ovid. While, in United States Purple Heart is given to the soldiers wounded or killed in war as a military decoration but more to show love and compassion and when Alice Paul started and unionized the Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington D.C. in 1913, purple came to symbolize the “color of loyalty, constancy to purpose, unswerving steadfastness to a cause,” and “the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette, the instinct of freedom and dignity”. While Alice Walker, winner of Pulitzer Prize for her outstanding book ‘The Color Purple’ bestowed saturated purple (the one Kamala Harris chose to wear) a more intense and classic meaning that represented the mature and wiser ‘womanism’ which is in contrast to the delicate feminism represented by colour lavender. Thus the royal purple began to symbolize freedom, resilience and transformation of marginalized women (black women in particular) who have been obliterated from history.

Therefore, purple has no fixed signified meaning but endlessly differs and defers with ‘supplementarity’ and ‘traces’. It is indeed a sign of a sign of yet another sign quite literally too. In Old English purpre described the royal purple clothing of an emperor. It has been derived from the Latin purpura which in turn was derived from the Greek porphura denoting the mollusks that yielded the crimson dye. According to the dictionary meaning, purple can be defined in two ways, i.e, as a group of colours with a hue between that of violet and red and as a cloth of colour between violet and red which is worn as a symbol of royalty or high office. This leads to various concepts leading from one signified to the other. For instance, ‘purple prose’ is used for exaggerated and elaborate writings; ‘purple cow’ for something remarkable and unique; ‘purple speech’ for profane and bad language and ‘purple haze’ for confusion induced by drugs.

Indeed, this colour creates confusion enough by leading to the knowledge of unthought-of-thoughts just like when we realize in the end that PURPLE is not a colour at all. Scientifically, purple is not a colour since there is no beam of pure light that looks purple. Our eyes see purple because they are tricked to believe it so. It is a secondary colour that is obtained by mixing the blue and red. However, it is precisely this reason that also makes purple special in spiritual realms, thereby, associating it with creativity, imagination and high minded spirituality. It is believed that purple is the only colour that is profound enough to engulf and balance the calm stability of blue and fierce energy of red.

Although the sedimented meaning and symbolism of purple can be destabilized further and further but its power and profoundness stays even when deconstructed to smithereens. No wonder, Kamala chose this colour whose power cannot be pinned down, that refuses to fit in a typecast and that which broke the glass ceiling.

On a lighter note, looks like Kamala and all the other powerful ladies also knew how best to tell their nation that it is high time for the red of republicans and blue of democrats to work together, to genuinely make America great again after the veritable cyclone of Trumpism has been over now. 

Published in The Post India on 4.03.2021

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