Art Criticism

Published in Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, Vol. 8, 1940, p. 62- 145

It has been customary with human beings in all ages and climbs to use cosmetics and to arrange their hair in one way or the other. A savage whose worldly possessions are few, and whose daily means of sustenance are furnished by hunting and fishing, sticks feathers into his hair, paints his body with various designs and arranges his coiffure in various fantastic forms because it gives him pleasure, raises him in the estimation of his fellow beings and has a magical significance to him. In the ancient civilizations of the world, cosmetics and ways of dressing the hair were numerous. J.de Morgan [1], in his excavations of the earliest graves at Susa, found small conical vases that once contained a green mineral paint which, by analogy with similar finds from ancient Egypt, must have been used for colouring the eyelids. Antimony for staining the eyelid was used by the women in ancient Sumer. In ancient Egypt from the earliest dynasties onwards ‘Kohl’ was applied to the lashes, eyelids, the part immediately below the eyebrows. The paint was obtained from numerous varieties of colours. The mineral was pounded in miniature marble mortars and kept in tubes made of alabaster, steatite, glass, ivory, bone, wood, etc. Sticks for applying the powder were made of the same materials.

In the Indus Valley Civilization, the finds of ‘kohl’ pots and vases tell the same story. Kohl served a beautifying and a utilitarian purpose; it protected the eyes from the merciless glare of the sun and from insects which are sources of eye-diseases in the East. Among the ancients certain colours (green for water and plants, yellow for the sun, red for blood) were looked upon as life givers; that is, they were thought to have a magical power to increase the vitality and strengthen the health of those who wore them [2]. Belief in the magical property of colours was also engrained in the ancient Hindus. Collyrium was applied to the eyes, the hands and feet were anointed at the time of sacrifices, and the articles of cosmetics, such as body- and eye-paint, comb and flowers were offered to the Celestial Serpent [3]. Today also in Hindu rituals turmeric powder and red powder (rori) are invariably used as they are supposed to propitiate the deity. Different colours, according to the Natyasastra and the Vishnudharmottara Purana, also indicate particular states of mind and body. Black, for instance, is associated with evil passion and it is supposed to be imbued with an efficacy which is powerful enough to drive away evil spirits; it is used by some sections of the Indian people to guard against the evil eye at marriages, deaths, etc. Cosmetics played an important part in the ritual while they also satisfied the vanity of men and women by artificial means. This is the purpose of various recipes and formulas for cosmetics in ancient India.

In the Indus Valley Civilization which flourished at the most conservative estimate about 2500 before the Christian era, ornaments have been found: gold, silver, copper and silver earrings, nose studs of blue glaze, and bracelets of metals, shell and pottery. Hairpins, combs and mirrors served as important articles for the make-up and the arrangement of coiffures.

Houses were provided with bathrooms with well-lined brick floors and with drains. The “great bath” at Mohenjodaro has in the centre an open quadrangle with verandahs on four sides, and at the back of these verandahs galleries and rooms. In the midst of the open quadrangle is a large swimming bath, 39 feet long by 23 feet broad, and sunk about eight feet below the paving of the court with a flight of steps on either end, and the foot of each a platform was erected for the convenience of the bathers. The bath was filled with the water from the wells and the dirty water was carried through a covered drain [4].

Belonging to same establishment as the great bath are some ranges of small bath-rooms, to the north of it, excavated by Mr Mackay in 1927-1928. On the southwest corner of the great bath is another building connected with it which seems to have been a ‘hammam’ or hot-air bath. ‘The part of it that has been excavated consists of a number of rectangular platforms of solid brick each the size of a small room and about five feet in height with a series of a vertical chases sunk in their sides. Between the platforms are narrow passages crossing each other at right angles, on the floor of which were found cinders and charcoal’. The platforms have been identified as solid substructures of heated rooms and the chases in their sides are taken to be the beginning of hypocaust flues which distributed the heat through the walls and under the floor of the rooms above. There is another building at Mohenjodaro, the floor of one of the rooms of which is supported by a series of dwarf walls, and in a fragment of the superstructure there are vertical flues for heating the room [5]. These hot baths may be compared with the ‘jantaghar’ of the Buddhists, the description of which is given in another section.

We do not know much about the implements and accessories of toilet in the bathrooms. For scrubbing the body, a barrel-shaped ‘flesh-rubber’ was used. The clay out of which this object was made was heavily mixed with angular grains of sand; this resulted in a very rough [6] surface. It was hollow and light and could be easily held in the hand. Two types of rasps were also in use; in the first one end is pointed and the other flat. It is hollow and is made of light red clay plentifully mixed with sand. The second type of rasp is barrel-shaped, but one side is flattened and made rasp-like by pricking it all over. It has a triangular shape and the flat base is well worn [7].

After the bath the women as well as the men must have used cosmetics, powder and perfumes, etc., as is customary in present day India. The find of kohl pots and sticks prove that women and men used collyrium or some such black substance for the eyes. Most of the taller stone jars were for toilet use. On one jar the black stains in the interior prove the presence of some pigment. Nearly all the kohl pots of Mohenjodaro have a spout-like mouth [8], and it is quite possible as Mackay observes, that the eye-paint was poured out on a palette to be mixed with water rather than kept moist and ready in the pot. This would explain the absence of stains from the jars. Kohl pots of metal were also known [9]. A little group of vases with narrow mouths shows a considerable variety of shapes. In some vases the mouth aperture is so small that it is thought that they were intended to hold some precious cosmetic. All are small in size and have inadequate bases, which suggest that they were kept on stands or in a case of some kind [10]. Some very small fayence vessels were found at Mohejodaro. Most of them are so smallthattheycouldhavehardlyheldanything at all, and unless they meant as votive offerings it may be conjectured that they were intended for expensive cosmetics or perfumes. They could not have been children’s playthings as they are too fragile. A large and varied collection of these fayence vessels is in the Mohenjodaro museum. They were unknown in any of the other ancient civilizations except in Crete [11]. Such vessels were used until recently by Indian perfumers to supply ‘attars’ in small quantities.

At Chanhujodaro a number of kohl jars were found containing paint for the adornment of the eyes. Probably these jars and other articles of toilet were placed on small pottery toilet tables standing on four legs with the upper surface ornamented with simple painted lines [12].

As few copper and bronze kohl sticks have been found it may be surmised that the majority were made of wood. The length of the metal kohl sticks varies from 4.4 to 5.5 inches. Both ends are slightly rounded. This type of kohl stick is found in ancient and modern Egypt and in other countries [13].

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