By Pritha Mahanti and Jessica Jakoinao
Being two of the unlikeliest candidates to write about the art of make-up, to then come together to collaborate on a piece such as this, we knew there would be chaos on the question board. But a lot of fun! To walk our kind through this vast empire, we caught up with Teshang Tongtang, a recent graduate in a makeup course under the renowned makeup artist Awon R Vashum. A student of Linguistics, Ms. Tongtang gave us a crash course in the art and language of makeup, leading us to seek out some more personal stories because that’s our shtick.
When the pandemic hit, Teshang was stuck in Shillong, away from home. “I had nothing else to do and I had makeup with me,” she says. “So, all I did was do makeup all day long. It was during that time that I brushed up on my makeup skills. It was really liberating, exactly like art. Something that we go to when we feel down or feel good, like a visit to an art museum. I could look dead with makeup on or lively. I could add and remove colours. It was fun.”
For Teshang, makeup—more than anything else—has been a ground for playful experimentation. Remember Hannah Montana, the hit show on Disney Channel starring Miley Cyrus—the global teenage sensation? A blonde pop star decked in glitter and gloss was godsent for the young brigade that was getting ready for prom nights and the likes. It was around that time when Teshang forayed into the world of makeup, beginning with lip gloss. She recalls being fascinated with the confidence that came with shiny thick luscious lips. Closer home, her inspiration was probably her aunt, a schoolteacher. Teshang remembers her as a woman who dressed up well every day for work and it was her lipstick collection, particularly, that intrigued her. Ever since, Teshang wanted to own a lipstick which she ultimately did by saving up her pocket money. Around the time when she was in her tenth standard, she became the proud owner of an Avon shade. As high school and university years rolled by, she started adding on to her collection bit by bit.
Jaya Mathur, a PhD fellow in social sciences, identifies with this aspirational aspect of makeup. A sense of ownership of the products is equally satisfying as putting them on. She admits to it being a luxury definitely, something that she can afford to invest in with her disposable income. Yet she also notes how the makeup industry caters to a broad range of classes. At every level along the affordability chain, there is a counterfeit for the original. And every counterfeit comes with a risk. But, as the history of makeup has well demonstrated, the considerations of beauty have always triumphed over its dangers. The allure of enhancing or modifying one’s given features, whatever the purpose, is something quite intense for a race as curious as humans.
It was the same curiosity that led Teshang’s interest in makeup to peak around the third year of her undergrad days. She started getting really experimental with makeup during college festivals and realised that she could, in fact, do a lot with makeup than just look pretty. From spiderweb patterns on her eyes to silver powdered hair, Teshang discovered makeup to be a gamechanger of sorts. Makeup is intimately tied to her feelings. There are days when she is in the mood for the ‘simply glam look’ and others when she doesn’t mind the glitter. What is interesting is that she went through her most experimental makeup phase while studying in Jawaharlal Nehru University for her master’s programme. The campus is known for the ‘toning down attitude’ when it comes to sartorial choices and makeup. For a space that champions free choice, there are some sneaky double standards. Amidst the sea of muted shades and patterns, Teshang attended classes with blues, silvers and reds on the eyelids. Some were encouraged by her, others thought it went overboard. For Teshang, it is this skill she has honed that gives her a tad bit more confidence to face the world. That’s literally wearing one’s skill on the face.
This sense of confidence with makeup is something that Nadia relates to. For Nadia, a visual artist based in Michigan, makeup is like war paint, an idea fed to her by her mother. “It really put me in a different space, much more aware of the political implications of makeup when I was pretty young. At some level everything is political.” Nadia thinks of her winged eyeliner as a talisman that lends her strength and makes her feel cool. “For me, there is this sense of preparing myself to meet the world whenever I ‘get ready.’ And I think, as a woman, that’s where the war paint idea comes in—interacting with others and being in public can be such a challenge and can feel threatening,” says Nadia. “So knowing I’ve at least begun by preparing myself in this simple way helps me know I’ve got my own back.”
For Teshang, makeup was not something that sat well with her family. But they’ve come to terms with her love for it. There’s simply nothing they can do about it. She’s got the talent. But hearing negative comments about youngsters “putting on too much makeup,” she had to wait it out before family and society could approve of it. At what age does it become acceptable anyway? When well past the age of doubt, male university mates would ask, “why’re you so obsessed with the way you look? Why don’t you focus more on inner beauty?” Gentlemen just can’t help it. In comic retrospect she recounted her makeup melting in the JNU heat like milk dripping down her face, and men putting in their two bits. But knowing she felt and looked good, it was easy to shrug the comments off. She still faces questions like she did back in school – “Teshang, why do you put makeup on? You’re not that type. You’re smart”.
Widely considered trivial, non-serious or superficial, makeup can in fact be something quite liberating and emboldening. From establishing beauty standards to breaking the same, it is never one thing against another. For Teshang it is a precious skill, one that gets better with practice. So much so that she didn’t want to deprive herself of a certified course and regret it later. Her biggest takeaway from it has been eye-makeup, details like how the eyebrows set the tone of the face or how the shape of the eyelids determine how you blend the eyeshadow. She confesses she never leaves home without doing her eyebrows and applying lipstick. It is like a ritual more than a habit.
Teshangran Tontang, with 3 years experience in self taught makeup, completed a course from Wonmila Rungsung Makeup Course in March 2022 . She completed her Master’s in Linguistics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Linguistics at The English and Foreign Languages University and practices makeup professionally under the guidance of Wonmila Rungsung. Her passions are multifaceted and include language study and research, makeup and other entrepreneurship ventures.