In Barbie’s Closet

A coworker sent me a link to this toy (thanks, Abi!) and I can’t resist posting it, if only because I wonder how much of “us” Mattel got right and wrong. From Barbie Collector (where it’s cheaper, if you’re about to make some little girl or boy really happy by buying it for them):

The most important and magical festival celebrated in India is Diwali. Homes are decorated with marigolds and mango leaves, thousands of oil diyas or lamps are lit as auspicious symbols of good luck, and everyone enjoys sweets to the sound of firecrackers and revelers.
Diwali™ Barbie® doll wears a traditional teal sari with golden detailing, a lovely pink shawl wrap, and exotic-style jewelry. The final detail is a bindi on the forehead—a jewel or a mark worn by Hindu women.

Mango leaves? Really? Since I’m a 2nd Gen (and a Syriani Christiani) penne I’m not going to claim that I know much about either that or the festival of lights, but I do have an opinion on Barbie’s ethnic dress. I don’t think that is a “traditional sari“. Perhaps it’s half-of-one? Honestly, I think it’s more of a lehnga, since I’ve never worn a duppata with my very traditional (can it get more old skool than kanjeevaram?) outfits.

I was curious about the “exotic” jewelry so I started fruitlessly looking up words after AIMing an equally clueless friend who insisted that the chain and pendant which decorates Barbie’s hair is called a “tikka“. I associate this word with murgh, but whatevs. After reading an entry in Stephen Colbert’s favorite online resource, I was concomitantly disagreeing with her and picturing 55 word nanofiction written by Jai. Here’s what was so evocative:

* When Rajput men married, they are said to have cut their thumb on their sword and applied a tikka of their own blood to their brides. This custom evoked the Rajput values of courage and indifference to pain.

* Several Bollywood movies have used the “tikka of blood” theme, notably Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Gadar.

I had seen neither of those films but now, after disambiguating the tikka, I have a mild urge to do so. This takes my “avesham”-level to zero, since before researching this post, my desire to see some Bolly was in the red. Already lost in Wikipedia, I surfed back to “sari“, where I skipped downwards until I tripped over this:

In Pakistan, the wearing of saris has almost completely been replaced by the Salwar kameez for everyday wear. According to many observers, the sari has lost favour in Pakistan since it is seen as being associated with India. However, the sari is often worn by the elderly, and to formal events.

I knew that Salwars are more popular in Pakistan, but I didn’t connect wearing saris in that country with…the elderly. As for being “associated with India”, two of my Pakistani friends used to bluntly admit that they often associated saris with Hinduism. I smell conflation, but I’ve lit some agarbatti, so I’m sure that odor will be replaced, shortly.

I remember when I posted about Neela getting married on E.R.; we had the most fascinating discussion about who gets married in what, after some of you found it odd that she wore white. It’s hard to believe that Barbie of all things might be the catalyst for it, but I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about saris, jewelry and…um…mango leaves.

65 thoughts on “In Barbie’s Closet

  1. You know, I can’t even go beyond the “Oh. My. God”, as far as teal “saris” (and bindis that I can’t see) are concerned. (Mango leaves are definitely auspicious, but I dunno how common these days.)

    I remember reading an article once on how Italy decided to (or tried to, at any rate) lay down regulations on what could be called a pizza. I was amused then, but perhaps it’s not such a bad concept ;)

  2. You know, I can’t even go beyond the “Oh. My. God”, as far as teal “saris” (and bindis that I can’t see) are concerned.

    I know…that’s why I was so hung up on the ornament in her hair, because part of me thought they were confusing THAT with a pottu/bindi. Upon reflection, her outfit seems vaguely South East Asian.

    Thanks for the info on the mango leaves, btw. ;) I’ve never heard of using them…well, for anything, so I was EXTRA curious about that detail.

  3. The AB – Ajay Devgan – Sonali Bendre starrer “Major Saab” had a similar scene, ‘cept Ajay and Sonali hadn’t reached the mandap just yet, but he was bleeding from a fight at her house (Dad didn’t approve of him for his daughter) and the would-be Omi marked the beauty queen with his own blood.

