Would You Let Mumbai’s Oldest Surma Artist Stick Kohl in Your Eye? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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.

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“I want to tell you a little about my family first,” Aniz says. The family migrated from Navsari in Gujarat to Mumbai in the 1920s in search of a better life.

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Aniz makes surma using the centuries-old Mogul and Central Asian traditional method of Unani. Making surma is a long, complex process. The closely guarded recipe has been recorded by Aniz in a notebook. All he will reveal is that surma is made using antimony imported from Jordan, dried lime, pearl powder and jadibooti (medicinal herbs and roots). The ingredients are crushed together on a large stone, mixed well and then treated with rose water. Surma can be colorless, red or black depending on the herbs used.

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Dada Nanji Kamarsi Surmawala is open Monday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Most customers come on Thursdays and Fridays — the day of jumah. Most buy the surma and leave, but some request Aniz to apply it. On the Friday that we visit (pre-pandemic), three men ask for it to be applied, and Aniz happily obliges. Surma costs about 100 rupees (approximately $1.32) — Aniz does not charge extra for application. The shop also sells henna and attar (a type of perfume).

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“People may grow old, but their eyes don’t. This is what Unani has taught me,” Aniz says as he carefully applies the surma with a long brass stick. Aniz uses the stick because, he says, it’s “sturdy, smooth and adds to the cooling effect of the surma.”

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