When Sakshi Tanwar wore a double-dotted bindi on her forehead in the popular soap opera Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki in 2000, she probably wasn’t making a fashion statement. But even now, over a decade and a half later, women across India sport the small dot under a larger red dot.
Also in fashion is a crescent-shaped bindi seen popularly on Sony TV’s Peshwa Bajirao, and previously in the 2015 film Bajirao Mastani.
Indeed, the ubiquitous bindi, traditionally worn by married Hindu women, and unmarried girls in some parts of the country, has strong associations with television and film.
So much so that they symbolize characters in soaps—the docile daughter-in-law wearing a small, timid bindi pitted against the evil mother-in-law sporting a fiery, dramatic and experimental design (Sudha Chandran’s character in Kaahin Kissii Roz is a prime example, see below).
“We are aligned with the fashion industry and keep changing our collection to come up with new designs and colours based on lifestyle magazines and television serials,” says Bharat Dedhia, one of the promoters of ABR Shringar Llp, which makes the Richie Rich Shringar brand of bindis.
While television still uses it extensively, the bindi as a tradition is slowly declining, and more so in the larger cities—in small-town India, wearing one is still a ritual.
On reason for this is that bindis are often perceived as old fashioned, clashing with the Western-style fashion preferred by the urban youth.
“Today, we see less of the bindi because urban women are not wearing traditional clothes on a regular basis. But wearing a bindi is quintessentially Indian—it will not go away in a hurry,” says Anju Maudgal Kadam, who in 2015 started a campaign called #100SareePact that encouraged urban women to wear saris (read the Mint on Sunday article, “Six yards and thousands of sari stories”).
“The new generation feels they will be called aunty if they wear bindi. They associate bindis with old people,” says Durlabhji Gopal Marwavia, a distributor and manufacturer of the Subh Suhag and Jeevi brands based in Bhuleshwar—one of India’s largest wholesale bindi markets, in the heart of Mumbai.
Hasmukh Chedda, the owner of Rangeela Plus, a distributor for Richie Rich Shringar in Zaveri Bazar, Mumbai, agrees. Sales, he says, have reduced by a quarter over the past three to four years.
The bindi manufacturing and retail industry is largely unorganized, with close to 500 manufacturers spread across Mumbai, Delhi and a few other cities. There are no official figures on the size of the market. However, retailers and manufacturers estimate it to be roughly Rs500 crore.
Despite its decline, however, the bindi may never completely disappear—its role is evolving. For the young woman of today, the bindi “is now a fashion accessory that makes up her traditional look”, rather than a symbol of marital status, says Chedda.
Also, it could take just one popular soap opera on a general entertainment channel to multiply sales. “One popular protagonist’s look in a Hindi TV serial—this will give this industry a new lease of life for the next 10 years,” says Dedhia.
The custom of wearing a coloured mark on the forehead can be traced back to sometime between 1500 and 1200 BC. The spot between the eyebrows is considered the third eye in Hindu mythology, also known as the ajna chakra or seat of thinking, and wearing kumkum (a red pigment) or chandan (sandalwood paste) helps one stay focused and calm while thinking, Marwavia claims.
He adds that kumkum or chandan bindis were also worn by men—the male version was called tilak, the use of which was restricted to auspicious occasions or while visiting religious establishments.
Markings in the post-Vedic period were a symbol of belonging to someone, says Jaya Misra, whose book Kama: The Chronicles of Vatsyayana, based on Vātsyāyana, the author of the Kamasutra, will be out later this year.
Historically, when a person took on a lover they used to leave marks with their teeth or nails (the modern-day hickey) or even draw temporary tattoos, like a cluster of stars, adds Misra, who has also worked as a creative director on popular soap operas on channels such as Star Plus and Colour Plus.
According to Misra, the markings were common among both for men and women. This started changing in the Gupta and Maurya period from AD 300 to 600. This period, she says, is also associated with monogamous marriages, even though polygamy was accepted. As customs evolved, women in monogamous relationships started wearing bindis as a sign of being wed.
The modern bindi, a ready-made sticker with a bit of adhesive on the back, does not serve the same purpose as kumkum or chandan. However, it is in a way still part of the identity—and the basic make-up kit—of South Asian women, along with kohl and bangles.
“It acts as an embodiment of a cultural symbol. It’s an identifier of the Indian way of life, a monolithic Brahmanical image of a sanskari stree (traditional woman),” says Vaishali Wankhede, a sociologist at SNDT Women’s University.
It’s this identification that young women are trying to break away from, particularly in urban India. With growing economic independence, women’s social roles are changing.
Today, not wearing a bindi is also a conscious decision by a woman to assert her independent identity, indicating a process of reclaiming her body as her own space and shedding the responsibility of being a carrier of culture and tradition, says Kadam.
As part of her #100SareePact project, women shared their sari stories on social media, and in the process, wore them to work. Kadam associates the bindi with the sari, both complementing each other, both symbols on the wane.
“With globalization, there is a diffusion of culture where we are learning from each other,” says sociologist S.M. Michael, a research supervisor at the Institute of Indian Culture, Mumbai.
In parallel, however, there is also growing trend of localization says Michael—with more and more Indian women embracing both the new and the old. The bindi is still a fixture at Indian weddings, irrespective of where they are held in the world.
And along with henna, the bindi has also made its way to the West—actors and performers like Vanessa Hudgens, Sarah Hyland and Selena Gomez were all spotted wearing bindis in 2015 at the music festival Coachella.
For retailers and manufacturers, exports have a huge potential for growth. “Overseas exports now accounts for 40% of our revenues. It has been growing at 20-25% as compared to India, where the growth is 10%,” says Kalpesh Shah, owner of Mama Bindiwala, which sells 120 different types of bindi brands from a store in the Bhuleshwar market.
Mama Bindiwala exports to Mauritius, the UK, South Africa, Malaysia and even Pakistan—women there sport bindi tattoos. Others retailers and manufacturers are already exporting to countries with large Indian communities—accounting for 10-15% of their inventory—including Nepal, Indonesia, Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates and the US.
Suman Sharma, the principal of Lady Shri Ram College for Women in Delhi, says she used bindis even before she got married. She also often sports a black bindi, which is considered as inauspicious (though in traditional south Indian families, unmarried girls wear black bindis).
“According to custom, married women wear red bindis. But I don’t wear them for their traditional or religious connotations,” says Sharma. “I wear them because I like them and feel that it suits my face and works for me.”
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