The vaid at Bikaner House in Delhi, probably never imagined he would stand in the midst of swooning women (and some gay men) wearing revivalist saris (the women, not the gay men — they wore revivalist something-else). As he sat to give out 2,000-year-old gyan about the connection between the skin and gut, all that pulse-feeling takes him to another level of cool. Plus, the accent’s endearing; we live in a time when religion, kumkum, yoga, and regional quaintness must be worn on our sleeve. Ironically, we are at a ‘beauty event’, the kind that ‘pampers’ because beauty is no longer about putting on a face or about make-up. It is to do what the evolved dermatologist tells us to: “love your age” and “be the best version of yourself”.
Enter Ayurveda, taken from musty ashram-like spaces and transferred, first to spas in boutique hotels, and then to products. The thrust of so-far made-in-India brands is the ancient science’s healing, cleansing, caring, curing abilities. In fact, dermatology is now a specialisation within Ayurvedic colleges.
K-beauty, Korean-inspired beauty, is skincare 2.0, with an elaborate anti-ageing dance that makes Indian women (me) stare down Korean women to check if their pores really are non-existent, and wonder whether they really do use snail slime, bee venom and starfish extract to keep everything up and dewy. And when they get the time to go through the 10 or more steps each day, when we (I) can’t seem to use an ubtan in the way that the seller pronounces it — slowly, luxuriously, as it sexily, but solidly, spills out of its retro steel container.
The West, besotted by hydration, fawned over Korean skincare. Easily bored, they are now looking at dermatologist-created products, because personalisation is everything. Ayurveda combines all of these: the far-outedness of the East, the exaltedness of made-to-order, and the need to heal that pigmentation or dry skin.
In the 70s, Shahnaz Hussain, beauty’s it girl, arrived. She defied stereotypes, had loud hair and was conspicuous by her presence, at a time when girls were told to cross their legs, keep their voices down, and their heads lower still. Her products seemed as defiant as her. She says she’s spent the last 30 years offering a cure-and-care solution, whether it was alopecia or acne. Somehow, Hussain’s voice is not defiant any more, because more and more brands that have their origins in India are going the Ayurveda way.
In the 90s, there was Biotique and Lotus, both focussed on botanicals, but all three brands were more local than international. Then things changed in the 2000s. Vivek Sahni, who co-founded Kama Ayurveda, says the rebranding of a part of Khadi and Village Industries Commission was the beginning of our change to an international mindset: neat, no-fuss, almost apothecary-like labels that could easily be replicated across the country, giving the brand a certain cohesion, while putting ingredient must-not-dos on the agenda. Being a part of the Khadi project inspired him to start something that was “traditional, Indian, and had proven efficacy”.
Along came Kama that made awful-smelling face and body oils sexy at a time when the west was still slathering on moisturiser, and with them, Forest Essentials that projected itself as a beautiful rendition of Ayurveda. Suddenly everyone wanted to be associated with the Arya Vaidya Pharmacy, in Coimbatore, even HUL that beauty behemoth, with its Lever Ayush brand.
Today, there are those that straddle the world of organic and Ayurveda, like Just Herbs, SoulTree and Vedantika Herbals, along with several made-in-the-kitchen-type products. Whether these are rooted in Ayurveda or not, it’s the concept that sells, and it’s this new pride we take in talking about our grandmothers’ non-wrinkled skin and forever-black hair. For once, we can’t blame it on the West.