For the better part of a half-century, Indian women believed that the secret to eternal beauty was bottled in an attractive glass jar with an exotic label that read ‘Afghan Snow’. It was the early 20th century and the fragrant, snow-white cream inside that jar offered “rose petal softness of skin and a flawless complexion”. At least, that’s what its label promised.
Afghan Snow, said to be India’s first beauty cream, was launched in 1919. It was an all-purpose cream that served as a make-up base, a moisturiser and as sunscreen.
Granted it was all in the advertising (really, what isn’t?), but there’s no denying that this “beauty product to enhance your natural charm” and that promised a “snowlike complexion” was all the rage for several decades.
Its tag-lines are out of sync with present times but Afghan Snow will always hold a special place in the history of modern India – for it was named by an Afghan Prince and even mentioned by Mahatma Gandhi.
The cream was launched, among many other personal care products, by an enterprising young man from Rajasthan, Ebrahim Sultanali Patanwala, who arrived in Bombay in the early 20th century, to make his fortune. And make one he did. Patanwala worked for a perfumer and picked up the tricks of the trade quickly. Soon, he was tinkering with his own formulations and founded his own company in 1909.
E S Patanwala: Never missed an opportunity
Patanwala was very charming and had keen business acumen. The story goes that when the Prince of Afghanistan (the future King Zahir) visited India and met budding entrepreneurs, Patanwala presented him with a hamper of personal care products made by his company. Intrigued by a jar with no name, the Prince remarked that the pearly white cream inside it reminded him of the snow in Afghanistan. The rest is, well, history.
That’s not all. Patanwala worked his way up the social ladder and had A-list Bollywood actors such as Nargis and Raj Kapoor attending the fancy balls and soirees that he hosted. He also sponsored events such as the Navy Ball and the first Miss India pageant in 1952, both annual fixtures on Bombay’s social circuit.
Why, he had actor and film personality Devika Rani endorsing Afghan Snow as a ‘Gift From The Gods’! His other cosmetics and personal care products too found their mark, with many Indian Princes and Princesses patronising them.
So, how did the beauty cream grab the attention of the Mahatma?
Patanwala was an ambitious businessman and was determined to have a stand-out flagship product.
Although Afghan Snow was made in India, it acquired its signature fragrance from a Swiss formulation, its glass jars were made in Germany, and its labels were printed in Japan.
And, in its early years, Patanwala played up its ‘Afghan connection’.
Not surprisingly, the beauty cream ran into trouble during the Swadeshi movement, when Indians were urged to boycott foreign goods and buy only Indian ones. Samir Patanwala, great-grandson of E S Patanwala, says that Afghan Snow was listed as a foreign product and it was only after Patanwala wrote to Mahatma Gandhi, who clarified that it was indeed a desi product, that the beauty cream survived the wrath of Indian nationalists.
But India’s first beauty cream could not survive the ravages of age and time. In the 1970s, Afghan Snow was passed over for newer and younger beauty products launched by multinational companies with taller claims and bigger budgets. It is still manufactured by the Patanwala family. Even if it does hold the secret to eternal beauty, its own allure has faded with time.
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P C Mahalanobis pioneered the use of statistical models in India’s development and laid the foundation of India’s Second Five Year Plan. He also worked on issues like racial biometrics, tea-drinking habits, family budgets and the circulation of rupee coins.
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