Updated: November 8, 2021 8:04:37 am
In the weeks before Diwali, certain online platforms were ringing with cries of “#NoBindiNoBusiness”, an expression of outrage against brands, which released their festive season advertisements featuring models who (gasp!) did not sport a bindi as part of their otherwise impeccably traditional outfits.
To those of us who think of the bindi as an optional accessory, rather than an indispensable part of festive fashion, the outrage was bewildering: since when has the weight of Diwali celebration rested so heavily on a single dot on the forehead? But it was also infuriating because, once again, it was an aspect of feminine fashion which was in the eye of the storm. It would make for a refreshing change if, for once, online mobs fulminated over a sloppily tied dhoti or pagdi (this is not to give anyone ideas).
First, a clarification: It’s not as if those who don’t identify as women can’t sport the bindi. There are enough examples in pre-modern Indian art that show us that the mark on the forehead, whether one calls it a bindi or a tilak or a pottu, was worn by everyone. And this makes sense if we go by the most popular theory for why the bindi is worn in the first place: the tiny patch of skin between the eyebrows is believed to be where the hidden “third eye” or ajna chakra is located, and in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, it is supposed to be the gateway to higher consciousness. As there is no reason to suppose that this gateway is closed to men, it’s safe to assume that they can, should they wish to, wear a bindi (and not just the occasional tilak) as an expression of their belief in their spiritual traditions. But as with so many other traditions, especially those that have anything to do with the body, the preservation of the bindi as some cultural epitome seems to have fallen exclusively to women.
But let’s talk about the real reason why many Indian women like to wear a bindi: because it makes us feel attractive. For, believe it or not, personal style and aesthetic choices define how women dress up, including whether or not they will use a bindi to round off a look. Tradition and spiritual/cultural leanings have something to do with it, no doubt, but equally, a woman will choose a bindi based on how well it goes with her lehenga or anarkali. A big red bindi will make her look like the suhagan that she is, but surely a small diamante bindi would look more elegant with her cocktail sari? Should she go for a delicate dot high up on her forehead, like Maharani Gayatri Devi, or between her eyebrows, like Devika Rani? How about matching the colour of her bindi to her outfit, like Sridevi did in Chandni? Would a thin, long sticker-bindi, like the one sported by Mandira Bedi in Shanti, look “retro-cool” or just plain silly?
Naturally, the definition of beauty comes down to individual taste, but there are certain norms, which set the limits within which it is defined. As per the most widely accepted norms, the bindi is to be worn with traditional Indian outfits, especially during a celebration — whether of a wedding or a festival or birthday or just a new job or a promotion. For this reason, perhaps, to many it seems faintly ridiculous to wear a bindi with jeans or a skater dress and could explain why, despite valiant efforts to drum up “hurt sentiments” over a Selena Gomez or a Gwen Stefani wearing the bindi, the general desi reaction is one of amusement (“Did she really think a bindi would go with her tank top and track pants?”).
And of course, if there are norms, they will be defied: There exist plenty of Indian women who will blithely wear a bindi with any outfit and for any occasion and there’s nothing wrong with that, just like there’s nothing wrong with dressing up in a lovely silk sari for Diwali and not wearing a bindi.
National Editor Shalini Langer curates the She Said column
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