By Shwetha K Rao
One of the eye-catching aspects about Indian classical dance forms is its vibrant attires and appurtenances. From colourful costumes, make-up and unique jewellery, classical dance forms have created a trend of their own.
Among the many traditions that constitute a classical dance performance, painting the palms and feet with a red dye, called Alta, is one of them.
“Alta is applied to make the mudras (hand gestures) more dramatic and to project our movements to the audience” Roopashree Madhusudhan, a Bharathanatyam teacher and scholar, tells TNM.
According to Hindu customs and beliefs, the colour red represents the fertile soil and therefore marks purity and fertility.
Also, as per our ancient scriptures, the ultimate purpose of the universe is union and procreation. The colour red denotes sensuality or attraction and thereby commemorates the union between two people.
Speaking to TNM, Guru Usha Dattar, renowned Bharathanatyam, Kathakali and Mohiniattam exponent, shared that when she learnt to dance, they would use mehendi, also known as mailaanji in Tamil and Malayalam, and the concept of Alta came at a much later stage in her dancing career. The practice of applying mehendi or mailaanji slowly faded as the Bengali alta travelled to the south.
“Once, alta was brought to Kalamandalam at Kerala and that’s when we discovered it. It was more convenient as compared to the process of making mailaanji paste. We just had to dip a brush into the bottle and paint our palms. The practice of using mailaanji reduced and is now confined to our beauty parlours,” she added.
The making of this dye has evolved over the years. Earlier, the Alta was made naturally from vegetables, nuts and leaves. With time, artificial alta powders gradually began to replace them.
References to alta can also be seen in Sanskrit literature in the works of great poets such as Jayadeva and Kalidasa. In one of Jayadeva’s compositions, Radha chastises Krishna for betraying her when she sees the impressions of another woman’s alta on his body.
Shakuntala, the heroine of Kalidasa’s ‘Abhijnyana Shaakuntalam’ is said to have decorated her hands and feet in the red dye during her wedding.
Several references can also be drawn from historical and mythological paintings by various Indian artists.