Thursday, May 28, 2009


This summer vacation, my elder daughter and I have been reading a lot of Bengali poems (in our annual attempt to teach her to read her mother-tongue). Many of the poems mention alta (a red liquid used to paint the borders of the soles/feet):

Elo chuley beney bou
Alta diye paye
Nolok naake, kolshi kanke
Jol aantey jaye

(The gold-smith’s wife is open-tressed
Her feet have an alta-border
Gold nose-ring flashing, the pot at her waist,
She goes to get water

Sukumar Ray, that inimitable genius of nonsense, of course turns everything familiar upside-down, and writes about Kumropotash (a fantastistical fierce pumpkin-shaped creature):

Jadi Kumropotash chhotey –
Shabai jeno torboriye jaanla beye othey;
Hunkor jaley alta guley lagaye gaaley thontey,
Bhuleo jeno aakaash paaney takaye na keo motey

(If the Kumropotash runs fast –
Everybody must climb up their windows in a hurry
Mix alta with hookah-water and put it on the cheeks and lips
And never look up at the sky, or you’ll be sorry

The hilarity of these nonsensical instructions lie partly in their sheer implausibility alta is never applied to the face, only to the feet. But my daughters, never having heard about alta, let alone seen it, did not know that.

When we were young, there was always a bottle of alta somewhere in the house. These glass-bottles full of deep blood-red liquid used to come with a tiny aluminium bowl and a long stiff wire ending in a small piece of sponge/cottonwool. The alta would be poured out in careful measure into the bowl, the wire would be dipped into it, and then a line would be drawn all around the foot, circling the heel and dipping in and out of the toes.

This was done during all religious ceremonies. And alta had a pride of place in Bengali marriage rituals – along with sindoor (the red vermilion powder applied in a dot on the forehead and in the parting of the hair), it symbolized the married-status of a woman.

My Dida (grandmother) used to say that alta would be regularly used when she was a young bride; apparently it helped to prevent/cure cracked heels. But during our childhood, my mother and aunts would use alta only on special days, although they used to put sindoor on their foreheads everyday after bathing. For cracked feet, they used Boroline.

Though we were not allowed to play with sindoor (being the exclusive preserve of married women), we were allowed to fiddle about with the alta bottle, maybe because it was no longer part of the daily routine of married women.

And all of us young cousins would sit down sometimes and inexpertly apply uneven alta-lines around our feet, painting all over our toes and leaving red footprints all over the place. Alta-paint would wash off after a few days, so the damage (to the floor and to the feet) was never too much.

When we entered our teens, we began to regard alta as terribly old-fashioned. With cheerful disregard for tradition, we neglected it totally in favour of the more permanent and more modern nail-polish to decorate our toes.



Mampi said...

your journey in the past continuous is so consistent that i stand up to salute you Sucharita.
Alta-not used in Punjab but we know of it. Some people did use it in Punjab too. However, the cosmetic that I can think of in this context is the rouge powder that I once saw in my mother's shingar box. it has been replaced by the more sophisticated blush-ons.

ZiLliOnBiG said...

that was nice trip down memory lane. Your writing is easy on my eyes, for people like me- those dumb by default types.and doent make me multitask, i.e read and use brain as well. I enjoyed.BTW i have copied your style of using larger forts to higlight in between sentences in my blog. Cheers, keep churning:))

Priya said...

awesome..reminded me more about those lakhshmi puja every thursday and all festivals which would bring in relatives from places and then we as children shared our own "fashion-tips" with each it the style of tying the belt of the frock or just changing the hair-parting from left to right or vice-versa....

Lazyani said...

Sucharita, you are gifted in the way you stir up great memories.

Alta adorned feet in front of me as I bend down in front of my mom to do pronam, alta adorned feet distract my anjali at the college Saraswati Pujo,alta adorned feet mark the way up to our house in Jamshedpur as I bring my bride home, alta adorned feet move away in a car as my sister moves to her in-laws place -- lots of memories rekindled. Thanks.

Aleta said...

I didn't wear make-up until I was 16 years old. It wasn't that it was discouraged, just that I never had much interest in it. So, I don't have any childhood memories to share, but I wanted to comment ~ what an interesting story! Your youth makes me smile ~ just thinking of little red footprints in the hallways.

Kavi said...

The natural make up comprised of a form a 'henna'.

And it was applied on the fingers too. As a boy,there was aspiration for this...

and somehow, the drive melted away !!


Tan said...

This was the best post about Abol-Tabol I ever read!!

Hehehehe... Congratulations..

aar, apni ki Bangla Blog khujchhen? Amar ekta chhotto blog achhe.. jodi shomoy korte paren to, please visit:

apni ele khushi hobo :)

Tan said...

Linked it to my Group Blog - hope you get a few more people reading this awesome post :)

Miss M said...

I had left a comment on Tan's blog telling him how sad I feel for not being able to read this wonderful mother tongue of mine and missing out on books like abol-tabol.

Felt SO nice to read those poems here! Brings back memories when thamma (my thakuma) would read them to me. I really need to learn bangla!

Anonymous said...

Alta is something I have known of since I was a little kid:))

after each trip home ma's feet would be painted with it:))as also whenever anyone in the close or extended family was getting married:))

I love the bengali poems though without the translation(thank you:))) I couldnt make any head or tail of them:)
but just the way the words roll off my tongue makes it worth it:D:D:D

Rajesh said...

I have seen these in movies, but never knew what is it. Never used any cosmetics

Swaram said...

Nice post Sucharita.Reminded me of those days when Alta adorned our feet for the dance pgms @ school.
I somehow feel even Kajal does not enjoy the place it did in those days. Its more abt eyeliners and mascara now. Those were the days my granny never allowed us to go out without kajal lining our eyes; that too home-made.

Sucharita Sarkar said...

Thanks everybody, for these colourful memories!

A New Beginning said...

I loved the alta, that was put in the shape of a full moon on my palm, while we had an annual function at school:)Loved it and kept it for the whole, only when mum forced me to wash my hands before dinner, did I get seperated from my beautiful alta.Love mehndi though never get the time to get a beautiful design done on my hands!
Thanks for bringing back the fond memories:)

Miss_Nobody said...

wow,a bengali blogger,I actually found one!!that too blogging about sukumar ray!!awesome!!

sujata said...

Great post Sucharita. I have faint memories of lacto calamine and tuhina on my mom's dresser when I was growing up. I still remember the smell of tuhina..

lopamudra said...

what about 'soorma', the cool to touch kohl applied by men i presume?

Kaushik Chatterjee said...

In a domain of exclusive female preserve, (no, no feminists would crib about that) let me share with you the old advertisement we used to listen (or, like most men, in the wrong side of everything, for whom the present is almost always non-existent and the future perennially tense, should I use a 'past perfect', i.e. 'had listened'?) in a sing-song Srabanti's voice, well.. it seems as if just the other day?
"Jabakusum tel amar maa-ke mone koriye dei...... bhabte bhalo laage, amar khuku-o jokhon boro hobe, tokhon sheo emni kore jobakusum tel makhbe aar mone-korbe tar mayer ak dhal kalo chuler kotha…."

Khukus of this age, listening? “Past continuous” ? Or tell-tale symptoms of a disconnect ?

Kaushik Chatterjee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vijay Kumar Sappatti said...

This is awesome work of words .. what a wonderful poem full of emotions . very good writing . I am sure we can get more such poems from you in future.

wishing you good luck.

please read my poems on my blog :


Sucharita Sarkar said...

Thanks again, for sharing your alta-pink, sepia-sweet memories.