To my left is a 40-plus woman in dangerously high Louboutins and a short designer dress, her face caked in professionally done makeup, her highlighted hair stiff around her face in textbook curls. Her body is taut, her bust appears unnaturally large for her age, and her diamonds scream of Bentley cars and five-bedroom apartments in the poshest locales of Mumbai and London. To my right is a junior reporter from a fashion magazine I once worked with, an ingénue turned femme fatale wearing five-inch high platform heels, her face done up with statement eyes, straightened hair, wearing a maxi gown with a low neckline, and holding a designer bag she must have begged her working parents for. She reeks of perfume and ambition.
Both are in line with me to attend Eina Ahluwalia’s conceptual jewellery installation called ‘Pilgrimage’ at the Palladium Hotel during Lakme Fashion Week.
It is dark and the first sight we see is the gold bust of a fat woman. At the base lie jars of hair removal creams, tweezers and razors, along with flowers and candles. It is an altar for a Venus statue discovered several thousand years ago. The sight appalls and shocks you momentarily. Venus, fat? The death of hair removal? (A subconscious aside comes to mind – isn’t Philips, the epilator brand, one of the sponsors of this fashion week? They won’t like this. Uh uh.)
The next installation is another gold Venus, another altar with flowers and candles, this time for a huge, chaotic pile of makeup – from lipsticks to eyeshadows. (Poor Lakme.) This Venus has bulbous breasts and a bulging abdomen. A cloud in your brain begins to clear – was this the ideal of beauty 20,000 years ago? Does one not really need makeup to look pretty?
Another comfortably plump Venus from 30,000 BCE with droopy breasts; another altar, this time for push-up bras. Then another rounded Venus bust, and an altar for exaggeratedly high heels. An urge to giggle overwhelms me – this is comically liberating. I love these Venuses who have bodies like mine. Where have they been all my life?
We turn a corner and confront a challenge.
It is a row of models facing us, six on both sides. They have on precision makeup, red nails, coiffed hair. They appear to be wearing Eina Ahluwalia jewellery, a glint of gold hits your eyes but you cannot pay attention because – oh, my – they are all looking at you rather judgementally. They whisper to one another, their eyes fixed on your clothes, your shoes, checking out what you’re wearing. Suddenly, roles are reversed. The viewer becomes the viewed. The observer becomes the subject. You hold your breath and want to rush past; high-school bullies and peer pressure rear their ugly heads in your heart. One of my companions avoids them altogether and sneaks past behind them instead.
But the next step is a row of mirrors – ‘beauty filters’, touchups, makeovers. Yes, we have all tried at least one. We have to duck past, our heads forced down in shame.
And then comes the grand finale, our redemption. We put on headphones to hear whispers by the mythological Sirena. She tells us in a staccato hypnotic drone: ‘you are perfect’, repeated in different words over and over. I linger just a little longer. The voice is comforting, soothing; a supreme relief after the turmoil of the past few moments. On the screen in front of us is a screen showing Eina’s face in various stages of Photoshop, with increasingly unnatural contours and makeup. I notice my companions have exited long before I have.
I come out into the light and laugh. I feel amazing, uplifted. And there I see Eina, her eyes lined with kohl, her body language relaxed, unpretentious. Her curly hair is beginning to grey but her face glows unlined. In the sea of Botoxed beauties, she appears to me like a breath of fresh air.
The entire glamour industry is out on a war footing to sell impossible ideals of female beauty, from super glossed images in magazines to Photoshopped figures on billboards across town. So what is Eina Ahluwalia trying to do here? As she puts it, “The installation speaks of our collective consciousness, our shared understanding of the social norm for beauty, which is so narrow and restrictive that almost no one feels beautiful. It is a pilgrimage to the never-attainable altar of Venus, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, an altar that is always growing higher, and a Goddess that keeps changing shape, so as to always stay out of our reach. We hope that the installation will remind us that there can never be one fixed idea of what is beautiful, and instead of chasing these ever-transient, impossible ideals, we need to find a comfortable acceptance of our own perfection.”
In the world of touched-up glamour and fleeting fashion, Eina is almost anti-fashion. She isn’t out to make trends. She’s out to make a point.
Who noticed the jewellery?