Would You Let Mumbai’s Oldest Surma Artist Stick Kohl in Your Eye?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because medicine can also beautify.
- Surma, a medicinal makeup, is a dying art.
- One of the last practitioners of it lives in Mumbai.
There’s nothing that unusual about Vallabhbhai Patel Road. Located in the Dongri neighborhood, it’s the embodiment of old Mumbai: old buildings and narrow roads dotted with stores, eateries offering kebab platters and roadside stalls serving up refreshing faloodas in the heat.
One afternoon, though, something catches our eye: a bright red sign atop a shop, with white Urdu calligraphy and an illustration of an eye and an elderly man’s face and torso.
Buddhe Baba Ke Surma (Old Uncle’s Surmas), the sign read in Devanagari script, followed by the business’ name, Dada Nanji Kamarsi Surmwala, in English letters.
The shop proprietor is Mohammad Anis, the 74-year-old grandson of Dada Nanji Kamarsi, who opened for business in the 1930s. The shop is quite likely the oldest and certainly one of the few left in India that make surma, a kind of medicinal kohl put around the eyes for a soothing and cooling effect.
We decided to document the process, in words and in photographs, not just because of the vanishing art of surma but also because of Aniz’s steadfast commitment to making it by hand. It’s a process that takes place in the back of the shop, where Aniz keeps his tools and medicines. His brother and children live in London and have little interest in hunkering down at a bench next to him anytime soon.