    On a somewhat related subject, there was a funny moment on BBC’s Raj & Pablo’s Film Cafe last week. The had the woman on who designed the Bollywood dolls, and after asking her why Hrithik’s doll didn’t have a sixth finger, and then they really made the guest squirm when they kept pressing her about why Kajol’s doll didn’t have a unibrow.

  4. Your friend’s right, the ornament is her hair really is called a tika, and it’s pronounced ‘tee-ka’ instead of the murgh ‘tik-ka’ .. my mom has some beautiful emerald and ruby ones stashed away in her jewelry box, and I hope to talk her into letting me wear them one day!

    the rajput tika reference, on the other hand, is the red vermilion version of a bindi. :)

  5. Oh, well, then here’s the tiny little bit more that I know about mango leaves ;) I know it’s auspicious to decorate door entrances with mango leaves, especially for the New Year (the ones in April, not the one in January :) . I know that they tie it around various sacred “utensils” that they use for pujas. I’ve seen it used around weddings and thread ceremonies and such like too.

    But for more than that, you might have to wait for someone who actually grew up in India :)

  6. Just have to say to Jai Singh: after reading your 55′s that Anna linked to above, I am EXTREMELY impressed.

  7. two of my Pakistani friends used to bluntly admit that they often associated saris with Hinduism

    yes. i was on a pakistan international airline flight, and there was goat-beard shootin’ the shit in urdu with some folk, and it turned out he was bilingual and she spoke to my mom in bengali, and she wuz like, “you speak bengali,” and he’s like, “yeah, i got my goat-beard in a madrassa in dhaka in the 1960s so i had to speak the local tongue and shit,” and then my mom went to the bathroom, and the goat-beard loox at some germans sitting in front of him and he’s like, “i knew she was bengali cuz she wuz wearing a sari.”

  8. sigh

    Call me an FBI (Full-Blooded Indian) or whatever [*], but this analysis is wrong on so many different levels, that I don’t even know where to start. Let me just say this though: Diwali Barbie’s dress is Indian alright, and not South East Asian in the least bit; the sarong, and the Burmese longyi, are different beasts altogether. I’ll let you use your Google-fu some more to decide where exactly in India the dress orginates from.

    Then again, the Wikipedia article was informative in at least one respect; I had no idea that the modern sari style was originally from Andhra Pradesh. Good to know that, at least a few generations back, we were the primiere fashionistas this side of the Himalayas, that our pleats were adopted by fashionable women in all of South Asia; that’s almost as unimaginable as thinking that, say, Gujarati wear could be adopted by multinational toy companies.

    – [*] – Don’t call me FOB, though. Been travelling outside India for six years, and I say this proudly, not once to the US.

  9. The whole point of this post was to hear analysis like yours. :) Maybe it’s not SE Asian (I’m hung up on the sarong-esque skirt, you’re right), but it’s DEFINITELY NOT a “sari”.

  10. Mango leaves? Really?

    Anna,

    Decorating the entrance door with mango and also banana leaves for many festivals and major personal events is not totally off the mark. Shobha is right

    Diyas (small lamps) and electric lights overwhelm do overwhelm Diwali.

  11. growing up, it was my “job” to get fresh mango leaves off the tree in the backyard for every festival ( big and small)early in the morning, so that my grandmother would weave a “toran” to put across the entrance to the home, interspersed with marigold flowers and any other flower of the season….

  12. Actually, to me her outfit looks vaguely like a lehenga

    It is a lehenga choli set and not a sari. The sari’s pallu is part of the whole nine yards of sari. In this case it’s a separate pink chunari.

  13. Hey, remember that as recently as a century ago, some Brahmin women considered blouses (or more generally, stitched clothing) unorthodox and impure. Along with getting water from pipes, drinking coffee, and travelling overseas, natch.

    And salv?r qam?z came into fashion in some relatively cosmopolitan parts of south India as late as the 70′s.

  14. the ornament is her hair really is called a tika, and it’s pronounced ‘tee-ka’ instead of the murgh ‘tik-ka’ .. my mom has some beautiful emerald and ruby ones stashed away in her jewelry box, and I hope to talk her into letting me wear them one day!

    I would concur on this, even the pronunciation situation. But for “us” (um a family of Mumbaikars as far back as anyone can see) only brides or very little girls wear them. My mom has a beautiful pearl and ruby one, but the last time I wore it I was 6. It’s one of those things that seems like bad-enough luck for unmarried women to wear, and no one wants to jinx it, so… but certainly not for Diwali.

