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THE GRACE OF FOUR MOONS: DRESS, ADORNMENT, AND THE ART OF THE BODY IN MODERN INDIA by Pravina Shukla. Indiana University Press: Bloomington, Indiana. February 2008. Hardcover. 528 pages. $34.95.

Adorning the human body is one of the oldest, most universal ways of expressing one’s identity within a culture. Pravina Shukla uses extensive fieldwork and principles of interpretation derived from the tradition of folklore in her book The Grace of Four Moons, a detailed study of body art in India. The tradition subsumes within it the conventions of analysis used in anthropology, cultural geography, history, and art history. It is an ambitious book, a pioneer work informed by the folkloristic studies of material culture developed in the past 35 years. The amount of research that has gone into the text is immense, but some interviews with people involved in the different stages of procurement, production, and consumption of articles associated with body art are reported verbatim with little analysis.

Pravina Shukla was born to South Asian parents in Oslo, Norway, and grew up in Sao Paolo, Brazil. She completed her undergraduate degree in Ethnic Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, and earned a Ph.D. in Folklore and Mythology at UCLA. The Grace of Four Moons is based on her Ph.D. dissertation (1998), which grew out of research she conducted on women’s adornment in the northeast region of India. Shukla draws attention to issues of gender, age, caste, religion, and ethnicity in exploring the way people, particularly women, adorn themselves with dress and jewelry in everyday life as well as during special stages of the life cycle.

One of her important goals in writing the book, Shukla states, was to counter the obsession of Western and native scholars with the suffering and subjugation of Indian women. Shukla argues that the female experience in India is diverse, and not one of monolithic victimhood. Women in India use body adornment as a vehicle to express their freedom and personal identity, and body art depends on context. What is suitable for a woman in the public context (the street, the classroom, or a party) is not appropriate for the private context (the family, or more intimate situations with a spouse). The joint family system also plays a large role in determining what is suitable for the private context. Punjabi brides wear the chura, red and ivory colored plastic bangles, during the first year of their marriage; after this period, they wear glass and gold bangles. Clothing, jewelry, and body painting are the three main areas that Shukla uses to show women’s choices that reflect personal preferences within the framework of tradition. Shukla chooses Banaras as the microcosm of Hindu body art. The colorful photographs that accompany the text are vivid illustrations of Shukla’s analysis of body art in India.

Shukla begins by discussing clothes and the factors that go into making choices. Clothes are an index of a person’s regional as well as religious identity. It is very easy to identify a woman as a Hindu or a Muslim by the way she dresses. The road to salvation leading to the sacred river Ganga, along the Dashaswamedh ghat in Banaras, is literally paved with shops that sell everything from religious icons to fabric, saris, readymade salwar suits, jewelry, and accessories needed to make a woman look her best. Each shop specializes in one item. There are stores just for women’s clothes like saris, readymade blouses, petticoats, and salwar suits. Some shops sell fabric and have special arrangements with tailors who make custom made items. The ultimate product, whether sari or suit, is the result of the aesthetic input of the merchant, tailor, and customer who is guided also by what she thinks is appropriate for her age, marital status, and also by personal preferences. Most of the saris sold in Banaras are locally produced, and both Muslims and Hindus have been engaged in weaving the celebrated Banaras brocade sari for generations. Shukla describes in great detail the working of the looms in the production of the Banarsi sari, from design to the quality of the zari (the gold and silver threads that are worked into exquisite designs).

Jewelry forms an important aspect of ornamentation in India. It is more costly and permanent than other forms of adornment and therefore provides economic security. Certain items of jewelry are passed down as heirlooms that provide continuity between generations. The type and amount of jewelry worn by a woman depends on her age and changes over the course of her life. Shukla states that jewelry marks every major social change in a woman’s life, from maidenhood to widowhood. A child is adorned with jewelry, but as she grows up, she is urged to use less and less jewelry because of the fear that she may be attractive to boys. Soon after marriage, the daughter-in-law wears all the customary ornaments like earrings, nose rings, bangles, toe rings, and necklaces. The bindi, or dot on the forehead, and sindur, or orange/red powder in the parting of the hair, are mandatory symbols of the married state. Bangles have also been an important part of body ornamentation from the time of the Harappa/Mohenjadaro civilization.

The painting of the palms and feet of the bride with henna is customary in Hindu weddings. It signifies an important transition in the bride’s life. This is done a day before the wedding. The bride and the female guests have their hands and feet painted in exquisite designs by a mehndi (henna) expert.

The Grace of Four Moons provides a wealth of information about clothing and jewelry as an outlet for women seeking freedom of expression in India, while staying within a traditional framework. It is a landmark study in material culture and presents a compelling feminist argument that ordinary women in India have the means to express their personal identity through body art.

Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.