Advertising Widows

Articles, Myth Theory 7 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, Sept. 09, 2012


All female models on television commercials are widows ! This was a remark made by a friend. Her argument was that none of them wore a bindi, which is the indicator of marital status in most communities of India.

I ,then observed the two worlds on TV: the bindi-less world of advertising and the bindi-full world of television serials. Everything from direct-to-home  cable services to  cosmetics to electronics to food items to paint is being sold by (allegedly) modern young women, who look the same, in pastel colored western outfits that has become the uniform of the young cool generation who do not like bindis.  Then there is the world of TV soaps where every woman is (allegedly) traditional because she wears colorful clothes full of bling with jewelry and bright cosmetics and creative bindis and red color that spreads less in the parting of the hair and tends to spill more on the forehead. Both are catering to Indian consumers. Are they talking to different worlds: advertising for modern India  1 and serials for traditional India 2 (Bharat)? Who is getting the communication right? I am confused.

Is bindi a cultural symbol or a secular or a religious symbol? Does expectation to wear it mean one is a Right-wing fundamentalist? Does market research reveal that most Indian women, at home, do not wear bindi? Where is this decision of cultural erasure coming from?

No one really knows the origin of the bindi. One can only speculate. Even this is difficult as the marks on the forehead have many regional variations. Painting sacred marks on the forehead was perhaps an ancient ritual way to draw attention to that the one thing that separates humans from animals – the faculty of imagination that springs from the human brain located behind the forehead. Some say this marks the third eye, the uniquely human ability to discriminate and analyze and understand the world.

Red color of vermillion represented potential of the mind. It represented the earth, blood of the hunted animal or the fallen enemy, as well as menstrual fluid. In case of women, a dot (bindu) was put in the center of the forehead. In case of men, the dot was stretched upwards to create the tilak. In case of women especially in North and East India, the red color was sometimes put in the parting of the hair to indicate post-marital status. When stretched horizontally, it was used to indicate sacrifice.

At some point, bindi came to be associated with femininity in many communities of India, to be worn by women after marriage and to be wiped away following widowhood. Since there was no such symbol in men to indicate their marital status, bindi naturally came to be viewed as a patriarchal imposition. Some women used large bindis to reaffirm their ethnicity and Indianness; I remember one fashion designer calling these ‘bullet-hole’ bindis. In USA, there was a hate group called ‘dot-busters’ in the mid-8Os that targeted South Asians. Now that the dots are disappearing, thanks to modernity, I guess we have nothing to fear any more.

  • Raghav Venkataraman

    Advertising does a lot of things and if you talk about it “you are critic”… nice article. Liked it.

    I have also wondered why advertisements have just mamma pappa and baby… hardly two babies.

    No granpa. no grandma and relatives – A VERY STRONG NO. However the same scenario in serials… all of the family join into a single screen. Esp. with those extra large ‘yesteryear’ uncles and aunties!

  • Raghav Putti

    I have observed that earlier the commercials focussing on Surf Ultra (for example)…”Doondthe rah jaoge” was having the lady with the bindi. Many of the family oriented advertisements projected the traditional housewives with bindi. further you could see them in Saari / saree. Now, the modern advertisements project the housewives in trousers and T shirts. Saree is shown only when a religious and / or family sentimental messages are being conveyed.
    Is the advertisement trying to brainwash the image of the society towards more western culture? Yes. the advent of the western products require the brainwashing of the audience to create the customer base.
    another thought.. advertisement gives the reassurance to the thoughts of the human mind. it re-enforces our thought / idea, which we may otherwise may not be able to implement. it gives the power and support to certain section of the audience to break the rules…
    Thats the power of advertisement…..

  • rahulthinks

    I don’t think the world represented in advertisements represent the real world. No one cares about TV Ads these days and it is not surprising that the Ad wallahs are forgetting this essential element of Indian women.

    My wife and all my sisters wear bindi and sindoor. I am sure we won’t forget this custom and will be able to maintain it forever.

    • You speak with nostalgia my friend, the world has moved on and there’s not much time or respect for the past :-)

      • rahulthinks

        Of course there still is. Our personal experiences may be differnet.

  • enakshi

    I wonder why the representational element of the so-called ‘Indian’ culture through clothes and bindis is being given such grave attention here, as though implying –as in the serials you refer to– that a change of outfit eradictes the cultural and/or ethical traits that ‘Indian’ society boasts of. If you notice carefully, the ladies in ads are inherently traditional, as their main concern seems to be the well-being of their families in every sphere of life. Even the ads selling beauty products or dietary supplements for women concentrate on the fact that she needs to be healthy to take care of her family. Her identity and needs seem to be as subsumed by the needs of the family as her counterpart in the serials. Let not the outfits fool anyone into thinking that Westernisation and modernity has brainwashed our audience/consumer base, because the ideology being propagated underneath the facade of the ‘modern’-women-with-spending-power remains as traditionally ‘Indian’ as in the 80s.
    In a different context, I’ve come across a theory that the bindi represents the womb, and the tilak a penis, and these respective marks on the woman/man’s foreheads are meant to ignite their visceral, sexual powers, which are the ultimate source of spiritual inspiration and success for any human being. Mr Devdutt, I would be really interested to know your take on this theory.

  • SimmiChhabra

    Indian women can never stop wearing bindis. It is symbolic of their wish to follow the traditions. Plus, it makes one prettier…:)