Kajal: India’s most celebrated beauty product

A look at the history and modern references of kajal

A look at the history and modern references of kajal

Makeup in India has been synonymous with kohl, and in the Hindi language, is more commonly referred to as 'kajal or ‘soorma’. This beauty product has defined makeup in the Indian subcontinent for centuries and its use has remained unchanged over the years. 

The term ‘kohl’ was derived from the Arabic word ‘kuhl’ and interestingly enough, despite the terminology having an Arabic origin, the history of kajal dates back to the first use of kohl by the Egyptians in 3100 B.C. It was believed that this black powdery substance could protect the eyes from harsh sun rays and act as a cooling agent. This technique, known as galena eye paint in Ancient Egypt, was later popularized as kohl.

Over the years, easy accessibility to the basic ingredient of kajal, lead sulphide, made it popular in every region and continent, from Africa to the Mediterranean as well as South Asia. Evidence of ‘kohl-containers’ and the subsequent use of kajal have been found in prehistoric Egypt, the Greco-Roman culture and the Mughal Empire in India, where Mughal queens wore kajal on their eyes every single day.

Kajal also has religious and cultural significances. In many parts of India, it is believed that kajal wards off evil spirits, which is why a small dot on children’s heads is applied every morning—to protect them from the ‘evil eye’. On the cultural side, kajal is a beauty product that you will see on most Indian dancers—from Bharatanatyam to Kathak—this holy grail product is applied in interesting ways in each of the dance forms.

In modern times, the main purpose of kajal is to accentuate and add definition to the eyes. This broad style began in the 1930’s with a fairly thin and simple cat-eye, inspired by the women in the Middle East. In India at the time, women didn't wear a full face of makeup and only focused on accentuating their eyes with kajal. The 1950’s and 60’s witnessed the emergence of the classic ‘winged’ liner with kajal. A Brigitte Bardot-inspired, dramatic winged eye look took over the Hollywood screens in the 1970’s. Soon, Bollywood followed. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the Indian film industry returned to the basics with just a few strokes of kajal on the upper lash line and tight-lining on the lower lash line. The biggest trend was seen in the early 2000’s, when kajal was complemented by smoked-out brown, grey or black eyeshadow for a pronounced look that gave way to the now hugely popular ‘smokey-eye’ trend. Kajal has since diversified and evolved into an essential eye makeup item for not just Indian women, but women all over the world.

Some of the primary ingredients used to make kajal include sandalwood, castor oil, camphor and ghee (clarified butter), all of which have medicinal properties and have been used in Ayurvedic medicine. Historically, women have been making kajal in their homes by using these ingredients and following a very simple process. Initially, it was made by dipping cotton in ghee and lighting it to create a flame. The flame was then covered with a metal tin. The soot, often mixed with sandalwood and camphor, was scooped up and used with fingertips or cotton to apply around the eye. Over the years, the ways of making kajal have evolved and refined. While the product remains intrinsically Indian, today it is available in many different forms, and is used by celebrities and makeup artists across the globe.  






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