Alankara (ornament) protects the body and makes it complete and attractive; to be unornamented is to invite misfortune. From The Body Adorned: Sacred and Profane in Indian Art by Vidya Dehejia
Adorning the body is one of our most ancient practices and one shared across cultures and civilizations. Last Autumn I attended a very rich exhibit on the body in Indian Art. The exhibit sought to and succeeded in describing the myriad ways that art originating in the Indian Subcontinent has served through the ages as a medium to communicate the attitude towards the body. Many of the pieces in the exhibit were at least as old as a millennia. What I was most struck by were the those created to adorn the body - either for beautification, celebration or even protective purposes. Each piece was intricately crafted and just exquisite to behold with the eyes and possibly with the hands too if we’d been allowed to touch. So very much effort had been invested into things that have no functional utility except an aesthetic one.
Earlier in the year, our dear friend and video Editor, Branan Edgens, was showing us photos from his visit to Hmong country in Southeast Asia. I was struck by the elaborate embroidery on what were essentially everyday wear. In some of the images, the women were wearing exquisite pieces of jewelry, even as they tended to quite ordinary tasks such as harvesting and cleaning. It reminded me of the nomadic peoples of India’s Rajasthan and Gujurat who, having nowhere to stash their best clothing and jewels, just wear them on their bodies every day.
It’s curious that we have this cultural divide between ordinary and the special in our urban and modern existences. It’s rare in places less extraordinary than New York or my hometown of London to see people adorning themselves elaborately to make a grocery store run. I can understand why. We live such busy lives. Consequently, we witness how in the worlds of clothing and fashion, we seem to be moving towards more simplicity in cuts, lines and embellishments. But for me, there is something magic, something almost sacred and ritualistic in adorning my body. I try, whenever possible and the gym and swimming pool notwithstanding, to dress myself mindfully each day, aware that the body I am clothing contains a sacred soul and that my time in it is fleeting and ephemeral. Even if that means just adding a small piece of jewelry with some sentimental or personal significance to my jeans and t-shirt ensemble. It's a reminder that part of living a full and rich life is to enjoy aesthetic pleasures. In so doing, we mirror back to the world the beauty she gifts to us daily.
Photos courtesy of Branan Edgens