Dutch Master Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ is amongst the most recognisable works of art in the world. A classic example of the European Post-Impressionism wave, few who look at it realise that this masterpiece has a strong touch of India in it. The bright yellow moon peeking through the swirling dark blue sky is an example of the famed ‘Indian Yellow’ used in art, for centuries.
The story of the vibrant yellow pigment, which seems to have been created to fulfil all the stereotypes about India as a land of colours and light, is a fascinating blend of legend, art and science. it has as many names as legends associated with it! Called Purrée, Purèe, Purrhée, Piuri, Peori, Peoree, Pwree, Gogoli, Gaugil, Gogili, Monghyr Puri, Jaune Indien, Indischgelb, it is also amongst the most mysterious pigments to reach the artists’ palette. A natural organic pigment, it was valued for its warm colour, transparency and lightfastness.
The pigment was first believed to have been developed in the 15th century and it was used liberally in Mughal, Rajasthani and Pahari miniatures as well as murals of that period. Some of the most glorious art of that period has been coloured using this pigment. Used to drape gods, in depictions of spring and summers, in flowers and animals, it is one of the most striking aspects of Indian painting.
The Indian Yellow, soon travelled to Europe and was transported through the ports of Calcutta. There it would be sold in compact balls, 2 to 4 ounces in weight, with a brown-green exterior and a rich yellow interior. The smell of these pigment balls has been described as being pungent and rank.
Over the years many origin stories have been ascribed to this pigment. Some have contended that it is a plant based pigment, while others have contended that it is animal based. Over the years the most popular and accepted theory has been that it was manufactured using cow urine.
In 1844 Scottish Chemist John Stenhouse said that the colour came from plant sap that was precipitated onto magnesium and then boiled down to the consistency of the balls. In the 1939 text 'The Art of Painting in Oil and Fresco' from 1939 French painter Merimee claimed that the colour was derived from a bushy tree.
Beginning to be used extensively in European art by artists like Vermeer, Turner and Van Gogh, there was great curiosity about the pigment’s origins in Europe. To unravel the mystery of the colour Joseph Hooker, the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in England sent T. N. Mukharji, an expert in the materials of Indian arts, to the village of Mirzapur, in the Bihar region. In 1883 Mukharji published an account of the process he observed in great detail. This went on to become the most accepted version of the pigments creation for most of the 20th century.
In Mukharji’s description he discovered a sect of gwalas or local milkmen who only fed their cows mango leaves in the village of Mirzapur. He went on to describe that the gwalas collected the cow’s urine in earthen pots, cooled it and concentrated it by heating it over a fire in the earthen pots which made the pigment precipitate. The milkmen would strain the liquid through a cloth and compress the sediment into a ball, drying it first over a charcoal fire and then the sun.
These were then traded by Marwari traders who transported the pigment to Patna and Calcutta and forward to Europe. It was a thriving trade and good profit was supposed to be made from the pigment. It is said that the annual production of the pigment was as much as 10,000 to 15,000 pounds, but even Mukharji considered this estimate too high.
However there was a flip side to the popularity of this pigment. A diet consisting solely of mango leaves was making the cows sick. It had been reported that cows used for the manufacture of Indian yellow died after two years. But then Mukharji contented that the cow-keepers informed him that this was false and he came across cows which were six or seven years old, which had produced the pigment for at least four years. According to Mukharji, they did however, appear ill, and the villagers were reluctant to change their diets. It is believed that they either developed kidney stones or jaundice, as mentioned in different accounts.
The production of the pigment was stopped in the early 20th century. Mukharji’s account is believed to have played a role in making the government ban the pigment on the grounds that it was cruel to cows. Today Indian Yellow can be found in paintings before the early 20th century or in samples saved in pigment libraries around the world.
Mukherji’s account has been occasionally accepted as well as disavowed with many scholars agreeing or disagreeing with his narrative as a whole or parts of it. Victoria Finlay, the author of “Color: A Natural History of the Palette,” found no record of the pigment’s ban in the archives, nor did she find any local memory of cows being fed mango leaves when she travelled to Mirzapur around 2002.
Mukherji account was finally vindicated in 2016 and 2018 when some of the samples of Indian Yellow he had sent to Kew Gardens were subjected to intense scientific testing including Ultraviolet Fluorescence and Raman Spectroscopy tests at the State University of New York, Buffalo. These samples were found to contain Hippuric Acid which is associated with animal urine and Euxanthic acid a possible by-product of the metabolic processing of Mango Leaves, proving that one of the strangest accounts of how a pigment was developed, turned out to be actually true!
Thankfully the production of the pigment is a thing of the past and synthetic pigments that mimic the vibrant yellow have been developed. But few outside art circles remember the old touch of Yellow and its connection, with India.