The gaze of the salesperson

When you look at a person from behind the viewfinder of your camera, you sometimes find an appraising gaze looking back at you. Such eyes belong to people who make a living by selling. I like long zooms for such photos, because you can see the initial appraisal still going on. The featured photo is of two auto drivers in Ujjain, a really ancient temple town. For about two thousand years the locals have made a living from the people who pass through. The best salesmen survive; others move away.

A colonial-era town in Myanmar may not have quite the same history of trade, but the calculation behind the cheerful call of the women trying to sell you a snack is clear. As you can see in this photos, their eyes appraise you, and the smile switches off the moment it is clear that you are not buying.

A walk through pre-Diwali street markets is always productive. In this photo, the young man, probably a recent arrival to Mumbai, is still trying to figure out whether a man with a camera is a likely target for a sales patter about fluffy toys. I wouldn’t have bought one, but I’m more excited by the neon pandas than the plush pikachu.

This photo of a man in Jodhpur’s market is one of my favourites. He’s pretty sure that I’m not part of this target demographic, but he’s still interested in figuring me out. I probably fall at some borderline between the various categories of tourists who visit the town.

The Doors: One More Time

Your ballroom days are over, baby
Night is drawing near
Shadows of the evening
Crawl across the years

Regensburg, Germany

Yeah, walk across the floor with a
Flower in your hand
Trying to tell me no one understands

Jantar Mantar, Jaipur, India

Trade in your hours for a handful of dimes
Gonna’ make it, baby, in our prime
Come together one more time
Get together one more time

Jorasanko, Kolkata, India

Hey, come on, honey
You go on along home and wait for me, baby
I’ll be there in just a little while

Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

You see, I gotta go out in this car
With these people and
Get together one more time

Amer Fort, India

Love my girl
She lookin’ good, lookin’ real good
Love ya, come on

by The Doors

Featured photo: car doors, vintage Ford at the Mumbai Vintage Car Rally

Mumbai- an overview

Each and every time when the plane begins its descent into Mumbai I feel excited about it. Coming back to the city I live in is always exciting, whether I’m back from a weekend in the deep jungles of Central India, a holiday in a big city in some other part of the world, a relaxing time in the middle heights of the Himalayas watching the sun rise over the world’s highest peaks, or the fussiest week of work away from home. Not for me the ennui that comes from the realization that I can have only four hours of sleep before I have to get in for a meeting. On the first day back in Mumbai even that work seems exciting.

As the plane glides over the densely packed apartments in the suburbs, the vast stretches of high density housing clutching desperately to hillsides (only to slide off sometimes in the monsoon) I realize that I am in a minority here. For some the four hours of sleep are a part of their daily routine. But even so, there is something miraculous about an enormous mass of people so focused on work that everything goes like clockwork. You don’t find this in Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru. So, as the plane slides over the blue tarp covered roofs on hillsides, the multi-storied acres of the suburbs, as a taxi speeds past the stalled development in mid-town, I love coming home.

But which part do I love? The calm oases of gardens, full of flowers and trees, birds and insects? Or dense crowds, sometimes a crush? Everything, I suppose. I started carrying a camera in my backpack years ago to capture every mood of the city. I’m glad that over the years that equipment has shrunk to a little phone in my pocket. Mumbai offers an unending cascade of images, if that’s what you are after.

Or, if you want, there are lovely restaurants and specialty food shops. Once upon a time, word of mouth was the uncertain means of getting to know them. Now, of course, the right new is just a thumb swipe away on your phone. There are foods, fusion of India and the world (Lebanese influenced on the left, Norwegian inspired on the right), which you cannot get elsewhere. I see a touch of this in Bengaluru too, a smidgen in Delhi, but the taste for the new is definitely more widespread in this city. It gives odd hybrids, but some really good stuff.

I know a few people who visit once a year, and love to walk the streets of Mumbai, looking for the odd and zany. One of them told me of a street vendor selling used dentures. I haven’t seen something that crazy. But the oddest of graffiti (why would you even bother to write down that particular stray thought?) or odd evidence of constant hustle (not exactly a Lincoln Lawyer, yet) can come your way even when you aren’t looking. That’s why a camera in your pocket is useful.

