Sitting at the wedding reception table under a gazebo with red, yellow, and orange sashes, I engage in conversation with the strangers next to me. There is a sea of white and brown faces alike dressed in the brightest traditional Indian clothes, a gorgeous medley, with myself in a dark green saree. It’s not the first time I’m participating in Indian cultural festivities - I am half Indian, after all. There is a white couple on the table, cheeks flushed and grinning ear to ear, who tell everyone they too are engaged. They are clearly having fun at this wedding as the man proceeds to gleefully suggest they could also have an “Indian-themed” wedding. I am aware that, you know, the double rum-and-cokes may be hitting hard, you get a little jolly and in an attempt to flatter/appreciate the culture, one may think this is OK to say.
Nevertheless, the man must have gaged my unimpressed reaction because his high spirit faltered a little awkwardly and I saw the look of internal embarrassment in his eyes.
But Madalena, why was it so problematic?
Well, for one, there’s no such thing as just an “Indian wedding”. To be specific, the wedding I attended was a Sikh wedding from a family of northern Indian origin. That’s completely different to, say, my family who come from a Muslim West Indian background, and our weddings would probably look quite different as a consequence. The man’s comment really simplified an incredibly complex and intricate nation that itself is made up of numerous cultures and religious backgrounds.
I’m not saying the couple couldn’t have had any connection to the Indian culture - it is certainly quite possible, but what he said is truly telling. It is emblematic of this idea that a minority group’s culture can be used as a ‘theme’ for an event. It’s something you can dress up in for a day and put back in the wardrobe at the end of the night without fully understanding the historical/cultural roots and significance of what you’re partaking in, and not be aware of your privilege in being able to temporarily don the clothes you do.
Now, why have I shared this story? Because a similar thread is seen in the seams of popular bindi-wearing culture in festivals. But before I dive into that, we need a history lesson.
The Hindu roots of bindi-use
The word bindi comes from the word bindu in Sanskrit, an Indo-Aryan language used in ancient Hindu texts. Bindu means a drop, small particle, or dot. The area on the forehead between the eyebrows is seen by Hindus as the ‘third eye’, an energy point/outlet, a.k.a the sixth chakra called the ajna through which one can ‘see’ and tap into a connection with God. The bindi reminds Hindus to keep God at the centre of their thoughts and minds, forsaking their ego and scrutinising the biased external world. The ajna (meaning ‘command’ or ‘perceive’) is furthermore considered a site of intellect, concealed wisdom, and auspiciousness which, through practice, may allow one to astral project, so… all the good and trippy things, really.
The red bindi (sindoor) in particular is also reminiscent of the blood sacrifices offered to the Gods and used in worship of Shakti (the feminine primordial energy force). Bindi-wearing has been a religious custom irrespective of one’s gender since around 1500-1200 BC, being mentioned in the holy Rigveda text, but what do you expect from the world’s oldest religion? Back then, people would use “thin and tender leaves” cut into specific shapes and also put them on various other parts of the body. Goddesses were also described to have used sindoor so, yeah, there’s a lot of religious significance associated with bindis.
The wider cultural significance of the bindi
Having just said all that, the use of bindis isn’t strictly/necessarily used for religious purposes. Sindoor is often sported by married women, as when a bride crosses into her husband’s domain wearing one, it is believed she will be bringing prosperity into the house. A black bindi on the other hand signifies that a woman has no worldy loves, so she may be single or widowed. Bindis are sometimes put on babies to ward off the evil eye too, and sometimes used just for aesthetic purposes, so bindi-usage is multipurpose.
The Western use of the bindi
Now armed with the historical knowledge, we can start unpacking the Western use of bindis. I’m unsure when this became a thing per se, but it probably became popularised, or at least iconic, with the rise of Bollywood. Although even in Bollywood movies the cultural significance and affection devoted to wearing bindis is obvious.
Bindis were worn by celebrities like Gwen Stefani and Selena Gomez, although Gwen Stefani was apparently dating band member Tony Kanal of Indian descent at the time, so if she wants to argue that she used bindis due to an invitation, she may have the grounds to. But especially in Selena’s case with the sexually suggestive lyrics of the song, Western use of bindis is truly a form of exoticizing Indian culture, something I find deeply problematic and othering.
Of course, these ‘iconic’ moments then encourage others to do the same as in the case of festivals. Reading/Leeds, Glastonbury, Coachella, and the like are saturated with people wearing bindis, crop tops and booty shorts, and I feel it borders on bastardisation.
That’s a strongly phrased sentiment, surely nobody has been hurt from wearing a little dot on their heads, right?
The Dotbusters and other hate crimes
Wrong. In 1987, a New Jersey group self-named the ‘Dotbusters’ went on rampages beating ‘dotheads’ (South Asian immigrants). Here, you can see the description of bindis as an ethnic signifier that marked individuals out for hate crimes. In the UK, we've heard about similar atrocious acts. The truth is hate crimes are serious, and the Dotbusters killed people. Furthermore, as a previously colonised country, South Asian immigrants already feel pressure to conform to the mainstream culture of their country of residence - it’s a form of survivalism when they are othered, so many unfortunately do not feel comfortable dressing in traditional clothes, including bindis.
If South Asians have themselves felt like they can’t wear bindis, does it make sense for bindi use to be taken so lightly?
Personal suggestions on bindi use
Vidya Ramachandran wrote a super interesting and poignant article where she discusses whether bindi-wearing can be considered cultural appropriation as the use of bindis has many meanings and are even used simply for aesthetic purposes in India. Even though I am of Indian origin, I personally don’t feel comfortable myself in wearing a bindi due to its Hindu roots and because it’s not a common occurrence in my family anyway. That is not to say that others can’t partake; Reclaim the Bindi in fact encourage all South Asians regardless of religious background to embrace this cultural phenomenon, but I just don’t feel like it’s quite right until I am invited. When I say invitation, I mean when someone of the appropriate heritage/culture invites/encourages you to partake in wearing bindis for some event. Then it may actually be rude not to!
Ultimately, as a mixed-race individual, I am aware of the need for cultural appreciation and the mixing of cultures; I have first-hand seen when it goes too far and actually becomes detrimental to be so attached to segregation, so I am not arguing for the ban of white people wearing bindis. I believe it’s fine to do so, so long as you’re appreciative and have a full understanding of the history and cultural significance of them, and it’s not just a fashion fad for your ‘summer festival vibes’.