Express press service
CHENNAI: The image of female beauty is constantly changing, often shaped and popularized by societal perception. Where once wise, traditional women embodied the ideal of femininity, confident and outspoken women are thriving centuries later. This evolution is also readily available for analysis in the art and media that have captured the trend over the years.
Kahnu Charan Moharana, Fine Arts student and intern at DakshinaChitra and Nivhasini V, Master of Architecture student, bring us back to these narratives and notions, through their online lectures “Feminine Beauty in Indian Art and Literature and “Indian Ads: Identity”. du Féminin’, hosted by DakshinaChitra on Friday.
Unveil ancient art
“The main purpose of ancient Indian art and literature was aesthetic pleasure and this was related to aesthetic beauties, sublime nature, happiness and delight. Since the idea of art and understanding of the idea of woman have changed over the years, it is important to revisit it,” Kahnu began, displaying sculptures from Hinduism and Buddhism, and interpreting them from the book Feminine Beauty in Indian Art and Literature by TN Mishra.
He pointed out that nature was a major theme in ancient and medieval art. “Nature has been personified and incorporated into human forms to represent them more symbolically. A common trope in early Buddhist art was Salabhanjika, which had a woman next to a tree as its subject, and can be spotted in places like Bharhut and Sanchi,” he said.
A character’s youthfulness was an essential characteristic of the art and literature of this period. “Yakshi, Vrksaka, Devata, Salabhanjika are all conceived as young women. They are also portrayed as sensual and seductive. According to Hinduism, Kama is one of the main goals of human beings. Erotic depictions were allowed in religious arts because they were considered sacred and a part of life that helps a person achieve the end goal which is Moksha,” Kahnu explained.
References have also been made to sculptures of women embracing nature for women in literary works like Kalidasa’s Sanskrit play Abhijnana Sakuntalam.
Speaking of media
While ancient art gives us insight into the concepts of feminine beauty of yesteryear, the media shows us the evolution of these, as can be inferred from Nivhasini’s later presentation. Starting with the first phase of advertising in India in the 1940s, we travel back in time to see the change in what is considered female beauty.
“In the 1940s, advertisements were more inclined to show only the beauty of women and many portrayed them in a sensual way (especially in advertisements aimed at men), which may not even have been necessary to market the product. . I think now, while ads objectifying women still exist, there is a broader knowledge and awareness of (women’s empowerment).
Ads follow the trend of how people think, to appease their taste. Cultural values and nuances are opening up now, thanks to globalization and the digital world and so, something inappropriate now could provoke opposition,” Nivhasini told CE.
The change is evident when you analyze early media, like a certain Usha ad from 1972 that features a mother and daughter with the slogan “Sewing your way to a good marriage” or another from Tide in (even as later) 2011 which reinforces the idea that washing clothes is a woman’s job. “In the latter, although drudgery is referred to as female work, there are hardly any women featured. This commercial shows us the kind of mentality that people had at that time,” she explained.
When we move on to more recent ads, like the one from Dove in 2021, we see a different tone of messaging. The ad features the stories of five women with unconventional beauty traits – dark skin, scar on face, curly hair, decent height and weight – and celebrates them. “We see how the idea of beauty has changed over time. Earlier we saw examples of how beauty and fairness are used as a selling point. Now we are talking about another type of beauty, there is more acceptance and inclusiveness,” she added.
As ads move toward social impact, we’re also seeing an extension of femininity beyond cis women. In a 2020 advertisement for Brooke Bond Red Label tea, we see a grandmother with her granddaughter in a car accepting tea from a trans woman, an offer that transforms or rather denies/challenges her prejudices. It’s just a drop in the ocean of advertisements, but I hope such ideas about femininity will become commonplace in the future.