A simple garland of flowers can be a powerful cultural emblem
Dutch people stick tulips into vases. Brazilians arrange flowers on little pots that they hang all over white walls. Hawaiians make lei garlands out of flowers and wear them when they dance. Arabs dry flowers and powder them along with herbs for their bakhoor incense. Americans and Europeans arrange flowers elaborately in funky vases. And Indians string flowers so that they can hang that string across doorways or wear it braided into their hair. In one sense, flowers are the ultimate luxury, because they are ephemeral, beautiful and sometimes fragrant.
One of the arguments I have here in India has to do with fashion, luxury and culture. Indian women of my generation pretty much wear western clothes and have adopted western ideas of beauty. We all wear lipstick, eyeshadow, sleeveless dresses and high heels – and there’s nothing wrong with that. The sad part, at least in my view, is that this intellectual colonisation by the English has made us forget native ideas of beauty like wearing kajal, or kohl as it has come to be called; wearing a vermilion bindi or dot in the centre of your forehead; wearing homemade attars or perfumes that come from sandalwood and other oils; and wearing flowers in your hair.
Women of my mother’s generation worshipped with flowers, but also used them for adornment. Today, we wear strung jasmine flowers in our hair for weddings and festivals. We take these fragrant white jasmine flowers for granted.
It was only after living in the United States for many years that I started to view these simple flowers through a different lens. Indians hand-tie yellow and orange marigolds, red roses, fragrant white tuberose and white jasmine into strings and garlands that we use to adorn ourselves. This defines us as a culture.
In New York, everything that is done by hand is a huge deal. My friend Annie makes jewellery and specifically markets it as “handmade”; another friend, Jana, paints on ceramics and sells the bowls and plates as “hand-painted”. Most luxury brands also emphasise the handmade look. “Handcrafted in Italian leather,” they say. “Bespoke tailoring,” they say. What separates handmade from factory made or mass-produced is the distinctive feel of the hand; the imperfections, which are celebrated.
So, I thought, why not celebrate hand-strung jasmine flowers, particularly since they are extremely local? Walk through a bazaar and you will probably see women sitting cross legged on the floor, tying jasmine into long strings with lightning speed. When you wear it in your hair, it is as if you have a handmade object that is ephemeral; that lasts just a day. What greater luxury is there?
Indians are surrounded by handmade objects. Perhaps, as a result, we fail to see the value in them. Living abroad for decades has sensitised me to what we have in India in terms of art, craft and aesthetic
When I returned to India a few years ago, the question on my mind was how to access my country’s culture in a way that felt true to myself. The path I have chosen is through its beautiful aesthetic.
If you come to my home, you will see yellow marigolds floating on brass urulis – round containers from Kerala. You will also find mango and neem leaves hanging across my doorways to ward off insects and attract beneficial energies.
I get a fresh string of jasmine delivered every day and clip it on my ponytail. These flowers allow me to access my history and heritage in a way that feels natural and effortlesss.
Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a Memoir
Published: November 1, 2014 04:00 AM