    Actually, to me her outfit looks vaguely like a lehenga.

    On this I would agree as well. Some lengha cholis expose the midriff and some don’t, I suppose it’s a matter of taste or necessity ;) ? Also I am not really sure of the difference between a ghagra choli and a lengha choli… anyone know?

  15. In the ebb and flow of Pakistani fashion, the sari has once again become trendy to wear. There was a time when it was not as popular as it is now and so it is not surprising that most women do not know how to tie let alone carry themselves in a sari (although the effort is commendable). Most often the beauty salons will provide the service of tying one on to their clients. Blouses also seem to be a major problem – aside from poor fitting, tailors make something resembling a long choli or short lehnga top.

  16. I know I’ve read somewhere about the anti-parasitic, immunoblahblahblah qualities of mango leaves (though the fumes are apparently toxic if burned), which perhaps explains why they’re considered “auspicious” at the entrance of a house.

    Anyhow, I’ve seen some of these subcontinental Barbies (mostly in Singapore and mostly Punjabi Barbie), though I’m still holding out for Gangsta Mallu Dowry Bride Barbie, featuring a bib of ’91.6 hallmarked’ gold from neck-to-waist, shackles of gold bracelets from wrist to elbow, and a tiny bottle of Parachute Hair Oil.

  17. Omigosh, it is truly strange to read comments re Wikipedia articles on which I have worked. If they’re wrong, fix them! Please! I’ve done my best, but being a gori and all, I’m likely to have gotten some crucial things wrong. One of the problems with Wikipedia is that it attracts male geeks, so articles about things like clothing and cosmetics get little attention.

    The sari article in particular needs more pictures of saris. There should be pictures of every variety of handwoven sari and every style of draping mentioned – if not in the main article, in breakout articles. I own a grand total of four saris and can’t do much. But some of you could illustrate the whole article from one auntie’s trunk, I’d bet. More pictures at salwar kameez, at that article, would also be nice. Digital camera, upload, give away the pictures to the world.

    Don’t watch Gadar, it’s a confused bloody mess, in my opinion. However, QSQT really has some lovely moments and young Aamir is a dish. Or should I say chocolate boy? Explain that locution to me, please.

  18. Tikka are also often worn by classical Indian dancers during performances, although these tikka are typically more gaudy and often go in two directions– vertically down the middle of the dancer’s hair (as shown above on the Barbie) and up from one ear to the other circularly along the dancer’s hairline. But yeah, to echo the others, a woman normally wouldn’t wear a tikka for Diwali unless she was in a Bollywood movie.

    Even more silly than calling her lehenga a “sari” is calling her thin pink dupatta a “shawl wrap.” Shawls are thick and fashionably cover the top half of the woman’s body. I’m also not sure why her lehenga has a pink bow on the skirt part…is this supposed to be the new nara? Sure would solve the problem of having to tuck in your nara, pull it out when you have to go to the bathroom, and then tuck it in again…Also, click on the picture to make it bigger…look at her cleavage…is it just me, or does that pink part of her blouse look like her bra?

  19. Amitabh,

    Just have to say to Jai Singh: after reading your 55′s that Anna linked to above, I am EXTREMELY impressed.

    That’s very kind of you bro, thank you very much. I enjoyed glancing over some of my older contributions to SM’s occasional 55 themes too, so my sincere thanks to Anna for linking to them (and, indeed, for remembering them).

    Kavita,

    though I’m still holding out for Gangsta Mallu Dowry Bride Barbie, featuring a bib of ’91.6 hallmarked’ gold from neck-to-waist, shackles of gold bracelets from wrist to elbow,

    It sounds like you’re waiting for the “Hindu temple courtesan” look, a la Rekha from the famous 80s film Utsav ;)

    ANNA,

    Interestingly, for a couple of years during the late 90s here in the UK it became very fashionable amongst young English/non-desi women to wear a “tikka”. Bindis and desi-style armlets (ie. worn on the upper arm) were very popular too, along with nose-rings.

