Images by Reva Bhatt (left) and Dina Aziz (right)

Meet the women centring their South Asian heritage through beauty

South Asian women around the world are connecting online and exploring their cultural identities through beauty.

by Meera Navlakha
25 March 2020, 5:57am

Images by Reva Bhatt (left) and Dina Aziz (right)

It should come as no surprise that notions of beauty have traditionally been prescribed by culture and history. There are ideal appearances that are so deeply-rooted into some societies that people continue to adhere to them. In South Asia, this is no different. Across the region, traditional beauty fits into a single, neatly-defined box. But as Reva Bhatt says, “it’s 2020, and people are evolving.” The 27-year-old stylist and creative director is one of the many South Asian women who are distorting notions of beauty, taking cultural tropes and amalgamating them with contemporary ideas. They’re leading a quiet beauty revolution, by exploring the cultures that define them.

Reva is a self-described “daughter of the diaspora” — raised in Silicon Valley, in a predominantly Asian neighbourhood by Indian immigrants. Her family visited India every summer, a time she looks back on nostalgically. But Reva never truly felt like a minority until she went to college, where she first realised the complexities of growing up as “the tokenized brown girl”. The ensuing identity crisis was something she decided to explore using her external appearance. She would place a bindi on her forehead, in the middle of her eyebrows, or she would draw on a winged eyeliner in dark kohl, a look that old Bollywood actresses are known for.

“I love classical Indian beauty,” she said. “I feel so seen in those looks. I wanted to claim it for my own. So I do bindis, big bindis. I take motifs from Hindu mythology. I live in those worlds, using abstract shapes and colours.”

“The outcome of being a South Asian woman in America is two worlds colliding in my personal style. I started mixing and matching the American with the Indian. It became so powerful,” says Reva. “We are such hyphenated identities that those identities interplay with each other. They coexist. I realised I didn’t need to wear a sari to show the world I am Indian. Even my short hair now — that’s a statement of South Asian beauty.”

Reva has found beauty to be an empowering route to playing with her identity and delving into her culture. Her heritage is so central to her appearance, and, like Reva herself, is “hyphenated.” Her story mirrors that of so many other beauty fans in this growing diasporic community. For them, beauty is a reflection of home.

Haya Abid, otherwise known as Biddy, also fits into the third-culture-kid phenomena which appear to fuel this movement. Haya is of Indian descent but grew up in Hong Kong and now lives in Los Angeles. Makeup became a means for her to grapple with her dual identities.

“I feel like I have a split personality,” the 25-year-old says. “I used to be embarrassed by my culture when I was a kid. Outside of my family-friend circle, I didn’t embrace my Indian-ness. But I started expressing myself with makeup.” Now, Haya says her face feels “naked” on the days she doesn’t wear bindis and cites 90s Bollywood as her biggest inspiration. Her job as a content creator allows her to put this into practice. “I’m always peeping old Bollywood films, watching Aishwariya Rai and becoming ready to go with my own winged eyeliner, bold red lipstick, and letting my baby hairs show... My parents always told me to hold on to my culture and never let it die. I feel like I’m doing that now,” she says.

Being South Asian naturally leads to certain aesthetic choices — but it doesn’t always need to be explicit. Kripali Samdariya, a 23-year-old model based in Mumbai believes there is no right way to play with makeup. Her use of makeup is purely experimental, an exercise in playing around to create looks that make her feel good. Her Instagram serves as a documentation of her art: candy-coloured lids in shades of indigo and lavender or blue eyeliner in the waterline of her eyes. She tops this off with traditional Indian nose-rings, that are dotted with emeralds and pearls. “I feel that Indian men and women have [historically] always been restricted when it comes to exploring and creating art in the form of makeup,” she says. “People get too judgemental. But we are all getting out of this rigidity. We do what we want to do — whether it’s subtle or bright, it’s about wearing what we think looks best on us.”

Across the board, these women believe representing South Asia is a matter of pride. Marjhan Emaan Kausar, a 27-year-old resident of Singapore who is half-Pakistani, has increasingly appreciated her heritage as she’s grown. She describes her aesthetic as raw and heavily-laden with images of Pakistan. “I wear a lot of warm-toned makeup because it reminds me of Pakistan,” she says. Even in her more Western-infused ensembles, Marjhan incorporates emblems of South Asia. There are days when she puts delicate flowers in her hair, bought at the flower markets in Little India, or works with Mehendi artists across Singapore, who adorn her hands with the temporary form of body art.

“There’s makeup like kajal, which I put on heavily because it’s such a big part of our culture. The markets, the bazaars, the textiles — all of those aspects of Pakistan come into play.”

“The clothes and corresponding makeup I wear really help me to connect to my roots,” agrees 21-year-old Dina Aziz, a Bangladeshi blogger based in London. “Especially when I wear traditional Bengali clothes, I try my best to blend in traditional makeup. There are Bangladeshi beauty rituals I like too, like using organic treatments, coconut or olive oil and making hair and face masks at home.”

In a society where beauty is a commodity, South Asians have often struggled with releasing women of what is expected of their appearances. But this is changing. Accounts like @rani.aesthetic and @desibadiess are now serving as communities unifying creators from all parts of South Asia. For them beauty is an exploration of both resistance and acceptance. Embracing their roots through makeup sends an important visual message, amplifying what makes South Asian culture what it is. And all the while doing it on their own terms. As Reva says, “I truly believe we have a duty to uplift our people’s voices. I seek out the motherland, I seek out that universe.”

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