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Understated Elegance

48 shades of brown


Japanese concepts of design and colour are driven not just by aesthetics; they have deeper philosophical and spiritual underpinnings.

It is often a challenge to distinguish between people from the South-east or Far-east;but there are many clues if you look carefully. Of all the countries and regions of the world, the Japanese are easily distinguishable through their restrained choice of colours.

Japan has had a history of unique aesthetic concepts that are not yet known or understood by the world. Most of these concepts are deciphered as aesthetics, but are actually much larger and deeper. Japanese scholars fear that the world will adapt them as shapes and colours without imbibing the spiritual principles.

Wabi sabi is one such traditional Japanese concept of beauty that doesn't quite translate well into English. It is inspired by nature with complete acceptance to transient, evolutionary and imperfect;yet elegant.
Pottery used in Japanese tea ceremony typically would display wabi sabi characteristics;simple, rustic, not quite refined or symmetrical and yet, a discerning elegance.

It is a concept that liberates beauty from physical or material world and keeps the focus on sensorial experience of beauty. So it goes beyond visual perceptions. Barely finished minimalist Japanese poems called Haiku are also considered wabi sabi.
There are more familiar and interesting examples like the Ikebana floral arrangement that focuses on stems, branches, basically parts of the plant other than flowers to attain balance and beauty. Bloom is the more obvious and near perfect part of a plant. Japanese Ikebana considers it vulgar to use just colourful blooms to make an arrangement look good. The point is to make a graceful crea- tive expression with certain discipline and restrain. It is measured, never abundant. A wellpracticed Ikebana adheres to wabi sabi principles and is arranged in silence.

Enso is another Japanese concept that goes beyond its literal meaning;circle. It represents the universe and the void within, among other things. A calligraphy artiste reveals his spirituality by the way he draws enso. A balanced and enlightened mind would draw a complete circle;but if it is open, it may mean the artiste is still looking out for ideas and would lean towards wabi sabi principles of asymmetric beauty. enso, associated with Zen, symbolises Japanese aesthetics itself and is the most frequently drawn symbol by Japanese calligraphers. Just as singers practice their musical notes, many artistes draw enso everyday as a spiritual practice. Have you noticed how some Japanese women wear beige, pale browns, grays and deep blues in unusual proportions to create a very sophisticated look? Despite years of measured play with hues and tones, I cannot imagine myself getting those ratios just so. This specific style of colour selection is a part of another very powerful and lesserknown Japanese concept called iki.

There is no good English translation of this word either, but at first level, it represents chic style. Iki is used as an adjective in Japanese language. The concept started in the urban districts of Tokyo (then called Edo) in the 18th century. Though the style had emerged as a way of pleasing intellectual merchants and therefore encompassed erotic allure, pride and sophisticated indifference, it was hardly deciphered as a concept till 1930s. By then, it had become a part of middle class aspiration as people wanted to be iki, wear iki fashion and have iki relationships;almost the way we use "cool" today. A song from that era goes;"Iki crow does not caw at dawn". Japanese philosopher Kuki Shuzo believed iki is an attitude and is quite contrary to the demure, coy, stereotypical image of Japanese women. He is credited for deciphering iki to a large extent. Prof Yamamoto Yuji and Prof Gentarow Ohmi have also interpreted iki at length. Their essays provide good starting points for diving deeper into the concept.

Post aristocratic era, Japan's colour culture was based around dying. Different colours could be obtained by reducing/ adding dyes;especially indigo. Brown has the lowest saturation of red/ orange and any more extraction or reduction would make it a non-colour. Indigo can be taken to a point where it ceases being blue and becomes near black to lose colour saturation completely. With iki being the aspired style, Japanese dyers or color makers explored browns, grays and blues to an unparalleled extent.

Japanese language distinguishes 48 different shades of browns and over 100 shades of gray. Postmodern interpretation of iki colours or fashion lies in simplicity to the edge of being non-art, non-design, non-brand. Muji started with a philosophy of being a nonbrand and has stuck to its simplicity. Muji would never stitch a label on its clothes to stay under-stated or non-stated.

German philosopher Martin Heideggar believed it was not necessary to limit iki to Japan anymore. He defined it as an everyday experience and not an artistic expression. Everydayness does not mean mundane here, it means an individualistic everydayness filled with unique characteristics.

I am tempted to share an amazing insight by Vanessa Friedman of The Financial Times recently. She found great parallels between the American president and a British supermodel. US president Barack Obama in an interview in the Vanity Fair revealed that he had decided to wear only dark blue or grey suits "so I don't have to think about what to put on".

In the same magazine, British supermodel Kate Moss noted that she wore only "black jeans now. Or grey. If you do a different look everyday, they are going to be waiting for the next look... Whereas if you wear the same thing, they get bored and leave you alone. "

In my mind both these are Western interpretations of iki principles.

Japanese have a fond theory that Steve Jobs limited the use of colours on Apple devices as he believed in "non-colour" aesthetics.

Because it is not about extremes, iki has survived the transition from pre-modern to postmodern society and is not obsolete.

Lastly, one more Japanese concept that most of us know as the song Sayonara from the movie Love in Tokyo. It translates as farewell or goodbye at the first level. But it carries a deeper dialogue that carries "if it must be so" or "if we must (part)... "

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