  20. Anna:

    Mango leaves are extremely auspicious as are banana leaves… mango leaves are placed around the opening of a kalssh before the coconut is placed upon it.. it is used in pujas, marriage ceremonies, etc…

    Banana leaves are also placed usually at the 4 corners of a puja mandap, or to decorate the house during festivals such as weddings, diwali, etc…you of course can use them to eat on as well (esp in the truck stops of india… i don’t know why, but food always tasted better on the leaves, and in the leaf made bowls)… or as my family and i used them in amazon when torrentual rains fell upon us sans notice…as umbrellas to cover our heads as we sludged through the mud a few years back…

    Sari’s have always fascinated me.. the barbie above doesn’t look like she is wearing a traditional sari…but when you travel through India it’s fascinating to how sari’s are worn in different regions.. the fisherwomen wear it completely different than the Gujarati bens in Rajkot… to the Delhi women as compared to the South Indian traditional women… it’s also fascinating when you go into small remote villages… as to call the above a Sari, i’m saying its more a lenga, but just happy that it’s somewhat an Indian dress… heck.. they could’ve been completely and uttelry clueless and had her coming out in a potato sack ;) ….

    As for the bindi/tika/chandlo, After being questioned as a 5 year old many a time in my overly nonethnic morman/white/hispanic/nonindian neighborhood growing up… and getting ridiculous questions such as ‘do you play bindi bingo?’ to how is the jackpot to the dot lottery’…it is a sign of marriage.. and some of the marriage bindi’s can run up to 50-100 dollars in mubmai.. amazing things with real jewels etc… fascinating world… the bindi world is… although it gave me utter angst and indigestion when madonna and gwen stefani thought it was ‘so cool’ when they went through their entire indian phase… (yes madonna stick with your kaballah and stefani stick with your japanese harajuku girls)

    Cheers, The Bean.

  21. Lest people mis-underestimate me, or get the tone of my message wrong, I wasn’t quite saying it was a sari, but that to suspect it was not Indian was a tad weird for me to not flame away. It was almost like the time when a certain Singaporean girl of Indian descent asked me how far Chennai was from Madras.

    Zora: Thank you for dropping by and thank you for your contribution to a wonderfully insightful article on the Indian sari. Despite his tech job, and an apparent preference for reading over socializing, this male person still insists he’s not a geek, and is certainly interested in fashion, although mostly as an insight into history. I could dvelve into my personal collection of photos, I have some really old ones, and contribute some to the article, after I get due permission from the family.

    Just this though: the article doesn’t really elaborate on this, but what is the difference between the ‘kachcha nivi’ style of wearing a sari, and the ‘madisaara’ (“mad’isa’ra”? मडिसार? மடிலார?) style? I ask this, because I’m trying to relate the two styles back to what the family wears on formal occasions; being singularly unaware of these specific terms (or rather, I probably know them in my own vernacular), I’m trying to understand the distinction between both.

    And oh: I’ll probably come across as a lecturing language pedant when I say this, but folks, there’s t’ikka (टिक्का), t’i'ka’ (टीका), tikka (तिक्क, త్తిక్క) and ti’ka (तीक, తీక). All four words are written differently, and actually make lexical sense in two of the languages I speak. I can’t help but comment that the apparent confusion could have been avoided had we used the right transliteration marks from the beginning.

  22. Just like WesternGhaat, I used to make a killing fetching mango leaves and grass for poojas – this would fetch bunches of notes tagged with 1-rupee coins – why the 1.. never got that.

    Oh.. re: grass… not that kind.

  23. Regarding mango leaves.. I found this interesting blog (with a picture of ‘thread of mango leaves’

    maavilai thoranam

    This is the Pasuram by Sri Andal Nachiar about her dream about sri Vadabathra sayee coming to marry her.It took me some years to realise this is the song they were singing in Marriages to do Aseervatham and Seerpaadi. such beautiful poetry about a Thamizh marriage set in devotional mode I am yet to find.
  24. I don’t know if anybody brought this up but the tikka in question here is usually referred to as a maang tikka probably to avoid the above confusion. Maang = the parting in the hair (you can convince yourself of this by watching 10 random hindi movies from the 70′s).

