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Pravina Shukla
Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology

George Vlahakis
University Communications

Last modified: Thursday, December 11, 2008

Professor's new book looks at how dress and adornment send messages to others in India

Dec. 11, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Everyone gets dressed, often looking in the mirror for guidance about how others will see them. But in the city of Banaras, India, where many of Pravina Shukla's relatives live, as well as elsewhere in the country, no decision about what to wear is ordinary.

The Grace of Four Moons

The Grace of Four Moons

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One could say that India is the ultimate place for people-watching.

"It's super crowded. You're walking and you're picking up cues constantly, just by looking," said Shukla, an associate professor of folklore and enthnomusicology at Indiana University. "There's a lot of visual communication taking place and that's within the culture, within the religions of India."

For example, dress can reveal whether people are Muslim or Hindu. Their attire even can reveal their caste -- their place within society. It can indicate if women are married or unmarried, if they are newlyweds or are a widow. And others aren't shy about staring to see what they can learn.

"All those things are coded as to what you do with your body. It is coded language that you can use to understand people," said Shukla, who spent nearly a decade documenting the clothing and body art of people in one of the world's oldest cities and a religious capital in northern India on the banks of the Ganges River.

Pravina Shukla

Pravina Shukla

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Her new, 498-page book, The Grace of Four Moons: Dress, Adornment and the Art of the Body in Modern India (IU Press), documents the makers -- the goldsmiths and weavers -- and the merchants who deal in clothing and ornaments. She also presents in detail the female realm of creative adornment, following a life cycle of before, during and after the weddings many Westerners now know as elaborate affairs.

"The premise of the book is visual communication, that through what you do with your clothing you are saying so much about your culture, gender, social-economic class, caste, religion and family," said Shukla, an adjunct faculty member in anthropology, India studies and the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. She is also an associate curator at IU's Mathers Museum of World Cultures.

"Clothing is one of the principal ways by which we express at once our personal identities and our culture," she wrote in the first chapter of the book. "The immense diversity of India, owing to the multiplicity of regional and religious cultures, is expressed visually through clothes and ornaments, making instant identification possible."

It's also consistent with an important concept within Hinduism called Darshan, a Sanskrit word which means "vision."

"The premise of Hinduism is you look at the god and the god looks back at you," Shukla said. "You ask for the god's protection by looking at the god's face. The god gives you a blessing by looking back at you. Most of the Hindu statues have very big, prominent eyes -- the eyes are painted at the very end when you're making a statue."

It provides a precedent for nonverbal communication in India and shapes its people's orientation to the visual, she said.

Shukla art

A bride prepares for her wedding

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The book is the first to present and apply a comprehensive model for the study of body art in a modern, urban setting. This most common of human arts has, surprisingly, received little attention from American folklorists. By attending to the production of items of body adornment, and to the key central context of commerce, her book portrays men and women as creative individuals who make deliberate choices on a social field of force and counterforce.

No matter how impoverished, dress and body art is important to nearly all Indians, particularly women.

"While it is currently fashionable for both foreign and native scholars to fixate on the details of suffering of women in India -- a fact undeniable in its breadth and depth -- that is not the only story," she wrote in the book's opening chapter. "What amazes me is how women are able to express themselves, to accomplish their lives in spite of the hardships."

Shukla decided to do most of her fieldwork in Banaras, Varanasi, which is considered one of India's holiest cities and one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Hindus. It also is home to several important Muslim mosques. Both of her parents are from there.

Its population is about 60 percent Hindu and 40 percent Muslim. About 200,000 sari weavers live there, and it is a center for Muslim "kundun" jewelry making.

"The arts are Muslim. The weavers are Muslim. Part of what I look at is the interaction that exists in this holy, really crowded city, where there is all this tension," she said. "By the time that this Hindu woman is wearing this beautiful thing, she's wearing the work of all these people, most of them men and a lot of them are Muslim . . . The question is, are you really representing yourself?"

Through interviews and in the voices of various people in India, The Grace of Four Moons describes the fullness of creative action, tracing, for example, the journey of a gold ingot from the atelier of a goldsmith who fashioned it into a bracelet, through the shop where it was sold, to its final place in the assembled bodily display of a shy bride.

In one chapter, Shukla presents what could be called age-old marketing and sales concepts by her peers in a business school. "The art of targeting, shopping, selling is really important," she said.

While the book's focus, India, "is an obvious place" to study this how clothing is used to send non-verbal messages to others, Shukla said what she learned is common to all of us.

"There is this pleasure in art in everyday life for a lot of people and dress is just one way to express that," she said. "Everything that you do is connected. What you wear is the last step in a long series of small creative acts that other people have engaged in.

"Messages are always sent to particular recipients," she added. "Part of what clothing does is mark boundaries and accentuate them. When you dress in a certain way, you're communicating that to the outside world."