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कहानियाँ Kahaniyan of South Asia

This rouge box can be found on Level 1 in the Patterns of Life gallery at the National Museum of Scotland.

A rouge story: discussions about the concept of 'proper' makeup

This red pigment box depicts the intricate design of Rajasthani (Indian) craftsmen specialising in wood carving. It was mainly used to store pigments like sandal wood or red turmeric paste, commonly known as Kumkum, which was used in Hindu religious ceremonies, or wet carbon/Kajal made at home to adorn the eyes. The Indian state of Rajasthan is famous for its wood carving, especially of rosewood, or sheesham, and sandalwood. Their designs symbolise a rich Indian cultural heritage.

A box made of wood shaped like a tear drop or Paisley design, with detailed carved decoration on it.

A carved, wooden box for storing make up. (A.1984.361)

The rouge pot stimulated interesting discussions about the concept of proper make up, or Shringar, which came very late to India. Previously make up was restricted to kohl, henna or mogra, jasmine flowers to decorate the hair and paan, or betel leaf, to stain the lips.

A group of women look at the significance of a wooden rouge pot around a table.

Neeru from NKS talking about the cultural significance of a wooden rouge pot.

During our research we also found that in the 1950s women were spending a lot of money buying imported cosmetics. Before India’s Independence in 1947, the Indian cosmetic industry was highly dependent on foreign imports. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru persuaded his close friend and industrialist JRD Tata to manufacture cosmetic products tailor-made to suit Indian skin and climate, and thus ‘Lakme’ was born, thereby reducing India’s foreign dependency. Lakme is a French word derived from the Indian word Lakshmi, the name of the Indian goddess of wealth, beauty, power and fortune.

The leaf shaped pot has a great significance in Hindu religion. It is a symbol of purity, health, and spiritual goodness. Leaves are also linked with Ayurveda, a traditional medicine system, having its roots in India. Leaves were considered to have magical and healing properties. This rouge pot is truly a work of art of our Indian craftsmen, and it represents the true essence of our rich cultural heritage.

Two women sit at a table and look at the rouge box.

Two members reminisce about make up from when they were children. ©

We realised we all were fascinated by make up when growing up, looking at all the beautiful Bollywood actresses with big bold kohl lined eyes and red lipstick. We wanted to be dolled up like them when we were kids but were told, agreed by most of us, that kids, especially little girls don't apply make up, it spoils our natural beauty.

South Asian women had a troubled and complex relationship with make up in the early days. As mentioned by Ghazala, there was a kind of stigma in seeing or allowing young girls wearing bold make up. Some parents believe when young girls put on red lipstick and wear bold make up it takes away innocence from their face. In those days make-up was not acceptable and considered a taboo. It was permitted only when getting married and after that, kohl was our best friend. "We all have been through this phase when growing up", the group concluded with a smile.

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