There’s a new movement towards the goodness of fresh, handmade soaps. With consumers seeking out natural, sustainable bars for bathing, soap-makers have come up with innovative ingredients and smart ways to brand their offerings. And why just make soaps when it’s so much more interesting to make a personal or political point as well? These three women are doing just that.
Vidyut by Vidyut Gore, Mumbai
“I am apolitical,” announces Vidyut Gore, the 40-year old witty soapmaker, whose handmade soaps are named after political keywords and current events. Well-known on Twitter for her candid opinions and sometimes inflammatory views, Vidyut insists she is merely applying behavioural science theory using her country and its politics as a large group to study and analyze. And as with everything Vidyut does – from her soaps to her tweets to her carnivorous plants – there’s nothing ordinary about it.
The signs of Vidyut’s maverick nature manifested early. Defying her parents, the Mumbai-born adventurer took off to Manali to teach in a summer camp soon after her 12th final board exams. She ended up staying there with a nomadic tribal family for seven years, riding horses and eking her living as a cultural and extreme-trekking guide.
Having found a boyfriend, she moved back to Mumbai to settle down in her late 20s. “But prosperity didn’t work out,” says the alumna of Indian Society for Applied Behavioural Science (ISABS). Marriage at age 30, pregnancy a year later, and giving birth to a baby boy with congenital disability restricted her more and more at home. In an effort to utilize her time, and given her keen interest in the scientific study of group dynamics, she took to blogging about political trends. Her blog took off like a charm.
Soon, her marriage fell apart. Left broke, Vidyut began making soaps to gift friends and family on occasions. They suggested she sell these, and so it all began about eight years ago. Somewhere down the line, she developed a geeky interest in cultivating carnivorous plants. “No, they can’t help as pest control,” she clarifies. “It’s a kind of specialized, scientific hobby that’s very big worldwide, but there aren’t too many variants available in India.” Noting that there wasn’t a single reliable retailer for carnivorous plants in the country, Vidyut began retailing these as well a few years ago on her website
With her son Nisarga now nine (he has his own Twitter account too), Vidyut is in a committed relationship with Godavar, an anti-Aadhaar activist. “We’re not too big on the marriage thing,” she says, explaining why they only had a reception for like-minded friends instead of a wedding. “We had anti-Aadhaar and pro-refugee posters for décor, and there was an open mic. It was a laid-back affair.”
Using her soaps to make a statement, Vidyut named one of them ‘Bagon Mein Bahar Hai’ after TV journalist Ravish Kumar used the term in one of his most unforgettable talk shows (in which he ‘interviewed’ mime artists representing leaders who refused to speak to the press, and proxy-answered through trolls instead). She gifted a set to Ravish, of course. The soap will be re-listed soon, as will the ‘Jumla’ soap, she says. “The earlier version was one that was stunning to look at, but if you tried to wash your hands with it, it barely made any lather. The new one may be hollow inside.”
Another of her famous pieces was ‘Urban Naxal’, inspired from the title of filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri’s book that claimed certain urban busybodies were amplifying the rural Naxalites’ message and waging a propaganda war against the state. Released less than a year after the brutal killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh who was an avid critic of the BJP, Vivek and others used his book title to brand those who criticized the Modi government as ‘anti-national’.
Vidyut was one of the first on Twitter to campaign for people to use ‘Urban Naxal’ as a prefix before their name, robbing the term of its pejorative connotation. She further went on to name a soap after the term. “It’s funny how the soap became more famous than the book,” she chuckles.
Based in Nalasopara near Mumbai, Vidyut affirms she is not married to any ideology but she believes the Left has got a lot more correct than the Right in India. “I’d rather support what they do than follow their ideology,” she clarifies, explaining that the Left has not evolved in terms of relevance to the modern economy, and has not accommodated technological advances in the world.
“The modern Left hasn’t been resilient,” she says. “They are largely handicapped when confronting things they don’t have jargon for. For instance, they haven’t been able to expand their definition of labour class to include coders in the IT industry, who can be laid off at any moment.” The Left isn’t future-proof, she goes on, “while the Right has evolved in ugly ways, creating injustice.”
Vidyut looks to her soaps for expression. “Complex preparations are in place. There’s a ‘Thand Rakh’ peppermint-fragranced soap coming up – with a cooling effect in summer – that tells people to ‘stay cool’.”
No doubt, with the elections going on, this one will be a bestseller.
The Soap Company, Somiya Khanna, Alwar
For someone who had been given a lot of freedom by her parents from a young age and had built a successful career in the corporate corridors of Bengaluru, it was not easy for Somiya Khanna to adjust to the highly patriarchal society of small-town Alwar, Rajasthan. But she not only adjusted, she went on to establish The Soap Company, a venture that is out to empower local women with a sustainable source of income.
An alumna of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, Somiya was still in her 20s when she met her husband Pawan Ahuja through an online portal; their common interest in the field of education brought them together. She moved to Alwar after marriage, and started working him in his family-owned school, Pride Walk Academy, there.
Her previous experience in training teachers came in handy, and she helped create systems for the school’s smooth functioning. As is the case with countless Indian women, Somiya too faced a lot of challenges post-marriage. Living in a joint family system, it was a constant struggle for Somiya to balance her work and personal life.
