Kajal: Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder

In the West, black eyeliner can mean sultriness, “exotic”-ness, or danger. But for South Asians, the millennia-old ritual imbues confidence and power.

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Bharatanatyam dancer applying kajal in her student’s eyes (Getty)

Ayesha Le Breton


January 24, 2024


8 min

“I think of kajal as the first time I looked in the mirror and felt beautiful,” shared Maalvika Bhat, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University. “It made me feel like a woman.” 

Until the 1920s, the average American had rarely used eyeliner. In recent decades, while Sophia Loren’s “cat eye,” Kate Moss’s sultry eye makeup, or Amy Winehouse’s winged flick all served to add drama, people across North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia have sported kajal or kohl for millennia.

Centuries before black eyeliner was linked to edginess, it was associated with royalty, religiosity, and protecting us from the evil eye: Queen Nerftiti wore kohl, Prophet Muhammad wore ithmid, and Indian classical dancers, too, lined their eyes with kajal. With ancient roots, kajal has served many roles and had many wearers — yet it can mean completely different things to different people.

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