Made in Madras Society

An eye for beauty

Kajal being packed on 0.5gm to 1.5gm containers at Eyetex Factory, Ramapuram . Photo: R. Ragu   | Photo Credit: R_Ragu

The coin-sized container of kajal is one of those things we take for granted. Much like the bottle of coconut oil and the talcum powder on the dressing table, the kajal dabba is not something we pause to examine in our tearing hurry. But would you do so if you knew that each of those containers was handheld by a woman who filled the greasy paste into it using a butter knife? Aravind Laboratories employs sophisticated machinery to make cosmetics, but their Eyetex kajal is filled by hand, just as it has been since the business was founded in 1938.

Eyetex was started by K. Vasudevan, an assistant to singer M.S. Subbulakshmi. Vasudevan followed the time-tested method of burning castor oil and gingelly oil and mixing the resulting carbon with refined castor oil — the end-product, kanmai, a shiny, jet-black substance that was used to accentuate the eyeswas first sold at Pushpavanam Stores in Triplicane. He also made saandhu, a deep-red liquid used to draw bindis, at his home in Porur.

A.V. Srinivasan, a chemist, bought the company in 1958. “I barely remember anything from those times,” says Shanthi Rajagopal, Srinivasan’s daughter. “I must have been 11 or so.” Years later, when she got married, her husband R. Rajagopal joined the business. A partner at Aravind Laboratories, the 78-year-old remembers Eyetex’s milestones with the type of bindis they made — such as the saandhu phase, sticker bindi phase, the 11-in-one phase...

Srinivasan continued the tradition of making kanmai by hand — he employed women to make and fill the paste at rented households in West Mambalam. But since their work largely involved burning oil, he decided to move far from the city — he purchased land in Ramapuram in 1968 (where their factory is currently located). “The area was a Palmyra forest then,” recalls Shanthi.

Eyetex initially stuck to four products — kajal, and kumkum in paste, liquid and powder form. Today, though, they’ve branched out into the Dazzler range of cosmetics, and are gradually taking on the big names. Their USP, though, is kajal and the sticker bindis that are pasted in bright green cards. You can see them everywhere in India — strung at that nameless corner store that sells bananas and soap to the glittery ‘fancy stores’ that stock everything from nail clippers to compact powder.

M. R. Jayanthi, chief executive — production, walks us down the red-tinged work floors of the factory. While a few women tumble white saandhu into a plastic drum at one unit, some others are bent in concentration at tables packing nail polish. At the sticker bindi section, machines carve out perfect red circles of various sizes and stick them on cards that are packed into boxes by more women.

In a light-filled work floor upstairs, the kajal unit is at work, sitting around steel containers filled with the shiny, black substance. Women, with butter knifes and a pile of the tiny black ‘Eyetex’ containers, work amid friendly banter. Their hands function at a rhythmic pace — scoop, smear; scoop, smear... the containers are filled in effortless precision. The mood is relaxed yet serious; perhaps, it’s because over 95 per cent of the workforce consists of women who’ve worked together for years.

This is in tune with Eyetex’s style of functioning. They’ve never been in a hurry to catch up with market trends. “We caught the sticker pottu wave only after the shift happened,” says Rajagopal. But when they did, they used “specialised velvet that breathes.” Today, their bindis are available across the country. The 11-in-one, launched in 1981, is another of their popular products. It consists of eleven colours of liquid saandhu arranged in a circular box.

Shanthi watches all the goings-on of the empire her father created from a distance. Over all these years, not once has she tried any of their cosmetics. “I prefer to be simple,” she shrugs. Not even kajal? “No,” she smiles.

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 8:58:40 AM |

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