Hustle is the way of life in the city. The guy around the corner from your workplace, the chap who serves you the best vada-pav in town, or the bhel-puri guy setting up his stall there, they are all in the city seeking fortune. They are totally focused on it, like the cabbies who take the late night shift and have time to talk to you. They come here, thinking of making money and going back to their failing farms. But they stay. Their wives come to the city a few years later, they raise their children, who, sometimes, get the kind of job they want. But they never go back to the dust bowl they left behind. If you really look, under the blue tarp roofs you will find the Indian middle class. Everyone else in the city is the one percent, even if they spend two hours commuting to work, or think hard before buying their first phone in five years.

That’s Mumbai for you, the Mumbai of an old film song in the voice of Mohammad Rafi and Geeta Dutt. That’s the Mumbai that doesn’t stop even when terrorists attack. Hustle drives Mumbai. Everyone came here to find fortune, the Portuguese, the British East India Company, the Scotsmen who followed, the Armenians, the Baghdadi Jews, the Parsis, the Chinese traders. And it will remain the happy hunting ground of fortune seekers until the sea reclaims the city that was raised on the sea bed. It’s this transient place that I love coming back to.

Failed dispassion

When everyone else around me is waiting with bated breath for a tiger to emerge from the grass, my attention wanders to the blades of grass or the trees around us. The Family calls it my ADHD, the need to constantly take photos. Are they worth taking? The Family grants that some may be. “But are they art?” A confused friend asked me recently, adding “Normally you take pretty good photos.” So that’s the answer. Boredom is in the mind of the beholder.

We waited in the shade of a tree for a while because we’d heard the alarm call of a chital (Axis axis). These spotted deer are easily startled, but they do come across tigers more easily than us. As we waited, fruitlessly, as it turned out, I admired the sunlight on a dead tree across the road from us. You can lose yourself in the gnarly weathered pattern of the wood. That’s what our world is, we are.

The other thing I do at such times is play with the presentation. At what distance does the photo of a chestnut-tailed starling (Sturnia malabarica) turn from a portrait of the bird to a minimal composition of light and shape? In the first crop what does your eye do after seeing the shape of the branch and the bird? Does it land on the play of white on blue, cloud and sky? Would the silhouette of a panting changeable hawk-eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus) qualify as a minimalist abstract? Or is there too much detail in the silhouette of the decayed branch? The photo of the chestnut-headed bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti) can be seen as a composition in crossing lines, but is it too full of detail to be called minimal? Bird photography is always a lesson in presentation.

I went from jungle to the garden to find more examples of such compositions. A curtain of green opening to reveal two snails who have found the plant’s “bed of secret joy” would have been minimal if I’d cropped the snails from the photo, isn’t it? Now it is not. Instead it packs in a lot of stuff: the relation between the plant and the snail, the details of the leaf, and, even though the focus is not on it, the colour and shape of the nail’s shell. The tiny dry leaf that landed on a parchment on my table would become a minimalist composition if I’d drawn back further and given more space to the white of the parchment. But what is it now?

I didn’t think this photo of a boat on Bhimtal has the aggressive minimalism of a Brancusi. The Family reminded me that I am no Brancusi. I concede the point, but is there any reason to aim at less than the best? Maybe I can darken the colour of the boat so that this just looks like a pair of triangles suspended in a void. It is construction sites in Mumbai and sculptural buildings, like one in Kobe’s Bay Area, give me the best opportunities for minimalist photos. But as you can see, even these do not reach the stillness of Malevich’s Black Square.

One of the most famous exchanges in the Bhagwadgita, a dialogue between Arjun and Krishn at the beginning of a civil war, is Arjun’s cry, “The mind is very fickle indeed, turbulent, strong, and obstinate.” Every human mind is the same, and all of us want some control over it. The answer that Krishn gives sounds like no answer at all, “[control over the mind] can be achieved through sincere practice and dispassionate detachment.” But this is the only answer we have. It was the beginning of Gandhi’s political philosophy of Anashakti, detachment. And one can adapt it to the art of photography as well. What is needed to tame the turbulent world into minimalist images is discipline and dispassion: giving up the attachment to detail, to the exactitude that photography seems to bring automatically.

The shapers of jungles

Kanha is one of the most beautiful national parks. The first thing you notice are the enormous sal trees (Shorea robusta) forming patches with closed canopies. Then you notice that they are actually stands of trees in a larger grassland. The stands are carpeted with fallen leaves. The sunny grasslands are full of herds of chital (Axis axis, spotted deer). At the edges between the open grasslands and the forest are the more cautious sambar (Rusa unicolor) and barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii, swamp deer). But if you look closer you see the species that shapes the landscape by removing litter and tilling the ground: termites. Some are visible by their mounds dotted throughout the forest, others hide in living trees and dead logs.

