Sunday, September 11, 2011

Colored Ragas: Synesthesia and Carnatic Music

Here's something very curious - and very personal in some ways - I wanted to put out there so that hopefully, I get to hear what people have to say about this and even better would be to know if there are other people who have similar experiences.

I associate colors with ragas. Yes. And swaras too. Kharaharapriya is greenish; Kalyani is yellowish; Bahudhari is purplish; Nalinakanthi is orangish... Sa is yellowish, ri is greenish, ga is majenta, ma is reddish... I could go on. You might think either a) I'm making it all up, or b) I'm crazy. Well for now in my defense, I can only say neither is the case, unless you can jump into my brain (which, trust me, you likely wouldn't want to do). I've experienced this raga/ swara - color correlation since childhood. In fact, I associate colors with abstract things much more fundamental than colors and ragas in some sense: I see letters of the alphabet as well as numbers, as colored. I have always been very curious about this and among the handful of people I shared this with when I was growing up, no one seemed to experience anything similar. It was only a couple of years ago that I learned about synesthesia from this extremely insightful and engaging talk by V.S Ramachandran (and shamefully, I go to the very university he teaches at and I haven't had a chance to meet him yet). In brief, synesthesia is a neurological condition where multiple (usually two) senses/ perceptions get mixed up.

The correspondence (between the color and say, a raga) in my case seems to be completely random: there doesn't seem to be a pattern in the correlation between say, the frequency of a swara or the mood of a raga and the colors I associate with them respectively. Same goes with numbers and letters: I see no pattern (for instance, higher the number, darker the color). My initial suspicion was that this had its roots in the fact that I had colored plastic letters and numbers to play with when I was a kid; but now I doubt it, for I don't even seem to remember the colors of most of the pieces. But may be the colors, in their abstract, stuck on subconsciously and I lost the ability to actively recall what color each piece was. But even if all this began with my playing with these colored pieces of letters and numbers, how did it catch on to music as well? May be it's all linguistic after all? May be the color of a raga for me is the color I associate with the first letter of the name of the raga? For I see 'N' as orange, and Nalinakanthi is indeed orange too. But this cannot be the case: the foregoing example has to be a coincidence, for other ragas starting with N are not necessarily orange for me. In fact, I don't seem to always perceive ordinary words as colored (although letters are colored) and even when I do, the color seems to have little to do with the color I associate with not just the first, but any of the constituent letters (and similarly, the color of a raga seems to have little to do with the colors of the constituent swaras).

Two clarifications are in order. First, I think letters or numbers or ragas or whatever - produce a sensation of color only when they're "inside" and not "outside". I mean, when I look at a number or hear someone say a letter; or for that matter even hear someone sing a raga or a swara or sing it myself; I don't think the color sensation shows up. Or if it does, it certainly is not very strong. It is rather the thinking of these entities (for lack of a better word); that conjures up the colors for me. And second, it's extremely hard to put a name to each color I see! It's usually a haze and while I'm sure that I'm having a color sensation, I'm not sure what color it is. I think it's usually not even a well defined color (which is why the "ish-s" suffixed to names of all the colors I mentioned above)

I don't know if what I've described above is characteristic of synesthetes in general. May be I'm not synesthetic at all. One goal for this year is to go to a Cognitive Science lab and get a test done. How interesting that would be!

Sorry for the ramble. I've been wanting to write about this for so long now and finally, just dashed it off while in a restless mode :( Hope it all made at least some sense, and I'm very eager to hear your reactions.


guessing what to display here said...

Nice article and something to think about -
Remembered the project Dhruv's music teacher did last year - Associating colors to Raagas - Hamsadwani was associated to Violet as it represents Gambira and so on..

Sindhuja Bhakthavatsalam said...

Haha.. yes, but I somehow think that was quite random :P The kids did a good job though.

Vinayak said...

Hey I'm Vinayak, Swaroop Mamidipudi's cousin, incidentally I'm actually starting a PhD in Economics at UCSD just now. He had a link to your blog on facebook. Anyway, what your experiencing certainly sounds like synesthesia. Many times the colors are not so pronounced as you are saying. I think Ramachandran also talks about a "higher" level of synesthesia between abstract concepts which is maybe what you have. Will be great to meet you sometime!

Sindhuja Bhakthavatsalam said...

Hi Vinayak, thanks - I should look deeper into VSR's work. Welcome to UCSD. It would be nice to meet you too.

SS said...

Hi Sindhuja,

I am Saranya, a carnatic music lover. I happened to land in your by bloghopping... BTW u have an awesome blog! I had always associated raagas with colors! Never though I would find someone else who also thinks like that.
Thanks for the info on synesthesia. I am sure going to google about this.


SS said...

BTW I even started a blog on this topic some time back..

Anonymous said...

Few years ago I watched a series of videos on "extraordinary people", here's one that I remember, about a lady (Elizabeth from Switzerland) who not only "sees" music but "tastes" it too. Watch

By the way, just out of curiosity, what colour do you see when someone goes "besura" (off-pitch)? Is that colour associated with that "besura" note also equally jarring to you?

Sindhuja Bhakthavatsalam said...

Thanks, SS,
Anonymous: Thanks, have watched it before. Quite incredible indeed. And no, I don't see a color specifically for a "besura" - I'm pretty sure my synesthesia is not quite that exotic!

ayamatma brahma said...


I have associated colors with ragas since i was very little, though i dont actually see them as a synestesiac does. I assume every one associates a tune with a specific emotion that it triggers, which in turn is associated with a color. I have been very interested in this specific correlation of the color of ragas and have searched the breadth of the internet looking for this. I just heard an episode od new sounds on npr (wnyc) that deals with synistesia and suddenly realized what i needed to search for, and I found this!

I am trying to make a list of all the ragas and the colors I associate them with. Some of them are strong, some weak, some constant, some changing depending on the artists interpretation of the raga and my interpretation at that moment in time.

I see Revathi as deep deep maroon,
Kapi as jungle green,
Sudha dhanyasi, abheri, kaanada are various shades of green. Dharbari kaanada has purple hues though.
Natabhairavi is Red.
Shankarabharanam is gold/honey yellow.
Kalyani is a solid blue.
Mohanam is baby pink.
Hamsadhwani is lavender.

Deepa said...

Check this out!