Unbinding the bindi, and giving it a new spot …The Hindu, April 9, 2017
The dot that encompasses within it a whole range of messages and meanings, seems set to write a fresh story each day
Had Elizabeth Gilbert visited Tamil Nadu’s capital during the Chennai city phase of her ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ quest, her word for the city would have been ‘bindi’, or ‘pottu’ in local lingo. Indeed, generations of venerable values and touchy traditions jostle for space in the bright red circle that fetters womanhood in this part of the world.
It sits in austere fortitude on a woman’s forehead. A warning to ward off every conceivable evil. A good omen for the entire household this dot was. Equally ominous was its absence. Conspicuous, with a foreboding of dark shadows. The red dot played myriad roles – chaperone, caste flag, religious icon… If the red dot was absent from its established position in the middle of the forehead at the time of the evening lighting of the sacred lamp, almost the entire household would launch itself into a harangue.
An alarm would go off. Frantic cries would echo.
“Why is your forehead blank?” would be followed by an admonition on how bad a portent it was for the entire family. “Only widows have a blank forehead,” the rant would continue. To worsen things, there came the wringer, “Is the household in mourning or what?”
Usually, it would be the women in a sprawling household, other than the unmarked one, who raise such a hue and cry. Because the men were lords of few words. At times like these, even wordless. They glared at the colourless forehead, grunted in disapproval, stared accusingly at the other women lurking in the shadows for having allowed such a mishap to occur, and walked off in the assurance that the message had been duly conveyed.
In all this commotion, no one noticed the full bow-shaped lips that quivered in fright or the doe eyes that glistened with guilt. Even the shapely eyebrow that arched every once in a while in mockery of the things people said went unnoticed. The bindi stole the show always. Even in its absence.
The red dot screamed ‘Stop’. Thoughts, ideas, naughty and otherwise, genuflected before the ruling red dot. Arrest! it seemed to say.
All that was before the attraversiamo, as Ms. Gilbert would have said. Today, young Chennai has crossed over. A blank slate is what the new forehead looks like. To write a fresh new story every single day. To define life on personal terms. Free thinking flows across the uninterrupted broadened mind as it does through the city’s temple-bordered lanes.
Ample bare foreheads are seen everywhere — at bulging bus stops, inside the cool interiors of towering glass facades that hold bright engineering minds, in homes adorned by intricate rice flour designs at the doorstep.
In place of the timid, shackled countenances stand bright bursts of confidence, eyes sparkling with life and lips pursed in steely determination. The TamBram forehead attracts no more attention than any other.
So, has the red dot been dispatched disgracefully? Quite the contrary. It holds a more enhanced place of pride today. Because now the red dot is there by choice. And neither is it always red nor always round.
It is a choice. Where there is choice, can freedom be far behind? The choice ranges from special occasions, special attire, to expression of special moods. The choice has helped the bindi evolve from the mundane vermilion powder to a coloured liquid in a slim bottle to shapely velvet cut-offs on a sticker that can be stuck to the forehead in a blink and can be peeled off just as quickly, unlike its former self that always left behind tell-tale scars from the past.
Chennai today boasts of bespoke bindis that reflect the creative streak in the artsy wearer and etches a special image of class in a city that is often touted as a cultural citadel of the country. Colour-coordinating the bindi with the rest of the attire is not uncommon, shaking the bedrock of the ethos of the erstwhile red pottu.
Style statement. That’s what the bindi lends the forehead. As styles change so do the bindi’s shape, colour and size. In the world of fashion, no style is also a style. So too with the bindi.
The bindi is no longer short for ‘binding’. But a colour and a shape that can be moved around as freely as the salty breeze blowing over the Marina Beach.
Agreed that Incredible India without the red dot would be bland. But that would not make India any less incredible, would it?