I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how high the termite mounds were. It sounds silly, but then I was in a jeep which spent three days rushing through the forest in search of tigers. Most tourists holiday in nearby resorts, and spend their times in swimming pools and air-conditioned rooms, making a couple of forays into the jungle. Of those who come to the forest, most are interested in tigers. So tigers are a boon to the locals who make their living on tourism, and their behaviour is geared to such people. A very few visitors come to the forest to see more, and the guides and jeep drivers are happy to talk to them about their own experiences. But you just cannot get off jeeps to make measurements. So I had to improvise by taking photos of termite mounds with different things to give a scale. Everything simplified when I saw two people, forest workers, walking between two mounds. That photo clearly told me that the large mounds were about two meters high. I saw the Northern plains gray langur (Semnopithecus entellus, hanuman) crouched behind a smaller mound. These langurs are about a meter tall. So that sort of verifies my estimate by eye that the larger mounds are twice as tall.

I’ve found termites (order Blattodea, infraorder Isoptera) fascinating for a while. They are cockroaches (order Blattodea) which adapted to eating wood by harbouring a microbiome of bacteria, protists, and fungi in their stomach. In fact, the study of termites gave the first clue that many animals could have flourishing ecosystems inside them, a discovery that is now increasingly used in treating human disorders like Type II diabetes. In a forest they munch up fallen logs and leaves and are important recyclers. But they bore into trees and wood, which makes them pests for us at home or in farms. This bunch of cockroaches also developed eusocial behaviour some time in the Triassic or Jurassic, becoming differentiated into castes of workers, queens, and kings. When I was young I would see yearly swarming of termites, as a queen and her retinue set off from their old palace in search of a new home. So I know that a termite is only a couple of millimeters in size. The mound is a thousand times larger. Calling it a palace is shortchanging the mound, because I know of no human queen who lives in a two-kilometer tall palace. Perhaps one should compare it to a medieval citadel, a city which houses the court and also all the industry which supports it.

I’d spent some time photographing termite mounds up close in the Bijrani range of Corbett NP. You can see from these photos that they have a contoured surface which is rather smooth. The material glitters in the sun, which makes me think that bits of minerals in the soil, or insect chitin could be incorporated into it. I found an interesting group of papers which studied the strength and engineering of these mounds in a non-destructive way. They found that two castes of termite workers continually build pellets of wet mud. Other castes of workers then cement these “bricks” into walls using liquids that they secrete from the body. The wetness of the mud allows the suspended granules of mud to settle into any cracks in the walls that need repair, and the termite-spit then makes it proof against the hard monsoon of this part of India. Another paper led me to believe that the two meter tall termite citadels could be several hundred years old.

But which termite made these mounds? I’m as sure as I can be, without a photo of a termite, that they are made by Odontotermes obesus. I wish this common forest termite in had an easier name. This is the species which builds these tall conical mounds with flutes which look like Gaudi could have dreamt them up. But I’d seen and photographed other shapes too. Not knowing enough about termites, I’d assumed that they were merely citadels in the early stages of construction. But apparently not. Very often, the shape of a mound tells you with certainty which species built it. But Chhotani, in his 45 year old gem of a paper on the termites of Kanha NP tells us of multiple species which can be found in the mounds and fungus gardens of O. obesus. And more interestingly, he describes four different shapes of mounds, all of which seem to be built by O. obesus. With this observation he speculates that when there are more detailed studies one would find that what we call a single species now will be resolved into multiple species, each one building a mound of a given shape. Unfortunately, the study of termites in India is in its infancy. Even a paper from five years ago, which claims that there are 286 species of termites in India, making up 10% of the world’s termite biodiversity, added six new species. I was not surprised that no one has performed a gene profile of O. obesus from Kanha to check Chhotani’s conjecture. So we don’t yet know whether we can really tell the species of a termite from the shape of its mound. There are so many angles to termite life, so many loose ends in their story, that one really has to look at several pictures to piece them into one view of these shapers of jungle landscapes.

What wings dare

On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

The Tyger (1794) William Blake

Milkweed butterflies, like common crows (Euploea core) and common tigers (Danaus genutia), lay eggs on trees full of toxins. The newly hatched caterpillars then feed on the leaves of these plants and concentrate the toxins in their bodies. The toxins remain through their metamorphosis into butterflies, and make them undesirable prey. I’d assumed that just as they lay eggs on different plants, the adults must take nectar from different plants. I was surprised to find many individuals from both species feeding on one plant. I suppose that there are species of plants whose nectar attracts one or the other, but not both, species of butterflies. Otherwise the crows and tigers would be in competition. There’s nothing wrong with competition, but one eventually wins, and the other has to find a less desirable range. There is no evidence for that happening to one of these species.

