“The aim of art is not to represent the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”
Several months ago, I received an email from local woman, business owner, and founder of From Lost to Found Travel (a Philadelphia based travel company) Allison Rulon-Miller expressing interest in a potential article covering a new tour her company had slated to take place halfway around the world. From Lost to Found Travel highlights itself as a travel company which focuses on “special interest tours to the Indian subcontinent.” The special interest tour that I was particularly being contacted as brand new (in fact, the first group went just this month): tours on Body Art and Adornment in India.Merging many of my passions, my interest peaked. I immediately responded to Allison and set up a meeting; when I arrived at her downtown office (and home), we spoke over a cup of freshly ground and brewed Indian coffee. It was only then I realized the story she—and these tours—had to tell.
But as we talked, I thought, “How do you write about a tour you’ve never been on, a country you’ve never been to?” I cannot tell a story of the tours themselves; I cannot tell you what I saw, or did, or even what I felt, since these experiences are not my own. I can only tell you the story I came to hear: Allison’s story, a story about the India I have come to know from halfway around the world, from a conversation over a cup of coffee.
As Allison explained, body art in India consists of both permanent modifications and temporary, decorative, ritualistic adornment (think henna, certain types of saris, large beaded necklaces, and bangles and bracelets of silver and brass.) “I look at this tour concept more as body adornment rather than body modification, the latter being viewed by me as anything permanent—ritualistic or not. Body adornment, as I use it as a tour theme, includes not only tattooing and piercing related jewelry—earrings/nose rings—but armlets/anklets/talismans/astrological rings, clothing—traditional and tribal versus high fashion—headwear, cosmetics/sindur, hairstyles, body painting, and mehndi, among many other aspects of personal appearance,” she said. “The art of getting dressed [there] is highly ritualistic and deliberate.”
Allison has traveled to India many times over the last twenty years, and as a woman she has found herself in a strange yet fortunate position: In India, it is a cultural taboo for men to speak directly to women; the same is true for taking photographs. They must obtain the permission of the husband, father, or brother of the woman, and even with this permission, the men often expect something in exchange. But Allison is granted a certain amount of leeway, allowing her to ask the questions no one does—and get the incredible amount of photos she does. She says no one there questions body adornment: their reasons, rituals, and meanings. To those living in India, body art and adornment is simply a part of who they are. It is a cultural norm. Allison, like most Westerners, wanted to know more. While it was easier for her to ask the questions few are allowed to ask, it did not help her receive truer answers.
She observed body art and adornment to be more prevalent with Indian women than men. This is not to say that men do not have their own specific modifications, apparel, and jewelry, but it seems to be a more integral part of the lives and milestones of females: from henna to bangles and bracelets to tattooing. As you can see from the accompanying pictures on the preceding pages, traditional Indian tattoo designs are relatively sparse to Western eyes. They are far less intricate than, say, Japanese-style tattoos—and are devoid of color. As Allison went from village to village, she saw all sorts of tattoos—mostly on women—and while the designs varied, there were repeated motifs from one community to another. (For example, tattoos on women, much like the ones seen in this slide show, represent everything from a woman’s caste to marital status, while many other markings represent luck or protection.) What’s more, the same symbols appeared over and over, on women young to old.
Much like tattoos, certain piercings hold particular meanings, often representing the various stages of one’s life. And, as you can imagine, the jewelry chosen was just as deliberate. Whether it be the numbers, colors, and materials of bangles and bracelets, or the jewelry one wears through a nostril, in rural India everything is done deliberately and traditionally—though many Indian cities have abandoned old adornments in their shift toward modernity.
You can learn an immense amount about a culture through its cuisine, its religion, its architecture, its art; while my only true taste of India was a single cup of coffee, and the only tangible items I experienced were a few brass hair pins and assorted jewelry, I felt transported. Looking through pictures of places I’ve never been, into the faces of people I will probably never know, I could not help but be overwhelmed. One particular image stuck with me: it shows the face of a young child, a year or two old, covered in nothing but bangles of green and gold, a simple beaded necklace of yellow and brown, and adorned with double nostrils––one on each side––and a septum piercing (See the final image of the slideshow). She stares up at something out of the picture’s frame, yet in her eyes there is a reflection; I can see the faint outline of a village, her village, and the sun. And as I look at this one image, I keep wondering: What is the story told by these men and women, told by this one child, told through their jewelry, their tattoos, their decorations and dress? As of this writing, I still do not truly know.
About the tour
At this time, there are two separate body-adornment-based trips scheduled. The first, “Body Art and Adornment of Western India,” has two scheduled departures: one in September 2011— during the Ramdevra festival—and one from February to March 2012. The second is a one-time trip titled, “Body Art and Adornment in Orissa,” and is also in February of 2012. Each of the tours is twelve to thirteen days in length, and while each has a unique itinerary, travelers will get to experience various “rural communities where the traditional dress, body jewelry, and symbolic tattoos are still worn….visits to urban mehendiwalas, jewelry and gem markets, apparel boutiques, and tattoo parlors…temples, mosques, and shrines to see how body decoration merges with devotion.”
These tours promise to “blend cultural touring with insights into traditional and contemporary body adornment in India.” While they tend to be “geared toward a moderate-to-upscale clientele”—with moderate-to-upscale costs—they are able to design custom tours to fit any budget.
For more information about From Lost to Found Travel and their upcoming tours, go to fromlosttofoundtravel.com. You may also contact Allison Rulon-Miller by calling 215-731-9553 or sending an email to [email protected]