Shringara: Passion and
As the mirror to my hand, the flowers to my hair, kohl to my eyes,
tambul to my mouth, musk to my breast,
necklace to my throat,
ecstasy to my flesh,
heart to my home ___
As wing to bird,
water to fish,
life to the living ___
so you to me,
who are you?
who are you, really?
the collection of that relatively little-known but delightful little
museum— the Museum of Everyday Art, part of the Sanskriti complex on
the outskirts of Delhi—there is one object that draws instant
attention to itself. It is a small tiger-shaped sculpture made of
painted and lacquered wood, inside which, in artfully concealed
compartments and corners, were packed in a whole range of objects used
for personal adornment and diversion inside a palace zenana.
There are combs and mirrors, containers for collyrium and vermilion,
foot scrubbers and scent bottles, paan boxes and supari-cutters,
chaupar boards and brass markers. The little objects are
exquisite in themselves, whether made of ivory or wood or metal,
refinement writ all over them.
I was aware of this when I was invited, recently, to write an introductory essay for a volume on Shringara that a prominent publisher was bringing out. The book was meant to focus on a private collection which has some finely crafted 'shringara' objects in it. But when I got down to it, the subject suddenly appeared to be more complex than one would initially have thought. For, in so many directions does the word shringara—so beloved of poets and painters, so much the preoccupation of eager maidens and exalted goddesses— move, that it is not easy to arrive at a clear, simple definition of it. Lexicographers tend to trace it, curiously, to Sanskrit shringa, which means several things: "the horn of an animal; … the tusk of an elephant; … the summit of a mountain; … highest point, acme of anything…"; but also, as used in that great Vaishnava text, the Bhagavata Purana, "a woman's breast". In its own manner, then, Shringara leads us towards many things, all at once. Thus, "love; passion or desire or enjoyment; the rasa of this name, Erotic Sentiment, which has Vishnu as its tutelary deity and black as its colour; a dress suitable for amorous purposes, elegant garments, finery; marks of ornamentation". A shringarin, by definition, thus, is both "an impassioned lover", and "one who is well-adorned, beautifully dressed." Slowly, more through usage it seems than through wordy definitions, the contours of shringara start becoming clear. We move into the areas of passion, and rasa, and adornment; and there they all begin to intertwine.
Passion, clearly, is the context. But, to go back to shringara, or bodily adornment, towards which the objects I began speaking of, are directed. I became very interested in identifying what was encompassed by an expression that one comes upon in texts and parlance ever so often: solah singara, or, in Sanskrit, shodasha shringarah. There was no agreement, I found, between the lists that one turns up. In fact, even in texts that mention the phrase as such, bringing in the number sixteen, the shringaras listed do not even add up to that number always. There are some things that, predictably, are commonly listed: thus, bathing (snana), perfuming the body (sugandhi), anointing it with pastes made of sandalwood or musk or saffron (alepana), putting on elegant garments (vastra), coiffure (kesha-pasha), collyrium in the eyes (anjana), vermilion in the parting of the hair (sindhura), adorning the nose with an ornament (nasika-mauktika), an auspicious mark on the forehead (bindi), colour on the lips (missi), flower garlands around the neck (hara), a belt around the waist (kinkini), anklets (nupura), painting the feet with lac-dye (alaktaka). But then lists begin quickly to diverge, and objects or actions are added or elaborated upon, modified or simply taken off the list. The number sixteen keeps recurring, but only notionally. And coy nayikas, in painting as in poetry, have their own preferences and their own priorities. There are those that keep struggling with their hair; others for whom the anointment of the body remains a prime concern; still others who delight in their lovers bending down to paint their feet, in a gesture of ultimate submission; and some who keep gazing into mirrors, to the exclusion of almost everything else.
As I read about these things, and kept adding images to my own repertoire of remembered things, it was exclusively a woman's world that I thought one was entering thus: fragrant and delicate, narcissistic in some manner but also exquisitely elegant. Till I came upon one of the earliest references to solah singara that is there in Hindi poetry. It occurs in the poetry of the great blind poet of Mathura, Surdasa. And in it he describes not the dressing up of some beloved, but the bodily adornment of Krishna. Naturally leaving out some of the things like vermilion in the parting of the hair or the colour on the lips, but retaining much, in fact a great deal, else!
Texts that one knows only too well are filled
with descriptions of feminine beauty, and shringara always comes in,
irrespective of whether it is deities or mortals who figure in them. But I found
this description of the goddess, in the Saundaryalahari, unusual, for in
it the great Shankaracharya weaves in, with great delicacy, elevated thought and
earthy image. "May", he says, "the parting of the hair above Thy
forehead, Great Goddess, which verily marks the track taken by the surging flood
of beauty of Thy face, and which bears the vermilion streak, resembling a beam
of the newly rising Sun held in bondage by adversary hordes - those immensely
powerful elements of darkness in (the form of) Thine locks of hair - vouchsafe