Expert ease: Meet the researcher raising a hue and why about colour

Ten years ago, a multinational automobile company approached Kaustav Sengupta, fashion-trend analyst and color researcher, with a unique problem. They had launched a range of scooters in India in red, yellow and white. Red and white were selling well. No one seemed to want a yellow one. Why?

The pursuit of the answer led Sengupta on a journey to uncover India’s relationship with colors and yellow in particular. It led him to think deeply about how Indian responds to colors as individuals and as a collective. It also made Sengupta a go-to person for when brands make color decisions. Much of his research appears in his upcoming book on Indian color psychology.

His interest in colour, however, began in 2000, he chose to work on color after his post-graduation in design from the National Institute of Fashion Designing (NIFT).

“Back then it was not a popular domain to work in. We had very few color designers or researchers,” he recalls. Indian life is so suffused with color we just didn’t think about it. Sengupta’s trips to countries such as Japan made him realise how much thought goes into picking colors for products, and how much influence it subtly wields. Back in India, as a teacher at NIFT, he notices how black had become the clothing color of choice for university students.

Most Indians, Sengupta found out, were averse to yellow. “It’s associated with something cheaper – public work signs, sexual-health notices. Why would someone buy a vehicle in the color of a taxi?” he says.

“I realised that Indian millennials are not interested in most bright colours, which was in contrast with how we perceive young people. This was also in contrast to cities such as Tokyo or London. In India, apart from black, the younger generation was mostly into monochromes or pastel shades,” he says.

It took three years of research to understand why. Sengupta found that young Indians were subconsciously drawn to a palette that set them apart from the rest of the colorful country. It was a rebellion on a chromatic level.

The research made him categorise young Indians into psychographic divisions. Bharatiyas denote those who are the most rooted in old traditions, largely those from rural areas, who have no qualms wearing a pink shirt or a yellow trouser. Indians referred to those who were moving to big cities like Bengaluru and Pune, and were rejecting the bright colors that gave away their backgrounds. He coined the term, Inglodians for the young urban folks who have more in common with cities around the world than with those in smaller towns. They are, surprisingly, likely to wear pink and yellow. “The Inglodian sense of fashion can be well explained by the bright collections of designer Manish Arora. They wear pink to make a statement,” says Sengupta.

But, as the scooter company found out, most Indians were averse to yellow. “It’s associated with something cheaper – public work signs, sexual-health notices,” he says. “Why would someone buy a vehicle in the color of a taxi?” he says.

Palettes are ever changing, he finds. Gen Z, those under the age of 25, are rediscovering yellow. “I spotted this when I was speaking with a Mumbai rapper a couple of years ago. He was wearing yellow. He said it was to show solidarity with the working class,” Sengupta says.

In his book, too, Sengupta takes a closer look at India’s relationship with the colour. A certain strong yellow pigment, used in paintings across the world, was until recently, only supplied by India. “It used to be made in only a few places like Munger in Bihar and was prepared from the filtered urine of cows that were fed mango leaves,” he says. It was after the arrival of artificial colors in the early 20th century that companies were able to replicate the distinctive hue.

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