Conceived by Los Angeles-based creative Sanam Sindhi, South Asia Archive is a research and education platform, sharing traditions of beauty, adornment, identity, fashion, and queerness in the Indian subcontinent. The digital archive catalogues imagery of diverse South Asian beauty from jewellery and makeup, to hair and tattoos, under the Instagram handle @southasiaarchive.
Scouring the internet, museum collections, books and papers, Sindhi has been collecting and collating her findings for close to a decade. South Asian representation in beauty and fashion has a tendency to be somewhat narrow, with an often Eurocentric definition of what is considered beautiful. @southasiaarchive presents a joyous and fascinating view on beauty, truly representing the aesthetic diversity within the subcontinent, from the African diaspora in India to mehndi traditions and ornate jewels.
Among the unique communities showcased, are the Dards, a group living along the Indus between Skardu and Leh. The Baltis refers to them as “people of the mountain pastures”; they are also called the people of Dahanu. Traditionally, Dard men and women wear long braids and bouffant trousers. They place the molön khö, a kind of folded sock, on their heads, stitched with charms, needles, buttons, amulets and coins. On top is pinned a large orange flower, moon-thu-to, which is first dried and then steamed so that it puffs up. Tomar, a silver medallion with long chains, hangs on the side of their foreheads.
Elsewhere on the page are photos of Bhopal’s transgender community by Akshay Mahajan. In conversation with Verve, the photographer tells: “The existence of ethnic transgender groups in India shows that we have a long and rich history of accepting of sexuality in all its forms. But the number of assaults, rapes and murders of hijras are much higher than other elements of society, and employment is often limited to begging or sex work. I am hoping to show the community in a modern light and celebrate them for who they are, in the hope that they will soon be accepted as part of mainstream society.”
Further back on @southasiaarchive are portraits of women in the harem of the royal palace of Jaipur, taken between 1857 and 1865 by Maharaja Ram Singh II. The Maharaja, who was India’s first photographer prince, had a laboratory for developing photos as well as the best cameras and equipment available at the time. He frequently photographed his four wives, as well as the women in his harem, the dignitaries of his court, his staff, military troops, and other noteworthy members of his kingdom. His archive of glass negatives was lost for over a century prior to being rediscovered.
Feature image from Archana Shah’s Shifting Sands: Kutch Textiles, Traditions, Transformation (via @southasiaarchive)