  25. Cydonian,

    there are several versions of the dhoti-style sari, which involve the sari being tucked between the legs, the pleats too, are folded differently in each variant. I am not sure exactly how the Andhra Nivi is tied – but from memory, I think the final product looks pretty close to the madisar.

    Side note: there are two styles of madisar – one, the Shaivite (Iyer) style is the one shown in the Wiki entry. The other style, the Vaishnavite (Iyengar) style is slightly different, without pleats behind the leg. This page has lots of pictures of various styles of saris, from all over India.

    http://www.cbmphoto.co.uk/saris/index.html

    Regards,

    Bitterlemons.

  26. This is so not a lehnga or a ghagra. It is a lungi. You can see the slit all the way up to the top. I guess it is actually three quarters of a lungi because the wrap in a regular lungi goes round a bit more.

  27. From a mom who has actually bought Barbie patterns and sewn teeny tiny Barbie clothes — doll clothes are always a compromise between real clothing and the simple cuts that are possible to sew and easy for childish fingers to manipulate. Not to excuse all the things that the doll-makers got wrong (they could have easily done it better) but there is a limit on what you can do on such a small scale.

  28. i would think the dress was a half sari/geniedress, because mattel often gets confused with the middle east and india.

  29. This just in… Shakira is getting ready to dance to “Chaiya Chaiya.” She will be under the expert direction of some Bollywood choreographer. So she probably won’t be too far off the mark as far as wardrobe. Getting back to the topic, Barbie’s attire is a small cultural price to pay for globalization.

  30. climbs onto soapbox

    yes madonna stick with your kaballah and stefani stick with your japanese harajuku girls

    Nah, chick pea, just because these celebs have moved onto other perverse exotic fascinations doesn’t mean they care for us any more than they did when they bought their first Indian “spiritual master” or self-realization-through-tantric-sex class. I stand in solidarity with my other minoritized, objectified and exoticized brothers and sisters. Gwen Stefani and Madonna are leeches no matter what culture they get their little claws on. The Harajuku girls are contracted to act as Gwen’s personal geishas (a role which has absolutely nothing to do with the real Harajuku youth culture). Check this out. Talk about the Western perception of the Asian female archetype. Die Gwen. Die die die die.

    Also, I admit that there are many different ways to tie a sari, but not one of them is demonstrated by the barbie. Jai had said

    Interestingly, for a couple of years during the late 90s here in the UK it became very fashionable amongst young English/non-desi women to wear a “tikka”. Bindis and desi-style armlets (ie. worn on the upper arm) were very popular too, along with nose-rings.

    It was the same here in the US. So my question is, if all these people are “into India” enough do all that, is it really unreasonable to expect the barbie supplier to make an accurate sari and the barbie consumer to make a sound judgement on the accuracy? Is it really that hard to notice a sari in India? If the answer is no, then what does that reveal about the bindi-sporting, “Om” trampstamped, liek-OMG-i-luv-Bikram-yoga-and-Deepak-Chopra-lol Western masses? This brings me to my next point…

    Floridian:

    Barbie’s attire is a small cultural price to pay for globalization.

    I would argue that a certain respect is required for one to bother oneself with the responsibility of accuracy in assessing and representing the foreign. It’s not like the First World doesn’t have access to information. There is simply a lack of concern being demonstrated by this kind of ignorance, and that’s not a small matter. It could very well be the tipping point for various other (worse) misrepresentations and misunderstandings. I don’t want that globalized.

    Zora:

    Not to excuse all the things that the doll-makers got wrong (they could have easily done it better) but there is a limit on what you can do on such a small scale.

    I understand this, but I have actually seen barbies in saris that look like real saris. I don’t know what the “official” Indian barbie looks like, but this is what I could find. During a visit to India in 1996, one of my cousins gave me this barbie. The sari wasn’t done up in the full-out fasion, of course, but at least she had the pleats (sewn in place) and the aanchal as part of the the same sari cloth draped in the modern northeast (Bengali/Bihari/etc) style. I wish I had it here as a reference, but I can’t remember what I did with it. I do remember being uncomfortable with it the moment I got it because her skin was still the same color as the original American barbie and had blue eyes and light brown hair. Didn’t look like any Indian person I had ever met up until that point. (I know there are Indians with all those qualities, but they are certainly not the majority.) But dolls are ideals, so I guess that sounds about right :(

  31. Barbie’s such a hottie.

    In Mattel’s defense, they couldn’t even get the female form right with the standard issue white Barbies….so that they’re guilty not only of that faux pas but also pissing all over Indian culture in a lame attempt to globalize….is expected.

