The eye exotica


Nothing enhances a woman’s beauty as much as a line of lovingly applied kaajal or kohl in her eyes. Used by brides, dancers, queens, courtesans and young girls alike, the kohl is truly a beauty enhancing product. Its health benefits just add to its allure, says Shoma A. Chatterji.

Eyes are the windows to the soul”, is a saying we have heard since we were knee-high. The beauty of the phrase did not register then. But as time went on, the elaborate eye-make-up on Vyjayanthimala’s eyes when she performed a Varnam from her repertoire of Bharat Natyam at a Mumbai theatre many years ago, one witnessed how exotic and attractive eyes can be made to look with a traditional enhancer like the kaajal, known in English as lamp-black. Bridal make-up in any part of India makes eye make-up mandatory. The best form of eye make-up that is traditional and beautiful is kaajal or kohl or surma. It existed in the world much before modern and sophisticated lines like the eye-liner, the mascara, the eye-shadow, the false eyelash stepped into the cosmetic scenario. Literally, kohl means, ‘to brighten the eyes’. So, when the bridegroom looks into the kaajal lined eyes of his bride, her eyes appear to be the most beautiful in the world at that moment.

The recipe
The basic recipe for kaajal is simple – it is made of soot. This soot is collected on a small upturned bowl held atop the flame of an oil lamp. This soot is used to beautify the eyes. Another way is to take a tiny piece of camphor or almonds, set it alight, and hold a clean teaspoon over the flame to collect the soot. Your kohl or kaajal is ready for single-time use. The smudging effect can be reduced by mixing a little castor oil to the soot. There are a hundred different ways of preparing kaajal. They vary in their elaborate recipes. The ingredients that compose the flame are said to transfer their beneficial values to the soot. Ingredients used in another preparation (sandalwood/Manjal karsilanganni, castor oil, ghee) are believed to have medicinal properties. They are still used in Indian therapies like Ayurveda and Siddha medicines.This lamp black is used on new-born infants till they are one or two years for the good health of the eyes. A small black dot of this soot-made kaajal is applied on the baby’s chin or on one side of the forehead as a ritual to ward off the ‘evil eye’.

Kohl is known by various names in South Asian languages, like sirma or surma in Punjabi, kaajal in Hindi and Urdu, kaajal in Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, kaatuka in Telugu, kan mai in Tamil and kaadige in Kannada. In Kerala, women of the household still prepare the kaajal. Local tradition considers it to be a very good coolant for the eyes and believes that it “protects the eyesight and vision from the sun”. In Punjabi culture, sirma or surma is a traditional ceremonial dye, which predominantly men of the Punjab, especially the Sikhs wear around their eyes on social or religious occasions. It is usually applied by the wife or the mother of the male. Traditional Muslim men, who stick to the conventional Islamic style of dress, use the surma whenever they step out. But one does not know whether they wear it as an ornamental cosmetic or as a mark of their Islamic identity.

This conventional style of eye make-up is neither new nor culture-specific to India. Catherine Cartwright-Jones in her researched book (2005) unfolds the ancient practice of kaajal. In Rome, women painted their eyelids and brows with a black eye cosmetic. They applied the colour to their eyes by dipping a feather into prepared soot and pulling it between their nearly closed eyelids. Some women believed that blackening their eyelids and eyebrows would protect them from the glance of the “evil eye”, and also prevent them from transmitting the “evil eye” to another person. Most women applied kohl every week, or for any social occasion, except during Ramadan, when kohl and all hennas are set aside. Eye paints were nearly universal across North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. The black paint provided relief from the glaring sun and reflection from the sand before sunglasses were invented. Lamp-black was the most common source of pigment.

The use of kohl the world over
Traditionally, kohl was used by men, women and children in Egypt, North Africa and India for its supposedly therapeutic qualities. It was believed to protect against eye disease and its blackness was thought to control the sun’s glare in the desert. It was also thought to be a powerful measure to ward off the evil eye. Ironically, the very substance that indigenous people used for centuries with much belief in its benefits is now being interpreted as being harmful.

It has been discredited as a source of lead poisoning. The FDA has banned the import of kohl and kohl-derived products in the U.S. Kohl contains heavy metals lead and antimony, which are very toxic when applied on the skin. Today, commercially manufactured sticks of kaajal, that look like lipstick, and even surma powder and kaajal paste are said to contain dangerously high levels of lead and other toxins. Surma and Kohl powder are dangerous for the same reasons. But in January this year, French researchers have alleviated our fears by reporting that the heavy eye makeup may actually have had medical benefits. At low levels, the lead, theoretically harmful, actually stimulates the immune system by producing nitric oxide.
Egyptian queens applied kohl around the eye, extending outward and upward in the corners, something only the royals and the gods could do. A delicate inner extension that seemed to join the two eyebrows was also in fashion at the time. Much later, the fashion changed. A line of kohl was drawn from the outer corners of the eyes to the front of the earlobes. In Morocco, Kohl is a symbol of the Kaaba, Islam’s holy black stone housed in Mecca. Most North African mothers applied kohl to their infants soon after birth, not only on the eyes, but also on the eyebrows and umbilical cord. This was done to make the eyes bright and strong, as well as to adorn the baby with a personal amulet to ward off the evil eye.

Interestingly, the ‘evil eye’ quality of kohl is mentioned for every culture where it was used as an eye adornment. Indians use the index finger to apply it but most other cultures use an applicator to apply it. Dancers usually apply it with a brush and use an improvised form of kohl, usually a thick black paste or paint, because their eye-make-up is elaborate. Today, most brides who believe in conventional bridal make-up insist on getting the make-up person to do up their eyes like the Bharat Natyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Mohini Attam, Manipuri and Kathak dancers do. For dancers, there is no gender divide for kohl because men too use elaborate eye make-up to underline the eye expressions that form part of the dance mudras. Male Kathakali dancers wear the most elaborate and complicated form of eye make-up before their performance.

Courtesans, kothewallis, prostitutes and court dancers wear either kohl or surma as a mandatory part of their make-up and costume. Looked at from this perspective, kaajal is perhaps the most democratic and egalitarian form of facial make-up in history. Bar dancers do likewise, though cabaret performers use it as a personal option. Nothing ritualistic seems to be behind the practice of wearing the kaajal specifically addressed to the Indian bride in Indian weddings.


Dr. Kanak Rele

The writer is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards. She is currently Senior Research Fellow, ICSSR, Delhi, researching the politics of presentation of working women in post-colonial Bengali cinema 1950 to 2003.