A rich ecosystem is full of creatures utilizing every resource, and individuals of one species are a resource for another. The caterpillars are parasites on their host plants, but the adults have reached a sexual mutualism with nectar yielding plants. The plants require butterflies for fertlization, and the butterflies are unable to lay eggs without the sugar that the plants supply. These butterflies have their own parasites: tiny flies (tachinids) and wasps (chalcids). They lay their eggs in caterpillars. The parasitic maggots hatch and eat their hosts from inside. Although I haven’t seen the parasites yet I remain hopeful and ready with my camera; the adult flies and wasps are big enough that I could photograph them. On the other hand, the only symbiotes of these two which have been studied are really tiny: bacteria from a genus called Wolbachia which live entirely inside the cells of the butterflies and influence their reproductive strategies. There is no chance that my camera will ever catch these.

The jungle was full of such lovely small things. The photo of the spider web that you see was taken on a path called thandi sadak (cool road). It was surrounded by fields full of this plant that some would recognize immediately; they grow wild across the hills and are a target for foragers. The spider itself was too small to be seen. There’s a lot of literature on how cannabinoids influence spiders. You can actually see a typical example here: some of the space between the spokes have not been filled in. I’m not sure that spiders munch leaves, but they could be eating insects which have taken up toxins from the plant. Although chital (Axis axis, spotted deer) grazed in neighbouring patches of grass, they did not venture into fields of Grass.

Less spectacular than the crows and tigers, but equally abundant, were these common sailors (Neptis hylas). They have an interesting flight: a couple of wing beats and then a long glide, then again a wing beat or two. I would like to weigh them, because the flight pattern could mean that the wings are large compared to the weight, like a glider’s. They are not milkweed butterflies, and there is no record of them being distasteful or poisonous. That’s why it puzzles me that there are so many of them in the jungle, and there seem to be no predators. A low body weight could also imply that they are too small a portion to be worthwhile for birds to hunt. Perhaps also their fecundity, eggs hatch multiple times a year, keep their numbers high although they are edible.

A dark shape flew into the leaf-litter below the where the sailor was sunning itself. The moment it stopped moving it disappeared. I searched the ground and couldn’t see anything. Then there was a tiny movement in the ground, and I could focus on it. This was a Prosotas butterfly, possibly the common lineblue (Prosotas nora). I always have to look at the lineblues carefully to figure out the species, and the strong sunlight with dark shadows, and the odd angle I was looking at it prevents me from making a firm identification. But this is was a happy sighting: here was a non-poisonous butterfly which took good care to camouflage itself. Even in the photo, you could mistake it for a dried leaf if you just glance across it quickly.

The buffer zones of these protected forests are set up to attract large numbers of eco-tourists, so that residents have a stake in keeping the jungle protected. But since the average person is interested only in large animals, tigers or elephants and deer, there is little opportunity for those interested in small things like insects to observe them. From the back of a jeep I saw only the small creatures that I already knew. Seeing the familiar in a new setting can always show you new behaviour and raise new questions. So I found myself happy even with these limited opportunities.

Seeking shade in summer’s heat

May is a month when there’s no lack of light. It is the height of summer, when you wait eagerly for the quenching rain. The sky is flash burnt to a white like a nuclear explosion. Even the inside of the house is bright and hot. You can withdraw from this world by drawing thick curtains across windows, switching on the air conditioning, and living by artificial light. Or you can take the less comfortable, but more satisfying route of drawing a curtain of green across your balcony to filter the light and allow the sea breeze to pass through your house. This year we succeeded in creating the second route.

Behind the filtering curtain of Bougainvilleas the light is mild and the shadows are subtle. I could take flower macros in this light, there would be no danger of blowing out details or losing them in black. The erect stigma of Hibiscus always draws my eyes. Sitting on the balcony I wondered why erections are feminine for this species. Could it be a device to avoid self-pollination? The stamens and the pollen sacs are always placed well behind the fivefold stigma. Focus bracketing gives interesting effects when you photograph a bud about to open. The delicious play of light and shadow on the stigma is perhaps better captured in the featured photo.

