She walked in with hair that looked like it had been oiled and coiled carelessly into a bun, her diamond nose pin so sparkly that it distracted from our conversation. She wore no make-up and yet Annapurna Mamidipudi, a textile scholar with a PhD in new technologies of weaving, provoked many a thought on “Indian beauty”. This was just last week, at Chamiers café in Chennai. Mamidipudi spoke without hand gesticulations, her gaze direct and engaged, as her slender face moved in sync with her verbal emphasis. When I remarked that her dark and “messy” hair would take a salon expert to fix, in another context, she laughed wholeheartedly. The diamond mimicked her movement.
In the last couple of years, as the worlds of fashion and beauty have become woke, and American pop idol Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty “foundations for all” have gripped our conscience and shopping carts, the attempt to define “Indian beauty” has become harder. Mamidipudi’s no make-up appearance hurled this thought back at me—I even forgot to notice what she was wearing.
Back in the noisy chambers of one’s mind, imagining Indian beauty in its traditional rollout brings up a blur. The alluring Nykaa.com ads on social media, the fan frenzy around Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s new cosmetics collection for L’Oreal Paris, Fenty Beauty’s Instagram page, shimmering eyeshadows, matte lipsticks, gel nail polishes and neon eyeliners cloud the mental landscape. All engrossingly marketed ideas of make-up. Yet nothing is distinctly, eye-catchingly Indian.
If you try internet searches on contemporary interpretations of “Indian beauty”, what you find is opulent jewellery, ornate lehengas and bridal blitzkriegs. More keywords will lead you to Ayurvedic beauty brands that promise natural creams, oils and lotions made of local ingredients. Made in India. But where is the person?
Even as makeup companies in the West have been able to drive home a point of view by stamping makeup with inclusivity and diversity, acceptance of the monobrow, frizzy hair or freckles, and thus acquiring a definitive voice, the discourse on beauty in India has no pointed argument. It has been unable to poignantly own the difference that makes an Indian woman look recognisably Indian without being exoticised by global fashion culture.
Regional Indian shringar (traditional beauty rituals), which once offered distinction, is fast disappearing from urban mainstream attention. It is certainly missing on fashion magazine covers, advertisements of beauty and hair salons or hoardings that peddle rivetingly seductive make-up.
It is hard to find a photograph in a mainstream commercial of a woman from Tamil Nadu, for instance, with only jasmine flowers in her hair and a sandalwood tilak on her forehead, Bengali women with alta on their feet or the orange sindoor that married women from a hill tribe in Uttarakhand wear. The oiled, plaited hair of young girls in half saris at temples in Kerala doesn’t make it to a city hoarding. Where do we see the chin tattoos of a Rabari girl from Kutch or the haldi-kumkum of a Maharashtrian lady? Or images of Manipuri women in pink phaneks with fresh white flowers in their hair as they reverently make their way to the temple, without the slightest stain of colour on their faces. To find these resonances, we must look at fine art or cultural photography.
Incidentally, inside some ForestEssentials stores, you see a large black and white photograph of a gorgeous Indian woman in a Kanjeevarm sari, wearing temple jewellery, chunky gold anklets on her feet and jasmine flowers in her hair. She sits on a regal chair and exudes old-world glamour like only an Indian woman in a handwoven zari sari can.
But that kind of rather striking image goes missing in popular rollouts. Where are those pre- Instagram brides with red and white dots around their eyebrows for bridal make-up? That space on the forehead has now been coopted by ostentatious maang tikkas. Since most precious jewellery brands are modelled by film stars who presumably refuse to look like Maharashtrian tais or Mylapore maamis, there is blow-dried hair, precocious pouts and lots of facial shimmer. Messy buns, mixed braids, French knots studded with pearl pins, fabric orchids or body glitter and personalised tattoos have made beauty very beautiful, but it is no longer necessarily reminiscent of who we are.
This is not a lament—just a comment on how consumption can be commercially divisive and thus only partially representative of a culture. It is what Italian literary critic and philosopher Umberto Eco called the “beauty of consumption”. “People follow the ideals of beauty as suggested by the world of commercial consumption, the very world that avant-garde artists have been battling against…” he wrote in The History Of Beauty.
But consider the irony. The beauty cult in India stands sharply divided between urban and regional ideals as jasmine flowers, oiled plaits, sindoor and alta remain persistent in smaller towns and villages even as the cities are under the sway of blue eyeliners, gelled nails and tinted hair. A girl with smoky eyeshadow would be as difficult to find in an Odisha town as a girl with oiled hair in a Mumbai pub.
The Ayurvedic treatments of vintage India and the colour cosmetic dazzle of the modernized West have blurred somewhere. But in this mix, what’s emerged stronger is the “foundations for all” ideal— both metaphorically and materially.
The differences are all in the red. No inclusive or differentiated beauty ideal has emerged from modern India to script an original marketing discourse.
Yet, exceptions will keep popping up. At Paro, the new experiential store by Good Earth at Delhi’s Chanakya Mall, besides the mesmerising essences and fragrances in its botanic section are some forgotten beauty tools handheld facial massagers in wood and metal, tiny pestle and mortars to ground herbal pastes among many other things.
In Chennai, there is a captivatingly curated private collection of shringar tools, placed inside a lovely, old two-storeyed house. The collector, a senior lady and a connoisseur of fine things prefers not to be named. The rooms in this house are like galleries, they have beautiful glass showcases that house a variety of objects, that concern themselves with a woman’s toilette. They are about bathing, grooming, beauty and shringar—a gold breastplate with shapely indentations, scrubs, pestles and mortars, hand-held combs, back rubbing instruments and brushes, sandalwood applicators, kajal and sindoor cases, a variety of small boxes to preserve oils, masks, essences. One of the many standout pieces is a large silver and cane basket, the kind that would be used to air, dry and smoke a woman’s tresses. Scented incense burnt underneath would waft up as a woman lay with her head placed on it, freshly washed hair spread all around.
The point is not to push for some kind of moral perfection that only tradition can promise, but the beauty of distinctive appearance in an era of all too common consumption.
Shefalee Vasudev is the editor of Voice of Fashion