India, Adorned

The MARIOTESTINO+ special issue of Vogue India drew the Mira Mira team to Jaipur, Delhi and Samode Village, as they encountered the dizzying colours and distinct palette of each Indian centre. Absorbing every colour and sound, they were drawn to three words and traditions that encapsulate Indian beauty and body adornment; shubh – a feeling of auspiciousness through beauty, zevar – the jewellery used to adorn and mehndi – the ancient tradition of body art. Witness the colourful and varying forms of each in this Mira Mira exclusive, supported by OPI.

Prefaced by the words of Dr Pravina Shukla, author of The Grace of Four Moons: Dress, Adornment, and the Art of the Body in Modern India, the film casts female body adornment in a new light. We spoke to Dr Shukla on the diverse ways Indian women express themselves through adornment.

In what way does body adornment allow the women of India to express themselves?

PS: Much individuality and personality can be expressed through body adornment choices, through the omission, addition, or juxtaposition of clothing, jewellery and accessories. There is a tremendous amount of personalisation within the accepted norms of what is appropriate to each context: body type, personal taste, occasion, locale and season.

Is it through the colour, the fabric or the style of the sari that personality is expressed?

PS: All of the above. Although by ‘style’ we mean style of wrapping and draping. Some of these choices are seasonal – sari weavers will pre-select richer, darker colours for winter months, lighter colours for the summer and chiffon for the rainy monsoon season. There is still a lot of variety within this. Personality is expressed by choosing distinct motifs and prints within a particular colour palette or fabric, such as silk, cotton or chiffon.

In what ways are the diversity and strength of femininity conveyed in Indian culture?

PS: India is a land bound together by diversity – diversity of language, religion, region and traditions. One way in which women have always been able to express themselves (and their femininity) is by taking control of the adornment of their bodies – they are, in essence, curators of a walking exhibition of self.

Does the geography of India dictate the way in which women use sari, mehndi and jewellery? Or are certain colours and designs universal?

PS: Very much so. The sari is an unstitched length of cloth, so the way in which it is wrapped, tucked, pleated is regional. There is tremendous regional variety. Jewellery likewise is regional in style, and can be very easily identifiable by its style. There is a predominance of colours (red, hot pink, turquoise, yellow) and a predominance of jewellery types (anklets, toe rings, nose rings), but we cannot say anything is truly ‘universal’.

Is body adornment a matter of identity or simply a matter of fashion?

PS: I would argue that fashion is always individual on some level; I wish to follow this trend, but will slightly modify it by choosing a different shade of a fashionable colour, a different style of a fashionable blouse. Fashion and personal identity are as linked in India as they are in the West. We in the West and they in the East all have the same amount of individual leeway, and the same amount of desire to conform to an aesthetic, fashionable model.


Dr Pravina Shukla is a Professor of Folklore and Director of Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, USA. Her research focuses on topics such as folk art and material culture; body art; dress and costume; museum studies; food art and culture; and regions such as India, Brazil and United States. Published in 2015, her book The Grace of Four Moons: Dress, Adornment, and the Art of the Body in Modern India documents the clothing decisions made by ordinary people in their everyday lives.