Wednesday, March 26, 2008

For my eyes only

I bought myself a little tube of Mumtaz kajal today. The model on the casing tempted me with her large lustrous eyes. Maybe I should try the exotic oriental look, I told myself.

I flipped the case around. Hmm. Sixty rupees. My sister pays a hundred rupees for her fancy Shehnaaz Husain kajal. And at the lower end, this kind of thing can be bought for five rupees as well. Obviously, Mumtaz was a middle-to-high-end brand. Maybe it was worth trying? Would it give me a softer look?

I looked at the ingredients. The Sufoof-e-Syah had me stumped, but syahi is Urdu for ink, so I figured this Sufoof thingy was the dye that made the kajal black. And Bhimseni Kafoor was probably camphor. Ark Phudina is "extract of mint" - cooling perhaps? Who knows.

All in all, very interesting and mysterious. So I bought it, and tried it, and the results were, ahem, quite encouraging. I think I can face 40 now.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sri Yantra in Khari Baoli

In a crowded little spice shop in Khari Baoli, I found a Sri Yantra hanging on the wall, alongside heaps of pistachios, almonds and dates. The man in the shop smiled at me in a benign sort of way. Business was brisk.
The Sri Yantra was drawn on a faded piece of paper, covered with plastic to protect it from the elements. It was anointed with two vermillion dots. Clearly, the shopkeeper believed it would bring him luck. The little shop was filled to the brim with spices; maybe it was the yantra doing its job!
I've never understood this Sri Yantra thing, perhaps because I didn't grow up with yantra-worship at home. But geometric figures - symbolic representations of divinity or truth - are common to both Hinduism and Buddhism. They are most commonly seen in the traditional rangolis and kolams of women. The most auspicious of these figures is the Sri Yantra. Here's a better illustration of it:

The yantra is, in essence, an illustration of the universe, of all creation. It represents the unity of the male and female principles - if you look carefully, you'll see there are four upright triangles representing the male (Siva), and five downward ones representing the female (Shakti). The little dot at the centre is the bindu, the source of all creation.

Here's a three-dimensional view of the Sri Yantra. I am oversimplifying, but in this form, it is easier to see how you can focus on the Sri Yantra as a way to ascend from the outer material levels to the ultimate reality of the bindu.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Western women and the saree

This week, on a travel advisory column, an American lady asked me a question. "I'm coming to Delhi for a wedding", she said. "Should I try wearing a saree?"

Many overseas visitors to India are fascinated by the saree, of course. The women look at the fabrics and designs, and immediately wonder what it would be like to wear one. "How long does it take you to drape this?" they ask me. "Can you teach me?" "What does it cost? Does it come in different fabrics?" "You think I could wear it? I mean, can I pull it off?"

The questions are very female, framed in a sort of universal language that all women understand. One question that I get asked often is "Do you like wearing it?"...perhaps the person asking wishes to really understand what's going on inside my head...why do I drape six yards of fabric around my body, when I could be more comfortable in other clothes?

To tell the truth, I find the draping of the saree a sensuous pleasure. That final flinging of the pallu over the shoulder, the twisting to look at your back in the mirror, the feel of crepe silk as it goes round the bare midriff - everything contributes to a subtle sensual delight even as you dress for work. The saree allows me to be feminine, to experiment with colours and jewellery, confident that no matter what kind of figure I have, this garment will help me look my best.

On formal occasions such as weddings, saree draping is a group affair. At tea-time, the women of the household exchange notes: "What are you planning to wear?" "Ah, that gold and maroon one? Perfect." "Are you going to wear those ruby tear-drops? You know, the ones you bought in Hyderabad?" By 6:00 p.m., the bedrooms in the house have been invaded by women, there are sarees strewn everywhere on the bed and garlands of jasmine by the dressing table. The women are in a state of sensory exploration. You hear the swish of Kanchi silk, the smell of sandal and perfume, the jingling of bangles. You see the gleam of gold-and-rubies, and you smell the heady scents of henna and jasmine. And then it is time to troop out of the house, and crowd into a car, more swishing and jingling sounds...the car fills with the smell of flowers and perfume, and the women are transported to the wedding grounds.

So - coming back to the American woman who asked me for advice - I wondered what sort of experience she'd have with the saree. Would she be part of a household of women? Or would she have to cope with the saree in a hotel room by herself?

And even if she did have other women to help her, there was still something else that bothered me. You see, I think what makes the saree graceful is not just the drape, but also a certain body posture and walking style. Just as the African woman has her own gait, and the Japanese woman her own, the Indian woman does too. This is what gives beauty to the saree and makes it seem feminine and graceful. I've always thought that the saree is not easy for Western women, whose walk is more of a confident stride, and less of a gentle sway. To add to that, there's the artificial wobble that high heels bring, and the discomfort that is natural to a first time wearer.

So although I wanted to recommend the saree, I was also very hesitant. All things considered, here's what I finally said to the lady: "If you're tempted to wear a saree, buy one and try it in the privacy of your hotel room. Get a little used to it before you wear it to a wedding. Or stick to a lehenga, it's much easier to wear because it is essentially, a skirt and blouse."

I'm still trying to figure out if I said the right thing!