Painted feet, dark eyes, scented bodies and smooth skin....Sohini Datta looks at the fabulous past
This is the world before the lead-stained lip colours, a world where Eves embellished their beauty from nature’s bounty in the Garden of Eden. Traditions and colours brewed in the teapot of time...and now we drink out of it, recapturing the glorious past.
Kohl goes by the names of kajal and surma also. It is as old as civilisation itself; from the Bronze age till today there are very few who are not fans of this dark paint that gave life to eyes and power to the mirrors of the soul to intoxicate. It was originally used as protection against eye ailments. There was also a belief that darkening the tender skin around the eyes would protect them from the harsh rays of the sun and mothers would apply kohl to their infants’ eyes soon after birth to prevent the child from being cursed by the evil eye. It’s made traditionally out of sandalwood, castor oil, ghee, camphor and other ingredients that are believed to have medicinal properties.
Now used only as a cosmetic as the black or brown powdery colour that comes in pencil-form and makes the whites of the eyes brighter, making them almost twinkle.
“Elo chuley beney bou
Alta diye paye
Nolok naake, kolshi kanke
Jol aantey jaye”
(The goldsmith’s wife is open-tressed
Her feet have an alta-border
Gold nose-ring flashing, the pot at her waist, She goes to get water).
The painted heels and the painted fingers of the past have been around in Bengali households for long. There would always be a bottle of alta somewhere in the house. These glass bottles full of deep blood-red liquid used to come with a tiny aluminium bowl and a long stiff wire ending in a small piece of sponge. Using the wire, the feet would be lined, dipping in and out of the toes. Once upon a time alta held an important place in all religious ceremonies. Grandmothers would say that it apparently helped to prevent and cure cracked heels. While it would last only a few days on the feet, the cool coating made the feet feel pampered.
Used only by dancers now, alta is just a pretty red paint used for the occasional performance.
Believed to be scented by the gods, sandalwood or chandan, as it is called in Hindi, is considered sacred by most Indians. It is the wood from which idols and prayer beads are made. The Parsis feed their sacred fires with it. Women used to rub their bodies with a sandal and turmeric paste for a blemish-free skin much before the twain did meet. Now, sandalwood scrapings are powdered and sold in pouches. The powder makes an excellent face and skin pack. An ancient Indian remedy for prevention of sunstroke is a glass of cold milk scented with a drop of sandalwood oil. This drink is also supposed to prevent skin eruptions and other skin ailments caused, according to the Indian school of medicine, by excessive heat in the body.
Even though chandan still comes in powder form and is fairly popular among women, any day a cosmetic face mask rules over it.
In the area between the eyebrows, the sixth chakra known as the agna, meaning command, considered as the seat of concealed wisdom, sits the bindi. It is the centre point wherein all experience is gathered in total concentration. According to the tantric cult, when during meditation the kundalini rises from the base of the spine towards the head, this agna is the probable outlet for potent energy. The red dot between the eyebrows is said to retain the energy in the human body and control the various levels of concentration. It is also the central point of the base of the creation itself — symbolising auspiciousness and good fortune. This mystic third eye, holding the promise of welfare, is as intrinsic to beauty as any other ingredient.
Some things do not lose their touch, especially if rock icons start sporting them. That’s what happened to bindis; embellished with stones and colours, they are now fabulous fashion accessories!
Stored in cut-glass decanters is the sweet-smelling, mesmerising world of attar. A Persian word meaning fragrance or essence, attar is used to describe both the manufacture and application of these oils. Attars are derived from plant extracts and have a range of rich scents. Attars can simply be individual oils or composed of intricate blends of various oils, resins and concentrates (two or more) and placed in natural base oil. Attar was first produced by the great Persian physician Hakim Ibn Sena (Avicenna in English). He was regarded as the greatest physician of his times, and used these for medicinal purposes. Another story goes that attar was discovered by Noorjehan, wife of Emperor Jehangir of the Mughal era. The story goes that she went for a morning bath and was delighted with the fragrance of the oily layer on the water which had been left overnight to keep it cool. When distilled, it turned out to be her favourite rose perfume. Attar is much sought after as this centuries-old Indian art of blending fragrances is evocative of a time of elegance and grandeur.
In the world of French perfumes, attar is a small forgotten world, found occasionally lying around in their cut-glass bottles adorning small shops.
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