In a workshop somewhere in suburban Mumbai, 16 women are hard at work on India’s smallest canvases. Self-adhesive sheets in metallics, neons and every imaginable colour have been fed into automated cutters, yielding thousands of precise, intricate stickers, barely 4mm wide. Their hands steady, eyes sharp, the women glue on a gold sequin here, a purple rhinestone there, a row of minuscule crystals along the edges.
The stickers will be sold across India. But they all have the same final destination: the space between a woman’s eyebrows.
Bindi manufacturers say business is sparkling. Paresh Gada, whose Mumbai unit manufactures bindis under the Tanvi brand, says women are forking out more money per bindi than ever before.
“When my father set up the company in 1991, people said we were mad to build a business on just bindis,” he says. “Today, some women will spend Rs 2,000 on our products at one go.” His store near Crawford Market has boxes stacked floor-to-ceiling, each holding 56 bindi packs, offering more than 1,000 designs.
Regular bindi wearers, however, will doubtless have noticed that their ranks are shrinking. In Westernising towns and cities, fewer women use them to accessorise a kurta or sari. A bare forehead is more common than a dotted one. Local brands like Tanvi are finding it impossible scale up. So which side is winning the bindi battle?
DOT TO DOT
The tiny bindi has come a long way since Independence, when you could tell a Hindu woman’s region, religion, community and marital status from her forehead alone. Vermilion, sandalwood and ash gave way to vials of multi-coloured kumkum in the 1970s. Then, in 1986, a new brand, Shilpa, introduced easy-to-use stick-on versions punched from imported maroon felt, with glue that didn’t stain skin.
The idea didn’t just stick; it spawned an explosion in shape, finish, embellishment and colour. Regional brands blossomed over the following decades. Bindis went matte, pastel, neon, drop-shaped, laser-cut, tiny, oversized, and outrageous. “They even had little ghungroos on them in the 2000s,” recalls Gada. And somewhere along the way, the bindi went from a mark of tradition to a cosmopolitan fashion accessory.
Today, bindis are no longer a requirement of married women. “The older women may wear a bindi every day, but for young girls, it’s what makes a traditional outfit extra special,” says Paulami Basu, brand manager at Shilpa.
“These days, I wear bindis with western clothes too,” says Poonam Vora Raphael, 30, a crafts entrepreneur. “Trends have changed, though. I grew up favouring studded styles. Now I wear old-school round dots like my grandmother.”
Ad veteran, brand strategist and author Ambi Parameswaran tells a different story. While researching how women were represented in ads, for his 2014 book titled For God’s Sake, he examined 100 TV spots for consumer goods from 1987, 1997 and 2007. Among the things he noticed was that, over the years, “the bindi had disappeared”. While almost 75% of women in ads in 1997 wore a bindi, fewer than 30% sported one in 2007. Print ads showed a similar decline. Parameswaran examined 500 ads featuring women in a women’s magazine over five decades. In the 1960s ads, 45% of women had bindis, but by the 2000s, only 5% did.
“Advertisers are trying to portray an idea of modernity,” says Parameswaran. But if TV spots are encouraging women to drop the bindi, TV shows have been overwhelmingly urging them to put it back on.
Bharat Dedhia launched his bindi brand, Richie Rich, in 1993, just after the market boomed, and operated out of a garage. Today he’s roped in his brothers as proprietors. “Televised soaps have given us the biggest boost,” he says. “The women wear Indian clothes, and the characters stay on screen for months – much longer than a movie in the cinema – so their impact is stronger.”
Monil Shah, a co-proprietor at Tanvi, adds that the shows also reach younger women in small towns, a demographic that didn’t exist 15 years ago. The result: a demand for glittery, dramatic styles that cost more, trends that change with every plot twist, and women looking for what debuted on TV only the previous evening.
This, Parameswaran believes, is what’s changing the game. “The sticker-bindi market is expanding because lower-income women are switching from liquid kumkum. At the upper end, women will spend Rs 200 on a single embellished bindi rather than buy 200 of the Rs 1 bindis for casual use.”
THE GLITTER AND THE GRIND
To keep the bindi browser happy, manufacturers are not focusing on what’s on her forehead, but what’s on her mind. Gada says most ideas for new styles come from women themselves – they’ll want a new colour, more glitter or something more sedate – and Gada produces small batches so there’s no waste.
Dedhia tailors goods for different regions. “Maroon and black still dominate in the south, north India, for quite a while, was obsessed with long bindis.” His bestselling style for 16 years remains a simple, medium-sized red dot ringed with diamantes.
At Shilpa, possibly India’s best known bindi brand, change is afoot as well. The brand’s stock in trade has been several sizes of just the classic round bindis. “The shape accentuates a woman’s beauty the most,” believes Basu. “A round bindi at the meeting point of all her features completely changes her look and has never gone out of fashion.” But in addition to their standard red, deep red and black hues, they now make bindis in green and blue. In a more dramatic shift, the iconic image of model Chabbi Dhaliwal, on their packaging for 30 years, has been replaced with a more contemporary face.
Small bindis are a dominant trend across all brands. “They’re enough to pass muster with the mother-in-law, and are eye-catching without dominating the face,” says Gada. Even brides keep it simple – Sharmi Patil, a stylist for weddings and celebrity events says that once they’re all decked up, women tend to keep the bindi, “the final finishing touch”, festive but simple.
Gada, who has made bindis as large as 25mm, now limits his creativity to within 7mm. “Trends are cyclical,” he says. “The big ones will eventually return.”
Bindis, like sindoor and kumkum, are exempt from General Sales Tax, but it’s not enough to help them grow, say manufacturers. Dedhia points out that production is not fully automated – all embellishments are fixed by hand, sometimes by women working from home – so scaling up is hard.
It’s also why no one in the business fears a foreign takeover. “No Chinese machine can do what a skilled woman can,” says Shah. Foreign sales, however, have been growing. Tanvi supplies as far away as Greece, Spain and Brazil. Richie Rich has bigger more geometric designs created for foreign buyers. “They like their bindis to be noticed,” he says.
For Parameswaran, the bindi’s future is forked. A whole section of Indians will give up wearing bindis altogether. But among those who do, bindis will get even more complex – gold-foil, perhaps, or a season-led styles like in fashion. “I wouldn’t put anything past Indian manufacturers.”
A (FORE) HEAD FOR BUSINESS
India’s first online bindi store, BookMyBindi, was launched by TV actress Prabhleen Kaur and bindi designer Aroona Bhat in 2015. Their bindis were priced between Rs 100 and Rs 4,999.
The venture has since shut, but Bhat, in the Limca record book for creating 1 lakh bindi designs for the portal, is returning with a new site this summer. And this time she plans to stick on for longer.
Growing up in a conservative family where bindis were a must, she spent her teens experimenting with ever more dramatic designs. This prompted her to go commercial, and her website had customers from across India, and Europe and the US.
“People in big cities tend not to be intimidated by big, dramatic bindis,” Bhat says, explaining that she once painted a bright bindi on a subway commuter in New York, to much applause. “In villages they see me and their jaws drop. In small towns, the reaction is always a giggle. I’m a bit of a horror story for them.”
Bhat believes that the bindi has lost popularity in India simply because we haven’t educated our young people about them. “In changing our appearance, we’re changing ourselves,” she says. “We’re also losing all that valuable knowledge about our past with it.”
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