Madurai: A Riot of Colour

When it comes to colour it would be very difficult to find anywhere more vibrant than India. Saris light up even the dullest corner; blue and green tarpaulins shade alleyways and walls are painted in great slabs, buildings looking like works by Rothko. If this were not enough then take a look at a flower market. Flowers play an important part in Indian life and particularly for Hindus who use them at every turn, from a string of jasmine in the woman’s hair to visit the temple, to exotic garlands for weddings and for political events.

Madurai’s wholesale flower market consists of teeming lines of stalls with wide alleys between. Flowers arrive by the sack-load, carried on the heads of short, bent men and their more upright, younger apprentices. They drive their way through the throng to the wholesalers who auction them off to those that will make garlands, swags and wreaths. The open sacks shout at the eyes: roses of brilliant crimsons and reds, large white daisies with smiling golden centres, and vibrant yellow flowers that are brighter than the sun.

Those who weave and sew the flowers are more than happy to show off their work, proud of the quality that they can produce from just the fingers and little else. Fingers move swiftly, sewing blossom with strips of raffia or lengths of fine straw, weaving in coloured disks of card and paper, small beads and ribbon. At one stall a group of women are sitting on the floor, their legs stretched out in front of them, their bare feet, with ringed toes, crossed. Metal trays are on their laps. Between each pair, a pile of jasmine blossom, small cream-white buds with short pale green stems, each delicately picked up between forefinger and thumb and threaded onto a string of cotton. Every few centimetres a different small flower is added - pink or red, mauve or orange - to emphasise the elegant simplicity of the garland rather than to embellish it. The threading continues until the strand is several metres long. The resultant coil is sold on to be retailed in lengths that will be cut to the specification of the customers hair. Tied in, the lustrous dark background provides a glistening backdrop to the cream of the blossom.

As I take some pictures of the women at their work, they start to laugh. A private joke I thought, perhaps at my expense? The one in the middle, the youngest, smiles so brightly it is more than captivating. Her eyes dart about as she says something that makes them all laugh. “What is it?” I ask. Parti, our driver says that they are laughing about the fact that I was taking pictures of the women but the one male worker, seated on a stall opposite the women, wanted his picture taken - or at least that is what the young women claimed. I turn to take his picture. He, like a most people, looks directly at the camera but unlike most Indian adults, he does not put on a serious pose though neither does he smile. His expression belies that transition from child to adult; he wants to smile but also knows that living in this world is a very serious business.

As we leave the flower market, we spot a truck selling bananas. Desperate for fruit we ask Parti if we can buy some. (The drivers are excellent guides when it comes to what we should and shouldn’t do - and where to go to get the right sort of thing required.) He says that it will be alright so we stop. Sitting in the back of the truck, the trader has a microphone in his hand and is calling out, presumably in Tamil, that there are bananas for sale whilst his assistant standing by holds up a hand of bananas for our examination. The broadcaster asked, as many have done, where we had come from and when he learned that we were British he changed his call over the loudspeaker to “Lover-lee banans. Lover-lee banans.” and then dissolved into infectious laughter.

To see more of my pictures the Madurai Flower Market, follow this link to Flickr