A decade or so ago, I sat in my Punjabi neighbor’s living room, absentmindedly popping chocolates into my mouth as I watched a sari-clad lady on screen summarize the Bollywood hits of the week. From the very first moment, the music videos captured my attention; I loved the elaborate choreographies, the drama, the romance, and the flair of it all. And so it was that my interest in India, fed by Bollywood, began to grow — just like the Himalayan mountains of heaping roti my neighbor prepared every day.
My first visit to India was during a high school trip in the summer of 2016. Before flying across the Atlantic to land in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, I was already carrying an overload of preconceptions and expectations of what I thought India would be. I was naively expecting my experience to be reminiscent of a Bollywood music video, filled with color and cause for celebration. Not surprisingly, it was not. Instead, my three weeks in the regions of Ladakh and Rajasthan gave me a glimpse into India’s cultural diversity, unconventional beauty, and real-life complexity.
This past December I was in charge of leading our group’s focus of inquiry, “The Appearance of India,” which revolved around exploring beauty standards, marketing, fashion, architecture, and aesthetics in India. I was especially excited to plan an activity that I called the “Spa Sleepover” (mostly for the alliteration of it). I wanted the group to wear traditional turmeric face masks while we watched a compilation of Indian advertisements from different decades. At this time, we were staying in a family-run guest house just below the shadow of Jodhpur’s eminent Mehrangarh Fort. I had little experience with turmeric face masks, but instead of consulting “Google Baba” I was determined to find a recipe that truly reflected local knowledge. I turned to Rittika, the family’s teenage daughter, for advice. Rittika turned to her mother, who foremost informed me that the Hindi word for turmeric is haldi, and then that the haldi she used in her kitchen would not do. If I wanted to reap real results, she suggested I purchase organic haldi.
The next morning, I walked past houses of Brahmin-blue — a color that once painted privilege but, according to some, also served the practical purpose of repelling mosquitoes. I walked past the camel leather shops and the omelette stalls towards Ghanta Ghar, Jodhpur’s beating heart. Here, a busy bazaar clusters around the clock tower. I stopped at a spice stand and asked the shopkeeper if he had any haldi for making face masks. “You want pithi?” he asked. The look on my face must have screamed confusion because a woman shopping next to me quickly came to my rescue, “Pithi is a mix of haldi and gram flour. You can make a face mask with haldi, but pithi is better.” Later that day, I asked the owner of the guest house if I could prepare the face mask recipe in his kitchen. In the typical kind fashion people through my time in India have come to show me, he insisted on helping me make my concoction and even explained the traditional use of haldi in pre-nuptial ceremonies. Haldi, he said, not only represents a blessing for the bride and groom, it also gives the couple’s skin a radiant glow on their wedding day.
Making the advertisement compilation for our group’s viewing was an experience in itself. On one hand, there were advertisements like Google India’s “Reunion,” which tells the story of two little boys, one Muslim, one Hindu, separated by Partition, reunited years later as old men. On the other, were the lightening cream commercials: Pond’s “White Beauty” starring a florist (Priyanka Chopra) whose boyfriend (Saif Ali Khan) leaves her for a fairer woman (Neha Dhupia), but who with the help of a single cream is able to eventually win him back. Dove India’s “Let’s Break the Rules of Beauty” argues that millions of Indian women should not be held up to a single beauty standard. The message is truly a noble one. Still, Unilever India continues to manage both Dove India and Pond’s line of White Beauty creams, along with the popular Fair and Lovely brand. It is difficult to see these types of products everywhere. I love my own brown skin, but what about the children we have met on our travels, in our service sites, and in our homestays? The Bollywood they look up, the stars of their society tell them they need to be “fair” in order to be “lovely.”
The face that the Indian film and beauty industries herald as the epitome of beauty is a standard I have found to be completely unrepresentative of this country’s true essence. I do not claim to know India well. In fact, I am starting to realize what is left of these nine months will not be nearly enough to begin to know who she is. She is too diverse and complex to be explained in words, but precisely because of that I know she has no one, single face. How can a country where everything from art and language to history and religion is seen and interpreted in a multifold, ever-expanding ocean of diverse perspectives, covet one face? Big eyes, fair skin, soft and silky hair for all of India. To me, that is not just unrealistic; it is not beautiful.
Some say one should keep a straight face while wearing a face mask. I do not think my group did a very good job, but I did not expect or want them to. As they watched my compilation of videos, I could see their responses unveiled to each advertisement.
As to the effectiveness of the face masks, I cannot attest to noticing visible results in anyone’s skin. One person did report breaking out the following morning. Another made the unfortunate choice of shaving before applying the lemony pithi paste on his face. Of course, as with life, one cannot expect miracles after the first attempt. Home remedies do not really come with any of the “measurable” commercial guarantees or promises of packaged cosmetics. There is just the reassurance of traditional wisdom. It takes equal parts persistence and faith for things to truly change. Change can take a while in the land of Indian Standard Time. Then again, change — from even before Ashoka or Harappa — has always been present in the ancient face of India.
Haldi Face Mask Recipe
In a bowl, combine 1 tablespoon of pithi (equal parts organic turmeric and gram flour powder) with 2 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Mix thoroughly until you get a smooth mixture. Add a few drops of honey or rosewater (optional). Apply the prepared paste on your face and leave it on for 10 to 15 minutes. Rinse, then pat dry your face with a soft towel. Apply a light, oil-free moisturizer (optional).