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.
DO YOU HAVE A MEMORY OF ANY COSMETIC PRODUCT WHICH IS NO LONGER USED?