Organic colours fro a safe Holi

Organic colours for a safe Holi

March 13, 2014

Holi is round the corner. The festival of colours is popular all over India, when abir or gulal is splashed onto one another in joyous abandon. In West Bengal too, the festival is widely celebrated. In Santiniketan, Holi is celebrated as Basanta Utsav. People from all over come to watch and participate in Basanta Utsav.

Though it is a time to celebrate, a major concern for many years has been the chemicals used to manufacture the colours. Often harmful chemicals are used, which leads to various ailments and diseases. A way out of this problem is using organic colours, obtained from flowers and herbs. These colours are chemical-free and hence skin- and, in general, health-friendly.

A shop awash with the colours of Holi

Kolkata’s Jadavpur University has been a pioneer in the manufacture of organic colours for Holi. These colours (abir in Bengali, gulal in Hindi) are obtained by processing flower extracts. A lot of the flowers used in this process are the ones which are the leftover from pujas. Hence, the recycling of the flowers, instead of just dumping them somewhere, also makes the whole process an environmentally appropriate one. By using safe, natural colours we not only save our skins but also help save our environment and conserve our biodiversity.

Chemical-based colours which are still used by most people are very harmful. However, awareness is gradually growing and Jadavpur University has played a big part in this, as far as West Bengal is concerned. Orders now pour in from all across the state.

It all started in a small way in 2005. The then head of the chemical engineering department of the university, Siddhartha Dutta was the brain behind the project. A team lead by him discovered the floral extracts-based formulation.

Prof Dutta had earlier discovered various shades of colours to be used on cloth and had received an Indian patent. Using extracts of hibiscus (jaba), marigold (rajnigandha), dopati, aparajita and biksa, his team has made abir in shades of pink, violet, yellow, green and deep orange. A brand named Puspa has been created to market this organic abir.

And why just abir. Flower extracts are being used by Prof Dutta and his team to manufacture aromatic candles, skin creams and even health drinks, all under the brand name, Puspa.

Prof Siddhartha Dutta

Holi colours being made at a Jadavpur University lab

Conventional abir is essentially harmful:

  • The conventional abir uses chemicals, dyes and acid.
  • The base is soil, often contaminated with toxic materials.
  • Low-grade crushed stone is also used as base materiel, which is again harmful.
  • Industrial paints like metanil yellow, copper sulphate and red oxide are used to give the colour to the powder.
  • Because of these chemicals, using such abir triggers not only skin problems (like irritation, redness, burning sensation) but also kidney, lung and liver ailments.
  • If the colours enter the airway, they can trigger asthmatic conditions.
  • The colours entering the eyes can even cause blindness.


Green: May include copper sulphate that can cause temporary blindness and eye allergies

Silver: May include aluminium bromide that can cause various types of cancer

Red: May include mercury sulphite that can cause skin cancer, mental retardation, paralysis

Purple: May contain chromium iodide that can cause various allergies and asthma

Black: May contain lead oxide that can lead to renal failure, learning disability

On the other hand, organic abir, being a natural extract, has no side effects for anyone, be they young or old. Chemical colours can be especially harmful for the skin of young kids.

  • Organic abir uses flower extracts; no artificial chemicals are involved.
  • Moreover, some of the coloured abir can be spiced up with the enchanting fragrance of marigold (rajnigandha).
  • The base of organic abir is talcum powder, which is not harmful.
  • The colours are obtained by processing the flowers.
  • Since there are no chemicals, these can be easily removed unlike conventional colours, which remain on the skin for days.
  • There is no irritation of the skin and eyes.

Packets of Puspa brand of abir ready for the shops

To transfer the technology to entrepreneurs, the university has been imparting training to various self-groups in Kolkata and the neighbouring district of Howrah, Hooghly, South and North 24-Paragnas. These groups have set up small units in their localities, which can produce around 3,000 kg of abir a season. The abir sold by these self-help groups is priced higher at Rs 160-200 a kg. This is higher than that of conventional colours, but when the health benefits are considered, the higher price is worth every paisa. Efforts by the university are on to find commercial partners for large-scale manufacturing as the demand for these healthy organic colours is increasing year by year.

West Bengal is the largest flower markets in the country after Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. It is estimated that 40% of the floral production of West Bengal is left unsold and wasted every day.

“It is either thrown in the waters of the river Ganges or dumped along with other garbage. But we buy many of these unsold flowers which would have otherwise caused water pollution. It also helps the vendors against distress selling”, university officials said. The self-help groups collect unsold flowers from the markets and sometimes they buy flowers directly from markets to create the colours.

Mallick Ghat flower market in Kolkata is one of India's largest

Tips for making colours at home

However, if you cannot manage to buy organic colours, here are a few tips to make them at home:

DRY RED: Mix red sandalwood powder (raktachandan/ lalchandan) or powdered dry hibiscus and flour
WET RED: Boil red sandalwood powder or red pomegranate peels in water, or boil a pinch of lime powder (chuna) in water, add turmeric, and dilute with water

DRY GREEN: Mix mehendi and flour
WET GREEN: Boil mehendi or spinach (palak) or coriander (dhaniya) or mint (pudina) in water

WET PINK: Boil beetroot slices in water or soak beetroot slices overnight in water 
WET PINK (LIGHT COLOUR): Boil orange peels in water

DRY SAFFRON: Mix powdered dry flame of the forest (krishnachura/ gulhomar) and powdered red sandalwood. Smells great too!
WET SAFFRON: Soak krishnachura flowers overnight, or boil krishnachura, in water and mix sandalwood powder for a fragrant Holi

DRY YELLOW: Mix powdered turmeric or powdered dry marigold (genda) or yellow chrysanthemum and flour, or grind dry rind of bael. You can substitute gram flour with talcum powder or fuller's earth (multani mitti) too. 
WET YELLOW: Boil turmeric or dry marigold or dry yellow chrysanthemum in water

DRY BLUE: Mix powdered dry jacaranda flower (neelkantha) and flour
WET BLUE: Crush berries of the indigo (neel) tree and add water. In some indigo species, the leaves when boiled in water also yield a rich blue colour.

WET BLACK: Boil gooseberries (amloki) in an iron container for a few minutes, keep it aside for a while. Dilute it with water and use. It also works as a conditioner!

Turmeric and marigold make for very effective organic abir

Organic revival

Of late, manufacture and use of organic colours in general has seen a positive change in West Bengal. Under the active initiative of the state government, the use of organic colours for textiles produced by the state-supported textile-making organisations like Tantuja are on the anvil.

Have fun, play safe

Hence, use organic colours, as much as possible, for Holi. Celebrate the grand festival of colours in a safe chemical-free way.


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