Dancers / Series: Prized Possesion

Upekha: A Red Trademark

Consider Upeka’s pottu: it is self expression uncluttered by symbolism – where women traditionally wore it as a badge of matrimony, she began wearing it as a single woman. Where women were presumed to be Tamil if they wore one, this Sinhalese woman felt comfortable keeping hers firmly glued on. “The only time I was asked to take off my pottu was during the ’83 riots,” Upekha remembers. Not surprisingly she refused.

Now she, and we, cannot imagine her face without that bold, red dot at the centre of her forehead.

“As a dancer, what I love is what I do,” says the Kandyan dancer and guru extraordinaire. Explaining that even among the paraphernalia of her trade there is little she is attached to, Upeka says that her wardrobe is full of leotards and costumes that have taken years to collect. But it is with a light heart that they are now being redistributed.

Her love of sarees and ornate jewellery has lost its edge; no single drum will get her dancing. “There was a time I never had money to buy what I loved,” she says ruefully, “but over the years, everything I have wanted, I have got.”

It’s a particular kind of detachment that Upeka associates with aging – “I used to have these things but I really have come to a point where I can do without anything.“ Still, there remains the one thing she never leaves home without and in fact goes to some lengths to procure. “If I’m going somewhere I have to have a packet of pottus in my handbag,” she confesses.

You could never accuse that pottu of being subtle – big, red and edged in black, it is nevertheless the perfect complement to Upeka’s dark, striking features. Some believe the pottu, perfectly positioned between the arching brows represents the ‘third eye’ or the centre of awareness. If it is, Upeka discovered hers early. She began wearing sindoor, the beautiful vermilion powder that is traditionally applied along the centre parting of a married woman’s hair, as a teenager. “I used to have a big problem because my powder used to go all over the place,” she remembers, laughing. “I wore it then because I loved all things Indian and very, very eastern.”

She’s experimented with other kinds of pottus – at one time snakes artistically drawn with eyeliner would adorn her forehead, at others it would simply be abstract patterns – but Upeka says that those who knew her best always rejected these designs, insisting that the red pottu was more her style. Unlike either powder or paint, stick-on pottus are unlikely to smear, but then they’re also harder to procure.

Upeka finds hers in the ubiquitous small cosmetic shops in South India. Her tastes are so well known that the Chitrasena School’s collaborators, the dancers at Nrityagram, have begun to stockpile them for her. Still, she diligently recycles each pottu – sticking used ones onto mirrors, bedposts and walls for reuse at the first opportunity.

In its flamboyance, its unapologetic redness, these pottus seem to appeal to Upeka’s innate appreciation of the dramatic. “I love to put on the really large ones,” she confesses, “I have always loved them and have been wearing them for many, many years.”

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on September 11, 2011 as part of our Prized Possession series. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by M.A Pushpakumara

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