On St. Marks Street, a pastel-haired teen approached a Bangladeshi sunglasses seller. "Do you have a bindi?" she asked. He smirked at me as she shuffled to the adjacent stall. "At least five of them come every day," he said. "My wife's daily routine is fashion now."
It's not just his wife—millions of women in the South Asian subcontinent wear bindi as a signifier of their marital status or as a cultural symbol. In the ancient Vedic texts dating back to approximately 1500-1200 BC, it was meant to mark the center between eyebrows as the third eye or ajna chakra—the seat of concealed wisdom and a gateway to spiritual insight. Under Hindu religious practices, both men and women also highlight that center with a dot, marking their attendance to a religious ceremony.
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In recent years, the bindi has become a fashion accessory in America, its place cemented by routine appearances at the past few seasons of mud-caked music festivals. At Burning Man, where glitter and sequins are prohibited, bindis are gladly received. Seeing as the New York Times has dubbed Burning Man a quasi-spiritual festival, that's perhaps not surprising; most South Asian exports (yoga, henna, basmati, bindi et. al.) are commonly clumped under a similar label. The real head-scratchers though are Coachella, Lollapalooza, and their ilk, where regular festivalgoers and celebrities alike (Kendall and Kylie Jenner, Vanessa Hudgens) have eagerly embraced the bindi as a fashion statement.
Kendall and Kylie and Vanessa aren't the first Americans to embrace the bindi—in the early nineties, Indian-American club-goers introduced disco-bhangra (Punjabi folk music) and Indian fashion (bindis, brocade, nose rings) to the clubbing scene in the UK and North America. Despite earlier lukewarm attempts by the 60s counter-culture movements and the hippie-trails across India and Nepal to inject textiles and bindi into the mainstream, this was Indian fashion's first big international moment. It was a matter of time before Gwen Stefani—who was dating her No Doubt band mate Tony Kanal, who was London-born, of Indian origin, and flirting with Hinduism at the time—adapted the bindi as her "look." Both Kanal and Stefani appeared in massively hit music videos for "Just A Girl" and "Frozen" in bindis, subsequently taking it to the stage, red carpets, and award shows.
"Bindi, the powder dots or adhesive and felt plastic designs worn by South Asian women between the eyebrows, emerged as a part of fashion industry's campaign to ride on the coattails of the Mehendi (henna) mania," Sunaina Maira notes in her book Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in NYC. That "trend," however, simmered down in the next decade, only to resurface with Danny Boyle's Bollywood-style film Slumdog Millionaire in 2008. Along with more renditions of its title track "Jai Ho" than were necessary, the film also spurred a renewed interest in Bollywood and India. The dance, the costumes and, of course, the bindi all made a comeback.
Lady Gaga astutely released a Bollywood version of "Born This Way" ahead of her India tour in 2012. And a year later, Selena Gomez shot a video with a similar theme for "Come and Get It," a song peppered with bhangra riffs between verses. But her Indian "look" didn't translate that well from screen to stage, and Hindu activists criticized her MTV Music Awards performance as appropriation (she performed her single wearing a red bandage dress with a big red bindi, an allusion to the traditional Hindu wedding costume). Protests and Internet criticism didn't stop her from replicating the look at Coachella in 2014, which, along with the Jenners' and Vanessa Hudgens's adoption of the bindi, set its status as a festival essential in stone. From there, it easily migrated to street style.
Rashi Verma, who is in her late-twenties and runs an up-cycled jewelry company in the Indian techie town Bangalore wears bindis as her identity, and not a music festival-special that's trending at the moment. "I wear it to work, on the streets, to parties and it has become a part of me," she said. "The great thing is that people identify it with being 'Indian.' I was in Istanbul last week and I wore a bindi all throughout. Men in shopping arcades would ask me if I were from India." Most South Asian women like Verma have grown up watching their mothers, grandmothers, neighbors, and just about any Hindu married woman they know wear a bindi every day of her life. According to Srishti Jha, a New Delhi-based fashion writer, "It connects me to the important women in my life and also the way it goes with my features, attires, and thoughts… the idea of the dot on your forehead being a source of power really fascinates me."
It connects me to the important women in my life and also the way it goes with my features, attires, and thoughts.
Identity marker, cultural symbol, religious emblem—none of this corresponds with the pastel-haired teen from St. Marks Place, nor with several thousand of her counterparts competing in the gold rush of 90s fashion revival. Theirs are, as Maira noted in Desis in the House, "performances of an exoticized femininity by a certain segment of 'New Age' movements and youth subcultures." It's a performance that's likely to be discarded as soon as fast fashion's ajna chakra sets it sights on a different, more exotic, less mainstream culture. (Like last season, when Riccardo Tischi sent "Chola Victorian" girls down the Givenchy runway, putting gelled-down baby hair and elaborate face jewelry on mostly white models, while black and Latino women continue being disparaged as "ghetto" for the same styles.)
But for women of South Asian descent, divorcing the bindi from its context and adopting it as a season-long trend isn't possible. And while many South Asians in the subcontinent chose to give up the bindi, the ones living outside—especially in the U.S.—didn't. As many women recounted on Twitter and Tumblr during this year's #ReclaimTheBindi movement, which was preemptively timed with Coachella to counter the "white-washing" of the bindi, countless South Asians were singled out in schools for their henna, bindi, and coconut-oiled hair (all of which are, ironically, now among the hottest twee trends of the season). "They want the flavor but not the smell. They want the culture but not you," Forest Penguin wrote on Tumblr. Another user murqhy wrote in a post titled Kind of a Rant?, "It got to the point where I hated myself and my heritage. I started to hate the things that I once loved about myself. I began to distance myself from the things that made me Indian."