The delicacy of white Bougainvillea always gives me pause. The true flowers of the plant are always white of course. It is only the bracts, not flowers at all, which are different colours. But the paper thin bracts are beautiful. Here I focused on the flower, so instead of the texture of the bracts, you see them as abstract areas of light and shadow. I see this as a monochrome photo, rendered in shades of green, from dark to light.

One bunch of the flowers on this pink Bougainvillea was curled just so that I could focus both on the open flower and the texture of the bracts. Looking through the viewfinder, I lose myself in the minutely detailed texture of the bracts, the surface like paper, but with a network of veins. The light shows how the bracts curve in space. On a flat surface of a photo, it is only light and shade that tells you of the shape of things in three dimensions. Without shade a photo would be just flat patterns. I’m happy with our shady balcony this year.

Managing crowds

In the featured photo I wanted to capture a story of resilience in the face of the enormous economic turmoil that the pademic brought. These two women had probably lost their incomes, but, between waves, they had started a new business: catering quick lunches for office goers from the back of their SUV. The womens’ faces are roughly at the points where the horizontal and vertical thirds intersect. Horizontal and vertical lines of thirds divide the picture into nine rectangles. The interior of the car sits in the middle rectangle, where your eye first lands, before it is drawn away to the visible faces, and then to the bananas in the lower right rectangle, and finally the off-camera man with his open wallet. There is movement in the photo, but knowing the rule of thirds makes sure you are not distracted by these compositional rules as you take the photo that you want. Rules of composition are always useful. We use a fullstop to tell people where a sentence ends. It makes reading easier. I don’t break this rule, ever, … unless my thoughts interrupt themselves. The rule of thirds is also a compositional rule. You use it as much as you need to. Any rule is meant to make communication easier, not to distract you endlessly. What is important is the message you want to give. Especially in shooting street scenes, you need to do things fast. Practice the rules, but don’t let them distract. Distil the scene in front of you to an image as quickly as possible.

After the first wave most people thought the pandemic was over. Just before Christmas day of 2020 I took this photo in a lovely open space outside Panchgani. Nothing much to the photo if you see it out of context: just ordinary people out having a nice time. But knowing the date gives you a sense of how forced this spontaneous fun was. I had my eyes on the couple and the photographer. As soon as the second couple walked past, I realized that I had my image, and clicked. The rule of thirds is roughly achieved, each couple is aligned along the vertical third. The face of the man in front is at the intersection point of the lines of thirds. He looks back at the photographer, leading your eye there, and from him to the other couple.

A year before that, on a crowded beach in Kochi, I captured two fishermen playing a game of chess. Tourists were busy taking photos of the Chinese fishing nets behind them. I took time off to watch this game. The background was too crowded and busy and I didn’t know how to bring out a sense of two people battling. Then one of them made a move that the other didn’t like, and I got my photo. The man’s open mouth is at the intersection of two lines of thirds. The other person’s hand is at the diagonally opposite intersection. The man’s eyes give you the movement that is essential in a photo. The tension is more important than the rule. Use the rule, but don’t be lost in it.

China is full of people taking photos. I began to develop my ideas on ambush photography in China: it gives you a sense of what life there is like. Here’s a couple on the city wall of Nanjing, posing for their wedding shoot. Standing well away from their photographer and his crew, I got this shot which looks like they posed for me. The photography crew was moving back and forth, the couple were walking. I didn’t have time to measure the picture space (I switch off the guide lines on my viewfinder; they distract) but clicked. The woman’s face is at the intersection of the lines of thirds. The slight fog behind them sets them off from the city, and I was really lucky with the light. November 2019, China. A poignant photo.

A few days later, in Wuhan, another wedding shoot, and another opportunity for ambushes. This spot in front of the Old Customs House was always crowded with photo crews. I had to work quickly to isolate my subjects. I’d spent a few days in the most crowded places in the city, and I was feeling a little under the weather. I put it down to tiredness, as I took this photo. The photography crew takes the center of the photo, but I created a little movement by placing the couple’s faces in the intersection of the line of thirds, and balancing it with empty grey space at the lower right. There’s a personal addendum to the story of this photo. A few months later, when the media was saturated with advise on how to tell if you have been infected, I realized that I’d already been infected when I took it. Too many symptoms matched for it to have been anything else. I spent the next few days feeling very tired, and unwilling to drag myself out of bed. Fortunately, I’d begun to recover by the time I caught my flight back.

