July 02, 2016 3 min read
As I say in my lectures – traditional art in Asia is rarely ever “art for art’s sake” and almost always has a second layer hidden beneath.
It is either created to make some functional object beautiful or is created to convey some meaning. In this example – a Sindoor Box – a functional object is created in an artistic way and given a gopuram form.
This artistic box is meant to hold kumkum or sindoor –a red powder that must be applied as a dot on the forehead of a married woman. In some parts of India, the parting of a Hindu married woman’s hair is also adorned with sindoor.
The reasons for the application are many – from announcing her marital status to warding off the evil eye and praying for her husband’s long life.
Today Sindoor is commercially available in little plastic boxes but in the olden days temples were the source of this auspicious powder.
Today – the dot on the forehead is created using stickers. In the olden days, it was created by first applying a thin base of ghee (to ensure that it does not flake off) in the form of a dot with the third finger of the right hand and then applying sindoor powder over it.Further, even unmarried girls put on the dot so it has lost its significance of ‘declaration of marital status’.
But, even now, at the wedding, in one of the many ceremonies, the groom applies the sindoor powder in his bride’s hair parting.
In Bengal, the sindoor is poured onto the parting using an oyster shell as a scoop. Bengal also has a major festive event called “Sindoor Khela” among married women where they celebrate their status using vast amounts of Sindoor powder. Why only here? I cannot be certain but from Bengali literature set in the 1800s, it appears that the high incidence of child marriage along wih the high incidence of child-widowhood was common. The reason I do not know and whether statistics bear this our I do not know. But if we assume that literature reflected the actual situation of the day, then to have a living husband was indeed a reason to celebrate. In those days a husband represented economic security and that in turn meant social security and conversely, resulted in social stigma for the young widow.
Much has changed since then and though most urban Hindu women that I have spoken to find the custom of applying sindoor in their hair, beautiful, they do not practice it out of shyness – as it is not seen as “modern”.
Most of the women who still continue to practice this custom are in smaller towns and villages, who say they do not have the freedom to choose their own path.
And here we urban people sit on our thrones of modernity endowed with all the freedoms we need to choose our own path – and what did we do with these freedoms?
Ironically we chose the wrong one* … we chose to de-culturalise ourselves!!
Weren’t we, the educated modern ones supposed to shoulder the greater responsibility?
The Sindoor box from South India is from the wovensouls collection and may be viewed here on wovensouls.com
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