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Happy Holi!  Today is the festival of color and spring is close at hand (although it doesn’t feel that way in New York where the city is girding itself for a massive blizzard).  We might not be in the tropical subcontinent (indeed, we might be under 3 feet of snow), but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate some vivid color—even if I can’t literally throw it in your face.

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Now I love all of the glowing shades of Holi. Indeed, with typical Hindu heterogeneousness, the festival does not have one or two colors associated with it like parsimonious western holidays, but it is a festival of all color.  However I think the most typical Holi color in my mind is the glowing beautiful magenta which you always see in pictures of Holi.  Where did that crazy color originate?

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Well, actually it seems like the beautiful purples and magentas of Holi are natural and come from boiled beetroot (or sometimes kachnar powder).  This amazing glowing color comes from betacyanins–antioxidant phytonutrients which are always causing nutritionists to swoon because of anti-inflammatory benefits.  You may recognize the hue from fancy boiled eggs—and apparently beetroot can also be used to dye yarn and fabric.

I would love to talk more about this exquisite magenta, but according to an earlier post, it doesn’t exist.  That is a paradoxical conclusion to reach on the holiday of colors, but Holi comes from the same cosmology which gave us Kali, the goddess of destruction—and ultimate creation.  Ponder the vicissitudes of color and non-color as we gear up for spring and have a happy Holi!

Continuing on with our festival of colors, we come to another brilliant hue–magenta.  Although I think this is one of the loveliest and most spectacular of all colors, it also has a pedestrian office existence at odds with its singular beauty (a situation which is familiar to many of us). The tone is known to administrative drudges everywhere as one of the three ink cartridges which must be constantly supplied, at huge mark-ups, in order for the colored printer to run.  Damn you Lexmark! But magenta’s story is far more interesting than the humdrum world of three-color printing.

Magenta is a bright and brilliant combination of red and blue, color wavelengths which are on the opposite ends of the visible electromagnetic spectrum. It is named after the Battle of Magenta which was fought in June, 1859 during the Second War of Italian Independence.  The battle took place in Lombardy between the Franco Sardinian troops of Napoleon III and troops of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Afterwards the battlefield was stained red with the blood of defeated Austrians, which glowed brilliantly in the sunset (or something).  Perhaps the famous poetic imagination of the French was responsible for the name, since we all know that Magenta is not red (in fact French chemists had just synthesized a fuchsine dye and were looking for a catchy name which reflected their nationalistic ambitions).

The Battle of Magenta (19th century engraving)

Not only is magenta not red, in fact, to the consternation of Isaac Newton, magenta initially did not seem to exist. In days long prior to the Battle of Magenta (and the new marketing name), Newton was performing experiments with prisms.  He quantified the wavelengths of electromagnetic light in a familiar pattern: Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet “ROYGBIV” (indigo might be a bit of a fudge because the great man was fascinated with the mystic properties of the number seven, but that is a story for another time).  One thing you will not notice in ROYGBIV is an M for magenta.  The color does not exist when white light passes through a prism: magenta is “extra-spectral” (if that’s a word).  Poor Newton was flummoxed until he combined the blue violet wavelengths of refracted light with the red wavelengths of light to form a very beautiful magenta.  Some people are nodding thinking that blue and yellow combine to make green or red and yellow make orange, but that is not the point.  Orange and green are in the rainbow.  Magenta is not.  To quote a helpful article from Liz Eliot at Biotele, “color perception is not in a one to one correspondence with the physical world.”

The combined refracted light from two different prisms

Even if it only exists because of a quirk of our brains, magenta is singularly lovely. Just beware that whenever you see someone clad in robes of fuchsia silk driving a fandango Maserati and proffering lovely magenta roses, you are being beguiled by your faulty human perceptions.

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