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A Hundred Embroidered Stories

The Social Gaze: On Watching and Being Watched

“Today everything exists to end in a photograph.”

 – Susan Sontag, On Photography

Sontag’s remarks were deemed controversial in the late 70s. In the digital age of image saturation, however, she’s the disseminator of the gospel truth. Everything today from our casual interests, beliefs, interactions across mediums, and even our personality – exists to end up in a 1080 x 1080 pixel and 4:5 aspect ratio photograph, nestled in a thoughtfully curated grid – for the feasting eyes of the other.

The malleability provided by social media platforms to alter our identities has been a matter of discourse since its inception. Our online personas have never existed in a vacuum. As social creatures, we’re in constant anticipation of the outsider’s gaze, in both awe and fear. The inherent need to be seen is always accompanied by the fearful clasp of judgment tight around its neck. The human herd instinct to seek approval makes most of our behaviour in social settings performative. From the clothes we wear and the movies we watch to the opinions we hold more often than not arise from the need to achieve a sense of belonging – the one slated third in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs[1].

While the performances persist, it’s only human to slip up at times.
Entrée the power of social media.
Social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and X (formerly Twitter) allow us to not only create a production out of our existence but up the ante as well – we get to control who views our performance, along with the parts they get to see.

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine you’re (doom)scrolling through Instagram when you come across a post by a conventionally attractive, white woman. She’s seated in an outdoor cafe. The sunbeams bounce perfectly off of her black sunglasses. Her profile faces the camera as she peers into her phone’s screen, carefully reapplying her lipstick.

Seems cool enough right? What if you zoom in just a bit?

Those sunglasses are the coveted Tom Fords in Whitney, and her lipstick is the classic Rouge Dior. What else, the bottom half of the picture seems to cut off a pack of Marlboro Lights and what appears to be an incredibly expensive lighter!

There’s at least a fifty per cent chance that you’ll believe you’ve stumbled across the feed of an heiress out to lunch in Italy. Such is the power of branding. The mere association with brands established as luxurious converts a simple photograph into an identity definer, as Professor Nita Mathur notes, “commercial brands and luxury commodities have come to serve as signifiers of identity in society”[2], allowing individuals to construct, deconstruct or reconstruct their social identities.



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Kai is a student of literature and a fan of stories in all forms. Currently fidgeting behind a camera lens, she’s always struggling with thinking too much and not writing enough.

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I remember the gentle rat-a-tat of my tiny feet against the cool steel surface of the almirah. How I’d make my way up to the top shelf, balancing on my toes with my heart throbbing in my chest and all the way up to my ear-drums. I could hear my breath, rapid but soft, rhythmically tuned to my heartbeat. The almirah’s rusty hinges creaked as I clambered up, giggling to myself as adrenaline flooded my system. Now balancing in-between two shelves, I’d stare up at the wooden box draped in silk. Almost involuntarily, I’d reach out for it with trembling hands, slightly afraid of being caught one more time. But I was unapologetically rebellious. After all, the heart wants what it wants and I was not the type to give up.

Before I knew it, my mother would be standing right behind me and I’d immediately come scampering down the cupboard. She would glare at me as I’d trace my steps back to the ground. I had only ever seen the embroidered saree in photographs. Some scattered in a random box in the cupboard and others kept neatly filed in gold studded albums. It is sacred, so I had been told more often than ever. A rite of passageIt was only ever meant for something auspicious like holy communion and I was barely seven years old. Eventually, my curiosity faded and so, I stopped trying to climb up the rusty almirah. I almost even forgot about it.

Until a few years later, I reached out for the wooden box again. This time, with my mother’s permission. Eight yards of unwrinkled, dull gold silk curled up against my fingertips as they dipped in and out of the meticulously embroidered motifs. Eight yards of my family’s matrimonial ensemble in my arms. One stitch delicately interspersed with the next, adorning the fabric in perfectly embossed geometrical patterns. Mosaics and lattices. Floral and paisley. The intricacy was hypnotising. It made my head spin with adoration.

I went back to look at the photographs. Four generations of women in my family elegantly draped in the paisley-patterned silk fabric. Each one, carrying the roots of our heritage with unwavering pride. Weaved in-between the Lucknowi embroidery, are a hundred love stories that bind my family together, and more than a million that describe those fostered by the Indians and the Mughals. An amalgamation of timeless endearment.

Sometimes, I like to imagine wearing it myself. Wrapping the soft silk fabric around my waist, pleating it and letting it uncoil towards the floor. I imagine myself beaming in printed photographs that cradle a love-story of their own. And all I do, is wonder if I too will carry the embroidered legacy with the same charm and poise as my ancestors once did. A feeling of pride and euphoria doused in elegance and grace engulfs me. A small, yet powerful sense of individuality tucked in-between a hundred embroidered love-stories from history.

The dust settles at the moon’s feet. There are several acres of yearning cultivated along their arms. They are wearing my grandmother’s Dabur Gulabari rose water gleaming on the stretch marks that procreate on their thighs. This is my moon’s body: Udaipur’s silver biscuit back stuck between golden headlines of a wedding, Pallava’s carved lion necks, and tangled roots of a Cochin mangrove peering through its antiquated eyes. This is my moon’s body. Saline rinsing of their soul every morning, when a copper pot greets Suryadev, the sun god and then he responds with wisdom that encloses in a bahi khata, the financial ledger of moon’s transactions with my mother. She is the sole earner of spirituality in this house, but my father speaks in humus, this humble Latin earth. They hold the ground from below, like a cosmic turtle bearing the weight of my moon’s dust and swim across an ocean of space. I watch everything take place, an observer in a sixty-year-old amethyst temple behind my house’s lane. White marble floors rifle in a chant here, they melt my grief. I am in the process of meditation in a crystal temple and my moon’s feet lend me a feather of a bird I am yet to recognise. A voice wakes me, a priest with a palm-full of mishri and the face of the man I had seen in my dream.

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Zobia Alam

Zobia is a 19 year old student and writer currently living in Vancouver, Canada. She writes to reflect, express and share her view of the world through what she believes is the most versatile form of self-expression. Her writing ranges from discovering the little pockets of joy in life to profound phenomena and wholesome poetry. Instagram: @zobia.alam

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