I don’t take street photos in portrait mode very often, but this one needed me to turn the camera round. On a visit to Ujjain in July 2018, on the banks of the Shipra river, one of the holiest of places for Hindus, I got this image of the patriarchy which is part of the religion. In the center is a linga, being worshipped by a young, perhaps newly married, young woman. She is in colourful clothes, matching the flowers that she’s putting on the linga. Behind her is an old widowed lady in her mandated white. Without thinking much, I put the young woman’s face at an intersection of two lines of thirds, the other woman’s hand at another. The barge below draws the eye towards the empty third of the photo. Don’t be distracted by rules, use them as you tell the story that you see in front of you.

Publishing the unpublishable

Surely I’m not the only photographer whose photos sometimes come out slightly different from what they thought it would be. Like this photo of a little ringed plover (Charadrius dubius). The light was wonderful. I was close, but the bird hadn’t seen me. I just didn’t notice the abandoned slipper also in the photo. The whole thing was a charade, but it was a dubious bird anyway. You can only take these photos with a dose of humour.

On a walk through a forest with family, my nieces decided to take a selfie. I don’t remember why they had to rig up a field tripod, but the contraption they made was funny enough to keep the rest of us in splits. I decided to make a record of their first piece of architecture. I’m not sure they want it for their portfolios.

When you have a martial monument with this wonderful photo op, you can’t pass it up. I fumbled in my back pack to photograph a whole line of pigeons sitting on the sword. By the time I took the photo only two were left. They aren’t exactly the paloma blanca of peace. Still, this was quite a “beat the swords into ploughshares” moment.

Watching a crowd is a favourite pastime with me. The very different expressions on the faces of people are funny when you compare them. The ceremony of beating the retreat at the Wagah border crossing is so involving that you can really sit back and take lots of photos of the spectators. I could also call this an ambush photo: taking photos of photographers with their subject. But it is a crowd ambush. I like that expression on the face of the soldier in the corner.

In the pandemic years I’ve largely moved to tourism in less crowded places. So I do have several photos where animals do the unexpected. This spiny tailed lizard (Saara hardwickii) gave me a brilliant shot, with its mouth open, as if it was panting with the exertion of doing push ups.

A vision of colour

What is a garden all about? I take a stroll in a garden now and then when I have to sort out a knotty problem. The Family enjoys a walk in a garden because she meets people there, some old friends, some people whom she doesn’t know more than to nod at. My mother would spend time in her garden picking up dry leaves, digging at beds, and arguing with the gardener who would come by to help her. And then there are times when I take my camera on a walk to photograph flowers and bees. And I always wonder whether the bee sees what I see.

What is colour? There has been a century long dispute about this among philosophers. Before you dismiss it as just another meaningless dispute, think about this. Would a flower be any different if my brain was rewired somehow so that I saw the colours in the image on the right where every other human saw that in the left hand image? Certainly not. I can run this experiment by leaving a camera to take images by itself and display it to me on a screen in a room, but invert the colours before showing me the photos. In a while I would learn the colours of the different flowers, and those of the honeybees which visit them. My recognition of the object is not tied to its colour. We consciously use this notion when we use colour codes, or show images in false colour. But, as the experiment shows, all the time, in everything that we see, colour is an arbitrary label which we put on the world.

If colour does not reside in the object, does it reside in the light that reaches our eye? Didn’t Newton prove that white light is composed of several colours? A version of this story enters the Lord of the Rings, when the wizard Saruman the White changes into Saruman of Many Colours. But if the colours are intrinsic to the wavelength of light, then how is it that we can combine two different colours to produce a third? And how is it that there are colour blind people? We know that the answer to both questions has to do with the colour receptors in our eyes, and their wiring in our brain. That’s the origin of many optical illusions involving colour. Insects and birds have more colour receptors than we have, so they see more “basic” colours, and an infinitely more variety of colours than we do. Octopuses have no receptors for colour, but are still able to see colour through a totally different mechanism. So colour does seem to be an arbitrary label which animals use as a convenient means of organizing their perception of colour. Colour does not seem to reside in the material of the external world, but only in the states of our minds.

Shakespeare is so often correct: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose // By any other name would smell as sweet.” He provides an entry to our understanding of our senses as providing arbitrary and useful labels to understanding the world outside us. We live in Plato’s cave. We only see shadows of the world. The bees which harvest the nectar of flowers see a different shadow of the world. Even if they could talk to us, we might have a hard time understanding what they are saying. Which is the flower: the featured photo, or the one above? Or neither? Or does it really matter? Isn’t the beauty of the colours all that you want to enjoy?

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