Sisters | by Thota Vaikuntam
Saffron popularity in the painting industry
Last Saffron Express articles were about the importance of this red gold in food, medicine, and art industry; Now we are going to delineate the emergence of saffron as a color, too. Please continue reading this brief history about the popularity of this spice in the dying industry with Saffron Express.
Saffron is the dried red stigma (part of the pistil) of the saffron crocus (Crocus Sativa L.), a low-growing perennial plant. It has multiple uses that include its use as a medicament, as a spice in food, in perfumes as well as in dyes. We are concerned here only with this last usage, that is, saffron as a color. As a dye, the principal pigment of saffron is α-crocin which is a water-soluble carotenoid.
The saffron even found its way to the fashion industry
Scholars have reported its use in different historical contexts ranging from the Phoenicians’ supply of saffron dyed stuff to the Assyrian kings, to its being the color of the marriage robe in ancient Rome, to its use on the shrouds for the wrapping of mummies in Egypt. In India, the Buddhist monks wore robes of saffron, though these robes were not dyed by it. This may not be surprising, as red gold was hardly used as a dyeing substance in India.
Read also: REPRODUCTIVE BIOLOGY OF SAFFRON FLOWER
How did different cultures use the same product?
the word, ‘Zafran’ (Arabic for saffron) was used in southern India for turmeric and even the Portuguese called it acafrao da terra. The glossary tells us that this turmeric or Haldi (Hindi)/halad (Deccan)/Haridra/hari (Sanskrit: both for green and yellow) was termed Croco Indiaco as well. It was also mentioned that Persian writers call this al-kurkum because “they dye yellow in the same way as saffron does”. We get a similar confirmation from George Watt’s A Dictionary of the Economic Products of India where we find Kesar along with various other terms (Jafran, Safran, Kecara, Kunkuma, Kumkuma, Saurab, Thanwai, and Kurkum) for saffron. He also mentions the red gold cultivation in Kashmir, explaining that the Indian supply was obtained from France, China, Kashmir, and a small quantity from Persia.
While in Europe, it was chiefly used as a dye and a coloring agent for cheese and cuisines, and to a limited extent in medicine, Watt notes that in India it was “too expensive to be used as a dye-stuff’. However, it was nevertheless ‘held in high esteem as a medicine”.
It is also told that the saffron from Persian and Kashmir was rarely available in Bombay; the Chinese and European imported article was considered much superior to its Indian counterpart as the latter was adulterated with safflower (Carthamus tinctorius). Owing to the resemblance of dried Safflower to saffron safflower was termed “bastard saffron“! However, it was believed that it produced only a fugitive color and not a permanent one.
In the late 19th century, we find that fabrics dyed with safflower and saffron were prohibited for males among the Sunnis of the Hanafi sect. However, there was no prohibition on wearing a fabric of any other shade if the cloth satisfied the norms of cleanliness and purity (that is, it must not be stained with wine, urine, animal excreta, or contaminated by any impure substance). As this color was not prohibited for females, we may understand that the use of the color saffron differentiated along gender lines.
Saffron became à la mode among Indian politics
A shade of red that acquired a huge implication in Indian politics and which was closely equated with red gold since the mid-1920s was red ochre. Fakirs and mendicants commonly used it for dyeing their clothes a dull orange. It is also remarked that this was an austere color for the Hindus and was in use for various ritual purposes. It would be erroneous to accept that the community of mendicants and fakirs was a monolithic one because these groups were differentiated along the lines of beliefs, practices, organization as well as appearance. The role played by history both in defining saffron and equating saffron with Hinduism is discussed.
Read also: The role of saffron in Holi celebration
The orange color of the Indian flag
The Specification for the Indian National Flag of India (Cotton Khadi) by the Bureau of Indian Standards, Ministry of Food and Civil Supplies (Government of India), prescribes that the design of the Indian National Flag shall be a tricolor panel consisting of three rectangular panels or sub-panels of equal widths. While the top panel in this scheme is assigned to the color of “saffron”, the bottom and middle are given Indian green and white.
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Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour, p. 1
Sadan Jha, Challenges in the history of coloures: The case of saffron, p 200-205
Sadan Jha, Challenges in the history of coloures: The case of saffron, p 214
Madan et al., ‘Saffron’; Basker and Negbi, ‘Uses of saffron’.
Basker and Negbi, ‘Uses of Saffron’, p. 230.
Yule and Burnell, Hobson–Jobson, p.780.
Watt, A Dictionary of Economic Products, Vol. 2, p. 592.
Anon., A Monograph on Dyes and Dyeing in the North western Provinces and Oudh, p. 63