It was due to all the pressures at home that she started spending more time at school, and her interaction with the students’ mothers and with the school’s blue-collar staff started increasing. The more time she spent with these women, the more the realisation hit her that just improving the education system or educating the girl child was not enough.
“I myself am an educated working woman, from a well-to-do background, yet I am treated shabbily at home,” Somiya mused to herself. How could just education then help these rural women? She debated with herself endlessly.
Finally, she decided to teach them some skill that would not just help them earn money, but lift their spirit and confidence and make them independent.
School became her saviour; a tiny room was converted into a shop floor where she started teaching rural women the art of soap-making, something she had learnt in Bengaluru. With some financial help from her husband and her own savings, Somiya launched The Soap Company India over a year ago.
It is a rural cooperative providing skill development to unemployed women, training them in soap-making, cutting and packaging. Her mission is to empower women and provide maximum employment, while also providing them a safe space to call their own.
The women-led brand specialises in natural organic soaps and body washes made using a combination of traditional and modern methods. Most of the ingredients used – for example, rose petals, lemongrass, and calendula – are grown locally in Alwar itself. Their famous White Musk soap (Rs 125) is made from pure goats’ milk, which they specially procure from Jodhpur.
Available on online portals Amazon, VanityWagon and Nykaa, Somiya plans to expand her beauty line range to include face creams, scrubs, body butters, face packs, hair masks and even baby care products.
“The fight against illiteracy, patriarchy, unemployment and inequality is a tough one, but what keeps me going are the smiles on the faces of the women I have helped empower, my beautiful
baijees (women helpers),” smiles Somiya. Mizu by Shruti Dimri, Delhi
According to Shruti Dimri, making soaps is like making
gajar ka halwa (carrot dessert); our grandmothers used to do it by themselves at home but no one in the current generation wants to. She conducted several classes in an effort to get her friends and family to make soaps by hand at home but they still insisted on placing orders with her. So she continued working as an architect by day and became a soap-maker by night, involving her little kids in the process so that they could all spend quality time together as well.
It went on for years until the size of the orders grew and she decided to give her handmade soaps a name: Mizu. “It’s a combination of both my kids’ names and it also means ‘water’ in Japanese, so everything kind of fit well together,” says the School of Architecture and Planning alumna.
Along the way, Mizu also came to mean more: a woman’s determination to express her creativity through work, her refusal to let motherhood weigh her down, and her insistence on being a happy role model for her kids.
Having grown up in Delhi, Shruti worked briefly in Pune before returning to Delhi to marry her college sweetheart and raising a family together. A multi-cultural family (she is Maharashtrian, he’s Garhwali), the husband-wife duo were not just partners at their own architectural consultancy but also in parenting. “The single reason my kids go to school every morning is because my husband is so hands-on,” she jokes.
A big fan of Lush, a chain of soap stores that had come up in Delhi a few years ago and then shut down, Shruti always wondered why they had failed to take off in India. That’s when she studied the entire process of soap-making and began experimenting herself at home using fresh, healthy ingredients. She now also makes sugar scrubs and body butters, and plans to make lip balms soon.
When the soaps took off, she designed her own logo, packaging and website, and began retailing her soaps online. For the past year, she has also had a business partner who has been instrumental in stabilising the brand and the overall pace of the work without letting Shruti’s own creativity be compromised.
“It takes two years for a building to come up, but soaps don’t take so long. The gratification is quicker,” she says, comparing her two professions. She now also makes sugar scrubs and body butters, and plans to make lip balms soon. Having received bulk orders for gifting at weddings and for corporate houses, Shruti plans to expand her scale of production as well.
The soaps are cold-pressed, handmade and use genuinely fresh, natural, seasonal ingredients, from vanilla and charcoal to lemon to honey, which are clearly listed on the website. All use oil as a base to help them last longer, and Shruti limits the quantity of the frothing agent to the minimum possible. The sugar scrubs are made with all food-grade ingredients, so they are practically edible.
Mizu soaps are priced Rs 350 onwards for a 100 gm bar, the scrubs for Rs 650 onwards for a jar. The body butters start at Rs 800 for a 200-gram jar. Shruti has developed a subscription model so that customers can place a quarterly order and then forget about their soap and scrub shopping, with the freshest produce of the month delivered straight to your home.
With her daughter Zui at age 11 and son Mir at seven, running two ventures can be a task but Shruti has made it simpler by not trying to be everything to everyone at once. “Kids don’t want a perfect mother, but a happy mother,” says the 38-year-old, who is also an accomplished singer. She takes a little help from her own mother, a retired schoolteacher, who helps out with babysitting her grandchildren while Shruti and her husband are out at work.
In the evenings, Shruti enjoys her time getting down and dirty making the soaps herself. “It’s important to do things with your own hands,” she says, taking inspiration from a quote of Morgan Freeman’s character, God, in the Hollywood blockbuster,
Bruce Almighty: “People underestimate the benefit of good old manual labour. There’s freedom in it.” With her own labour, she is also making a point: being a mother doesn’t mean stifling your own creative and business instincts.
When you set your mind to something, the strength and the resources will arrive.
With inputs by Kaveri Jain.
First published in eShe magazine