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November 14, 2014

Looking Through

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Farzana Cooper

A look involves a whole lot of things: what you brought with you in your genes, what you did with it, how you dress up or down…. Equally important are the attitude and the stance that you choose to accessorise the look you aspire to have

Here’s looking at you, kid….”

That line tumbled out of the corner of Humphrey Bogart’s down-turned mouth in the film Casablanca decades ago. Gravelly, just this side of grating and laconic as if it were carrying the cynicism of a life on the edge, the voice and those five words still resonate. The line may mean different things for different people – other than the fact that it’s a great cinematic one-liner, probably tossed off nonchalantly by a screenwriter. But what has stayed imprinted in my memory is the fact that so much of how we see ourselves is determined by how others see us. It’s not just about how others see us but how we see them. And, perhaps even more important is to see through them.

Look is a charged word in this context. A look involves a whole lot of things: what you brought with you in your genes, what you did with it, how you dress up or down, what you do with your hair, nails, nose. Equally important are the attitude and the stance that you choose to accessorise the look you aspire to have. Driving all this is the need to project who and what you are (perhaps even more so what you would like to be through that carefully confected ‘look’).

Most of us want to project our individual self, what defines and sets us apart from others. Hence, the tattoos, the body piercings, and mixing and matching our wardrobe according to our own whims. Perhaps, these are the new caste marks we sport to brand ourselves, to demonstrate which tribe we belong to. The stripes, vertical or horizontal on the foreheads that are used to declare which sect one belongs to is another way of projecting an identity, an affirmation of being part of a particular group. It might also be a way of signalling what one is not.

Ironically, in the quest to be different, to stand apart from the rest, most of us end up looking indistinguishable from the herd. If we are not courageous or foolhardy enough, or if the circumstances and the times we live in don’t allow us to be revolutionaries and rebel against parents, the status quo or a government not to our liking, we make our statements through the way we dress. Male poets and artists used to grow beards, wear their hair long. Women used to wear handloom saris and huge bindis – that is before handloom became expensive and impossible to maintain with disappearing dhobis. Those who wanted to discard their bourgeois backgrounds and hide their family wealth sported handloom kurtas and Kolhapuri chappals.

I will never forget a Sunday afternoon lunch years ago in a rambling mansion in New Delhi of an industrialist who seriously coveted the image of a Bohemian, going out of the way to make his wealth invisible and seeking the company of intellectuals and artists. Those were the days when artists were poor. Most of the guests wore kurtas from Fab India or handspun cotton saris, their feet clad in Kolhapuri chappals. The waiters wore tuxedos and shoes so well polished you could use them as a mirror to check if your hair was in place, and lipstick un-smudged.

Today, looking for an individual look, a far-from-the-crowd pose, has become more difficult and complex. There is a growing smorgasbord of looks and identities to choose from. Advances in science and technology offer endless and mind-boggling possibilities. You can alter the way you look, even fundamentally. Plastic surgeons can play god: they can now, it seems, even change your race – at least in appearance. Recently, a Caucasian teenager in Europe wanted to and succeeded in looking like a Korean man. The surgeon’s scalpel had not only changed the structure of his eyes but his nose as well.

Well, perhaps, that is the way the world and the economy go. It could be that we have always wanted to resemble those who have conquered us, whether it be colonially, commercially – or even more important, culturally. For decades many young Asian women and men have been getting their slanted eyes surgically transformed into Caucasian. Today, Uncle Sam is not the only lone calling the shots: China, South Korea and Japan represent the vanguard – economically and to an increasing extent culturally.

Closer to home, our plastic surgeons are making a fortune making the faces of Beauty Queen aspirants and actresses look more like the Hollywood template for beauty: symmetrical faces, with the distances between parts of the face being carefully calibrated, jaws and noses sculpted according to the dictates of what constitutes the ideal beauty.

Hair is turning blonder by the day, skin shades lighter. And the bodies: well, our omnipresent gyms, protein shakes, nutritionists and working out sessions are turning out younger versions of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brigitte Bardot.

Sometimes, this need to change your physical appearance can be quite extreme – beyond the pale, and even beyond human. A French artist Orlan underwent multiple surgeries, altering her look every year or so. Her face once transmogrified into that of a cat. I wonder which animal or human being she now resembles.

Here’s still looking for you, Orlan!

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