    Does it make me a bad person if — despite all of this — I really really still want one? Because I have a Posh Spice tour doll and I’m sure the two would get along famously.

  32. shruti:

    Nah, chick pea, just because these celebs have moved onto other perverse exotic fascinations doesn’t mean they care for us any more than they did when they bought their first Indian “spiritual master” or self-realization-through-tantric-sex class. I stand in solidarity with my other minoritized, objectified and exoticized brothers and sisters. Gwen Stefani and Madonna are leeches no matter what culture they get their little claws on. The Harajuku girls are contracted to act as Gwen’s personal geishas (a role which has absolutely nothing to do with the real Harajuku youth culture). Check this out. Talk about the Western perception of the Asian female archetype. Die Gwen. Die die die die.

    i was being completely sarcastic by my comments..they obviously have no culture of their own (anaheim didn’t do much for gwen, and detroit didn’t do much for madonna), hence latch onto antyhing in front of them.. pathetic really…heck madonna now has some ‘fake’ british accent and i think she actually thinks she’s a londoner… madge is pretty humorous to watch…

    lucky to be brown..although sometimes hard to assimilate the cliche ‘east’west’ cultural bits, at least i have a culture.

  33. Mango leaves are considered very auspicious particularly in Southern India, and many traditional hindu houses have some mango leaves tied to their front doors. Modern versions include golden paper/tinfoil in the shape of mango leaves :-)

    My own parents have the tinfoil mango leaf monstrosity in front of their door, but for festivals (deepavali, janmashtami, ganesh chaturthi etc) my mom goes down to the market to buy fresh leaves.

    And it’s not that uncommon in Kerala too…I’ve seen plenty of mango leaves on doors there….(when I visited some folks we knew in guruvayur).

  34. Mango leaves are considered very auspicious particularly in Southern India, and many traditional hindu houses have some mango leaves tied to their front doors. Modern versions include golden paper/tinfoil in the shape of mango leaves :-)

    I have plasic mango leaves on the front door of my apartment….

  35. Mango leaves are considered very auspicious particularly in Southern India, and many traditional hindu houses have some mango leaves tied to their front doors. Modern versions include golden paper/tinfoil in the shape of mango leaves :-)

    I have plasic mango leaves on the front door of my apartment. I found out the other day that the (not very attractive) desi girls down the hall talk shit about it behind my back. sheesh. tough crowd.

  36. You can call it a half-sari, or as some in Chennai say, awf-sari / dhaavani. In that case, the “shawl” had better be wrapped around Barbie before she gets thrashed by her parents. My mom had me wear shorts and a t-shirt for Playing With Fireworks time because she didn’t want my paavadai to burst into flames.

    The ancestral home (now torn down sniff) had a permanent installation of mango leaves (made of brass) over the two front doors.

    What the bloody hell is exotic-style?

  37. And it’s not that uncommon in Kerala too…I’ve seen plenty of mango leaves on doors there….(when I visited some folks we knew in guruvayur).

    But is it common for CHRISTIANS? I didn’t visit many Hindu homes when I was in Kerala, which is why I wrote that I can’t contribute anything to this conversation re: mango leaves.

  38. Yes, after the 230498203948209384th person has made is clear that mango leaves ARE, in fact, a customary to doorframes in South India, can we please move on?

    (incidentally, I’ve seen many many houses with accesorized with mango leaves in such a fashion ;) )

  39. The Sari is not popular in Pakistan, because it is seen to be contrary to Islamic ideas regarding modesty. Actually, I’ve seen some wear a modest version, wear the choli piece provides full coverage. I personally find such versions silly, as I think part of the appeal of “candy wrappers” a.k.a Saris, to be in the exposure of skin. Yes, elderly women in Pakistan are the only ones left who rock the Sari on a daily basis. But this is because, they are all mostly originally from India, and moved over to Pakistan after partition. My grandmother being one of these women, could not bring herself to wear anything but a Sari till the day she dies.