New Delhi: The story goes that when the king of Afghanistan visited India in 1919, he met with a bunch of young entrepreneurs in Bombay. One of them was Ebrahim Sultanali Patanwala, a businessman from Rajputana, now Rajasthan, who manufactured perfumes and beauty products. He presented the king with a hamper filled with products he had manufactured.
In this hamper was a jar of white cream with no name. The king remarked that it reminded him of Afghan snow. And so the cream that became a beloved household product was given its name.
An all-purpose cream, Afghan Snow was a make-up base, moisturiser, as well as sunscreen.
Patanwala was popular for organising balls and parties in India’s metro cities, attended by the crème de la crème of society, including stars like Nargis and Raj Kapoor. The brand also sponsored India’s first Miss India contest in 1952 in Bombay.
Ashraf Dalal, director of E.S. Patanwala pvt. Ltd, tells ThePrint how the cream, once considered a beauty essential for Indian women, faded into obscurity once companies such as Hindustan Unilever introduced competition in the form of products like Fair and Lovely. “The cream was endorsed by celebrities like actor Poonam Dhillon, and was extremely popular in India till the 1970s, when bigger brands entered the market. We were a small company that couldn’t compete with the big MNCs that came up at the time and our popularity eroded.”
India’s colourism is no secret. Brands like Fair and Lovely, Emami, Olay, White Tone and others have long perpetuated the idea that dusky is undesirable and the only true beauty is in fair skin. If their messaging were to be believed, the only hurdle in the way of finding love or professional success is dark skin, an ‘ailment’ magically cured by their product.
Recently, the government pulled up brands for promoting colourism and has proposed to ban ads promoting fair skin. It is considering levying a fine of Rs. 50 Lakh and a five year jail on such adverts henceforth.
Interestingly, Afghan Snow was different. Despite the era in which it was born (it is often called India’s first beauty cream), there were hardly any colourist undertones in its old ads. None of the commercials ever claimed the cream would lighten one’s complexion, focusing instead on how it was a “beauty aid” that would enhance one’s skin by cleansing it of dust and pollution, and would nourish it.
Endorsed by Gandhi
Owing to its foreign name and packaging (the glass bottles for the cream were famously imported from outside and the label was written by the appointment of the king of Afghanistan and the king of Jhalawar until independence), Indians started boycotting the cream when the Swadeshi movement reached its peak.
This is when E.S. Patanwala had to reach out to Mahatma Gandhi for help. “Gandhi had himself put out an ad, urging Indians to use the product, which the general public had misconstrued to be from outside,” says Dalal.
Afghan Snow is perhaps among India’s very first startups, but couldn’t keep up with the changing times as bigger brands with even bigger advertising budgets and modern packaging crushed the competition in the market. It might no longer enjoy its former glory, but which other brand can boast of being christened by a king and endorsed by Gandhi?