Our Collection · Project Updates · The Locals

object_ive: A kajal holder, from India

We recently invited people from all diverse backgrounds, living and working in Sutton, to help us develop our Museum and Archives collections by contributing with images and words about objects that connect to their heritage. In her contribution, Kelly shared images of her intricate kajal (eyeliner) holder, alongside a childhood photograph from a trip to London. She reflected on its personal connection to her mother, and described the significance of kajal in Indian culture. 

What is your object?

My object is a kajal holder. It’s made of brass, 16cm tall and 4.5cm in circumference.  It has a pot which holds the ‘kajal powder’ (eyeliner powder) and an applicator (9cm in length) for applying the kajal. Strangely, or not, the applicator has an intricate design with a clock face showing 3 o’clock.  I’m not sure what the significance of the clock face is other than a link to colonial times – the British and the Big Ben clock face. 

The kajal holder belonged to my mum who brought it with her to England from India in the 1960s. I imagine this holder was made in the 1900s but I don’t know its origin or history. Sadly, my mum passed away and this is one object this stands out to me as a memory of her. 

Where does this object live?

My kajal bottle lives on my dressing table as it reminds me that being imperfect wards off the evil eye.

What story does the object tell?

It reminds me of my mum and how she used to apply kajal to her own eyes as well as mine and my brother’s when we were babies. 

Kajal was used in ancient Ayurveda due to its medicinal properties; and it is commonly used even now, on new-born babies, to ward off the ‘evil eye’. I am told that there is kajal specially prepared for babies – it is said to darken the eyes, prevent infection and improve eyesight. 

 In Indian culture, we believe that a curse can be transmitted through a malicious glare, usually one inspired by envy, also known as ‘Nazar’. It stems from the belief that someone who achieves great success or recognition also attracts the envy of those around them. That envy in turn manifests itself as a curse that will undo their good fortune. Old wives tales tell us that to ward this evil eye off, a dot of kajal is applied to give an imperfection. 

I don’t know how much of this is actually true. I still apply kajal to the back of my children’s heads (usually hidden in their hair) to ward off the evil eye. Whenever I try to do so, they always object – and I have to remind them that I’m protecting them from the evil eye, particularly as they are perfect and very precious to me.

The Locals: object_ive aims at celebrating the diverse communities of Sutton, making our collections more inclusive, and sharing what heritage means to each of us. Do you have an object meaningful to you that you would like to share? Get in touch at heritage.submissions@sutton.gov.uk


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