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Aishwarya Rai in Devdas (2002)

A brief history of sindoor, the divisive Indian tradition of coloured roots

Dating back over 5000 years, the historic beauty tradition once eschewed by feminists is now being reclaimed

When Priyanka Chopra married Nick Jonas in 2018, you may have noticed she was wearing vermillion red dye in a thin line along her centre parting. Since then, Chopra has been seen sporting the style on various different occasions, something which she has been both ridiculed and praised for on social media.

To understand this polarised response, you need to look back into the history of the practice. Known as sindoor, this red dye has been used by Indian women for centuries and holds historic, spiritual, and medicinal significance. First put on a woman by her husband on their wedding day as a symbol of her devotion to him, the style is traditionally used by Indian women to signify married status. However, more recently, the practice has been shunned by some feminists who believe it to be a symbol of patriarchal control.

While it’s unknown when exactly the tradition originated, female figurines dating as far back as 5000 years have been found in northern India with red painted partings. Sindoor also gets a nod in the Hindu epics. In Ramayana, for example, which theologians date back to the 7th century BCE, Sita is said to apply sindoor to please her husband, Lord Rama. Like the bindi, the significance of sindoor stems from its location near to the Third Eye chakra (AKA the Ajna chakra) at the centre of the head. The Ajna chakra’s proximity to the brain associates it with concentration, desire, and emotional regulation. For those who believe in the power of chakras, placing sindoor in this location means harnessing a woman’s mental energy to focus on her husband.

Sindoor has also traditionally been used for medicinal reasons. In Ayurvedic herbology, a system of medicine with historical roots in Hinduism, red sindoor powder is thought to have medicinal properties that benefit women, including stimulating blood flow to trigger their sex drive – the reason why unmarried women and widows are not allowed to wear it. In fact, in 2017, the Indian government deemed sindoor so essential to a woman’s health that they granted tax exemptions to the powder. Menstrual products, on the other hand, are taxed between 12 to 14 per cent.

Whether a woman’s choice to don the dye is for historical, spiritual or medicinal reasons, a unifying thread is that, traditionally speaking, the end goal is to please men – be it a husband or the wider patriarchy. However, views on the practice began to change at the start of the 20th century as India was going through a huge cultural shake-up brought on by British decolonisation and the spread of international feminist movements. During this period, sindoor was caught in the crossfire between a recently decolonised population trying to re-establish age old traditions and newly emancipated women fighting against practices bound up in patriarchal obligation.

One of the earliest acknowledgments of sindoor’s controversial status is Kishore Sahu’s 1947 film of the same name, which tackles the theme of widow remarriage. Controversially, women were often deemed a burden after their husbands’ deaths so, as the logic goes, why would she want to reapply sindoor for a new husband if she was truly devoted to her last one? Sindoor ends with the widow’s wish to remarry being accepted by the other characters in the film. As she reapplies her vermillion, symbolising her renewed marital status, she undermines the archaic value system associated with sindoor application. Almost 30 years after the film’s release, The Illustrated Weekly of India referred to this ending as something which solidified Sahu’s status as a “socially conscious filmmaker.”

More recently, the polemic surrounding the red dye has entered 21st century cyberculture as sindoor’s relevance in Bollywood film became meme-ified. In a scene from the 2007 classic Om Shanti Om, heroine Shantipriya (Deepika Padukone’s breakout role) extols the virtues of the red dye in her song “Ek Chutki Sindoor” (That One Pinch of Sindoor): “A married woman’s crowning glory, everything a woman has always dreamt of.” Desi Twitter has since poked fun at the conservative lyrics, transforming the scene into an iconic meme format which broadly correlates to Sean Bean’s ‘one does not simply…’ meme in the Euromerican cyberworld. 

Nowadays, women who opt for the style risk being labelled as overly conservative – the criticism often levelled at Chopra for wearing it – while at the same time married women who shun the trend have been sexually harassed and socially ostracised. Amrita Anand told Feminism in India that she’ll wear Sindoor to family functions “just to stop people making an issue out of it,” despite never otherwise wearing it. But some people are fighting back against this impossible position.

Despite online ridicule, beauty gurus have continued demonstrating the trend in YouTube tutorials, although more often as ‘throwbacks’ than innovative styles for viewers to try as wearable looks. Sonam Kapoor’s Vogue GRWM featured the vermillion as an homage to 90s Bollywood stars, but the Raanjhanaa actress clarified she was only applying it, “To make the look super Indian”. YouTuber Shalini Mandal meanwhile begins her copycat tutorial applying the Sindoor, as per Kapoor’s instructions, and exclaiming in dismay “I look like my mom!”

Throughout the past decade, many influential beauty figures in the South Asian diaspora have played with the conventions of the trend to overturn its potentially old school connotations and challenge cis-heteropatriarchal ideas about who is allowed to wear sindoor. The Times of India’s #NoConditionsApply campaign which began in 2017, fought for Sindoor Khela (a yearly tradition where married women smear vermillion dye on each other) to be inclusive of more women, including widows, unmarried women and trans women, with a view to transform the event into a celebration of “sisterhood” and “solidarity” rather than women’s appendage to men. Designer Rohit Verma’s March 2020 fashion show, meanwhile, took this a step further, with cis men, trans women, acid attack survivors, widows, and divorcees wearing Sindoor on the runway, in order to “empower women to challenge norms that lead to unfair traditions imposed on them for the last 400 years.”

For some creatives, facing the cultural baggage of sindoor head on meant shifting the trend more radically. Back in 2018 designer Masaba Gupta, who is known for her quirky and disruptive takes on classic Indian attire, debuted a collection with models using white and neon pink sindoor to adorn their partings, with the dye bleeding deeper into the hair lengths than what had previously been seen. “It is embracing the fact that Sindoor is not a dated concept or old school,” Gupta explained at the time. “Today, the use of Sindoor has become more of a choice.”

The trend of colourfully dyed roots has also been making headlines outside of the Indian subcontinent. Last summer, American pop star Billie Eilish debuted her now famous slime green roots, while a month later, Halsey rocked rainbow roots at the MTV VMAs. Most recently, Dries Van Noten’s SS20 show saw models walk the runway with vibrant coloured roots, this time the result of feathers and no doubt lots of hairspray. For Eilish and other artists rocking the trend, it’s come to signify an upheaval of beauty norms which typically understand roots as a grown-out problem to be fixed. Consequently, inverted dye has become a middle finger to oppressive beauty rules that favour norms over individual choice.

Similarly, recent uses of sindoor such as Gupta’s and Verma’s signify a feminist reclaiming of a tired rhetoric, enabling wearers to prioritise individual choice over oppressive dogmas around announcing one’s marital status. In both corners of the world, the trend of colourfully dyed roots is undeniably having a big moment, revealing more cross-cultural similarities than you might think at first. It’s clear that women everywhere are reclaiming control of their creative expression in a way that is sure to take root for decades to come.