Been getting the eye-roll one too many times today, and not just that either- it's the full package of annoyance, garnished glacially with 'oh-not-again' phrases. Blame me…blame me if you will for feeling deeply touched by something meant to be of little significance. One of those seemingly unimportant incidents that affects me insanely much and leaves everyone else ready to stab me because I rant on about it all day. It's something that's been around just as long as we have, only I allowed it into my life today courtesy of the baseless fear that it would add certain cat-like touches to my face. It is perhaps the only armour of make-up that is timeless, priceless and most importantly bias-less. Restricted to no particular skin tone, it makes a dark face all the more attractive just as it adds life to a pale one. Neither metropolitan nor rural, both modern and traditional, it is just as much ours as it is theirs, uniting women from startlingly different locations and lifestyles. Because it needs no lengthy introduction, shall we just put our hands together-for kajol?
The benefits of kohl were discovered centuries ago and it is one of the very few things that has maintained if not accentuated its significance throughout time. Women of earlier periods highlighted their eyes with kohl derived from burning menthol in mustard oil in a terracotta lamp or at later dates, the backs of metal spoons. Such practices are not entirely extinct today and the exposure to fire leaves a layer of soft black, cream-like soot, that is taken on a finger-tip and then applied to the bottom eyelid. It has seen its share of developments as well with modern trends making way for kajol in the form of a pencil that can be sharpened upon need. Making the process simpler yet, are the newest designs that present to us kohl in mechanisms similar to lipsticks-no spoons, no fire, no sharpeners-one twist to the posterior of the container and there you have beautification at its best. I would stop being so excited if this summed up the hoorahs but I feel I must mention if black is bland and matching is in, then kohl will by no means be left out, causing all the rage with green, blue, silver, and white kajol that have hit the stands of late.
And no it is not all technology. Being from the Sub-Continent, I will let you in on a widely practiced superstition. Of all the precautions that are taken with the birth of a baby, mothers from this sunny part of the world regularly, religiously emboss a black circle of kohl on the foreheads of their babies. It is meant to ward off the evil eye and only imagine how trusted a single rudimentary form of make-up can be if it is granted the duty of protection of one's most prized possession.
I feel suddenly that I have become a part of an age-old tradition, a part of history. I have found a link to earlier civilisations and at the same time solidified something in common with generations to come after me. I have been defined, like a million others, by a small black stick that sets a line beneath my eyes.
By Subhi Shama Reehu
The Bangali belles: Subhi and Ruhani
The Beauty Brigade: Farzana Shakil Hair and Beauty Salon
Behind the lens: Munem Wasif
the mane event
Skin as white as snow, lips as red as rose and hair as dark as ebony…isn't it amazing how even a mirror on the wall gave long, dark hair its due worth as an important element of beauty and yet, it has suffered such a decline in importance in our part of the world where it should have mattered the most? We have reached an age where everything quick is convenient and everything convenient is the way forward. There is no time or patience to maintain anything that is not two hundred percent mandatory and unfortunately, long hair is not that. It is necessary however, to understand its significance if we are to study tradition, if we are to define the spirit of Bengal or the bangali nari and if we are to realise her true beauty.
In conversation with 70 year old Taslima Begum, she proudly mentions how long hair is a source of family pride for her, with all her aunts, mother, sisters, nieces, daughters and granddaughters boasting the thick, cascading hair that has become their family trademark. So fiercely did they wish to protect their tradition of beautiful hair, that even those related by marriage were evaluated on the basis of hair structure. When asked whether keeping long hair was imposed on her by her family she smiles and asks, 'Did we even know that hair could be cut? There was no need to impose it, it was really the only option available.' She carefully displays her knee-length hair and informs that it is only trimmed when it reaches her ankles, making her a tad uncomfortable!
Just as the social strictures related to hair differed in her girlhood days, so did the maintenance regime. 'Soap and shampoo were unheard of in my time and what I used instead was shorishar khol (the hard substance that remains after mustard seeds are crushed for oil) that I sieved after soaking in water and then applied along the length of my hair. It is rich in protein and works better than any modern day shampoo or conditioner.' Much expectedly, coconut hair oil was also applied regularly and she notes that it was literally considered taboo to sleep with unbraided hair. Her mother braided her hair every night, for she could not deal with the weight of it, and curled up the bottom before tying it with ribbons to avoid split ends. However, she adds that she has never had to engage in a long and tiring maintenance process, because thankfully for her, beautiful hair was acquired as a birthright.
Any discussion on the role of long hair in our society would be incomplete without reference to superstition and much expectedly, Taslima describes how growing up in a village of Rajshahi, leaving one's hair loose after dark was heavier than sin. It is believed to this day, that let alone humans, even supernatural beings, namely jin and pori are enticed by long hair-this fatal attraction giving rise to people being possessed. A more uncommon practice however, is one by which women collect any hair lost during brushing or tying and store it in a safe place to be buried at regular intervals. She mentions how simply throwing hair away is unthinkable because hair is beauty and hence never to be discarded so thoughtlessly.
As intriguing as the conversation was, it is sad to think that people with long hair are treated like heroes today, rare and accomplished. It is one of the most important differentials separating us from the rest of the world- giving Asian women their ethnic identities. And to think that this has come to be looked upon as none but a hassle…times certainly have changed for the worst in some regards.
By Subhi Shama Reehu
Special Thanks to Taslima Begum for sharing her insight.