I remember looking at a painting in a museum somewhere in Europe, and feeling my breath catch in my throat, just that infinitesimally small stutter. It was a close-up image of a flower, a depiction so intimate, so seductive. The lightly-tinged pink inner petals that were gently unfurling, a singular crimson mote so red, like that of bitten lips and well-loved women, the creamy peach of canvass like her dewy skin. It was a slight, visceral reaction to the potency of a woman’s sexuality. It was a reminder of the many forms a woman can take. And so began my almost unconscious quest, of identifying the many symbols of a woman. Of the reactions that these symbols incite. And by extension, of understanding how the woman has been objectified over time. You will realize, when you start seeking, that objectification lies on the other side of symbolism.
I visited a temple in India once. The first thing I noticed were the garlands of ruby-red hibiscus lining the walls, creeping along the interior of the temple, adorning the deity, hanging in the stalls to be bought for prayer worship. The red of the hibiscus was the same as the red of the sindoor that women worshippers had delicately placed in the singular spot where dark hair met fresh skin. The same red as the bangles that adorned slim hands of newly-wed women who had come to worship in that temple. I was told, as I was waiting to pay respects to the deity, that legend had it that Sati used to retire here, to satisfy her amour with Shiva; that it was the place where her yoni had fallen after Shiva danced with the corpse of Sati after her demise. It made me wonder, if the red of her passion was the same as that of the hibiscus I had gently placed at the deity’s feet as an offering, woman, to woman. I wondered what the men in the temple thought of all this woman, revered, worshipped, so red (like the red of menstrual blood), what they could have possibly felt. I wondered if in moments of misogyny, in moments of violent sex, in moments of everyday rudeness and oppression, flashes of memory will remind them that once, once, they too had knelt at a woman’s feet, to pray, to seek forgiveness.
I wondered, as I walked out, if there was objectification in reverence.
I once took a picture of a lacy maroon bra, hanging over a peach-pink slip, titled “All Woman” (I might be paraphrasing, I cannot remember clearly, now, because even the strongest memories become tainted over time), and uploaded it onto Instagram. I remember feeling pleased with the picture – the way the colours caressed one another, the silence of the picture, the utter femininity and sensuality of revealing many things, without saying much at all. There were several comments from men for that picture. Expressing some form of admiration, emoji-laden or otherwise. Comments that were conspicuously absent when I posted pictures of shadows, and buildings, and quotes, and other everyday things. I remember laughing wryly at the sheer predictability of it all.The right buttons to press, aren’t always too hard to find. It only struck me later, my own symbolism of woman. I had reduced a representation of this universe, this galaxy of beauty and darkness and sex and love and hate, into colours and symbols that were almost one-dimensional. I had become the veritable cliché I had laughed at before. And if I, conscious, and discerning of a woman’s sexuality, could be reductive in representation, what about others? What about the man, who, never having been a woman – what would he know?
I wondered, and wondered again, on the fluidity of the object, and the subject, and of
the matchstick quality of the enabler.
I write this with nails painted crimson, marveling at how utterly feminine my hands look against the black darkness of the keyboard.
Arathi Devandran curates personal experiences, snapshots of the world and the stories people are willing to share with her through prose and poetry www.miffalicious.com
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