Why India hasn't stopped bathing with Mysore Sandal Soap for 100 years

Some of these products had the kind of brand loyalty that today's companies would die for.

 |  5-minute read |   15-05-2016
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Today I was skimming through the snippety sections of a newspaper and saw that Mysore Sandal Soap had reached its centenary. It immediately sent a wave of nostalgia flooding through me. That familiar red rectangular box with the green border and green cursive lettering was like opening the door to the cupboards of my childhood.

Growing up in a part-south Indian household, for me that strong sandalwood smell signified my grandmother and everything she represented. She's been gone for almost a decade now, but it just takes that smell to bring her back to life again.

We've all had elders in our families who have sworn by Margo or Medimix. For them the putative medicinal properties of the product bypassed all other considerations. And men favoured Lifebuoy, with its distinctive colour - a darker version of Gelusil, guaranteed to infuse you with energy.

All these soaps had their familiar smells, smells that generated the sort of feelings you have when you slip into an old favourite sweater.

Also read: How soap became modern India's Kurkure

Margo didn't melt easily; Lifebuoy did. But Margo had the tendency of becoming rock-hard easily, not lathering enough. Despite their shortcomings, these products had the most loyal consumers. Was it because of a lack of options? People who used them stuck to the same brand all their lives, and would not be swayed by newer entrants in the market. Was it an economic consideration, a symptom of pre-liberalisation India, or a reminder of a time when choices were simpler and more straightforward?

Do you remember Daddy's Chips? Daddy's was a much, much cooler version of Uncle Chips, and it had long sticks, like PikNik straws but thrice as tasty. Growing up in Guwahati in the 1980s, then no more than a large hamlet, Daddy's Chips wasn't available in the shops.

So whenever my father would go to Calcutta for work, he would bring back as many packets of Daddy's as his suitcase could carry (to my childish mind, it was also very cool that my daddy would bring Daddy's home, but that's different).

gold-spot_051516092326.jpg Brands that bring back fond memories for the Indian consumer. 

That was one of the best treats of my childhood, not only because it was so tasty and different, but also because it was hard to access. And top any children's gathering off with Daddy's, Gold Spot, a puff and pull of Phantom cigarettes, and their day would be made. For those whose parents didn't let them drink fizzy drinks, there was always Rol.a.Cola. Simple pleasures.

Some of these brands had the kind of brand loyalty that today's companies would die for. But today that's an illusion. We always want to try out the next best thing, because we are bombarded by advertisements and other, more subtle, suggestions that our lives can be significantly improved by the consumer choices that we make.

Advertisers spend more and more for research on consumer preferences, fashion trends, political trends, and create seemingly progressive representations, like the Dove ad representing women of all ages, orientations, hues and haircuts, promoting the idea that Dove is for the modern woman, whatever her avatar.

Or ads that try to counter the inherent sexism in heterosexual relationships through campaigns like Ariel's hashtag #ShareTheLoad. The assumption being that by associating ourselves with the product, we are by default associating ourselves with the philosophy that it is promoting. Buy our product, and you'll become a better person. Hah. But we fall for this. Subtly. The power of suggestion works its magic.

Nutritionists like Rujuta Diwekar have been talking about how traditional Indian cuisine is falling at the altar of diet fads inspired by the West, which is a fallacy because the wisdom of our forefathers (actually, our foremothers) had already taken health into consideration while setting the standards of regional cuisines.

The same applies to the "cosmetics" that our grandmothers used back in those days. Looking at the array of cosmetics in my bathroom, I realised that currently every shampoo, shower gel, face wash, and night cream I use is from The Body Shop. Meaning, I paid a bomb for soaps and lotions that were fair trade and not tested on animals. That lovely Olive Oil Shower Gel probably has the same benefits as Medimix soap. At least, my grandmother would have pointed that out to me sarcastically. If she was around, I would probably still be using Medimix.

But nostalgia needs anchors. If nostalgia is an industry, it's not doing very well. Globalisation allows us to not invest in nostalgia while by the same logic increasing the need for nostalgia. Hints of this are found on occasions when old friends sit together and start reminiscing about that wonderful Cadbury ad or when you inadvertently start singing "doodh, doodh, doodh,doodh, piyo glassful" to your child.

When is the last time you bought a slab of Amul chocolate? Remember how it was packaged? Be it taste or aesthetics, I always preferred Cadbury Dairy Milk. But at the supermarket the other day, I saw Amul's snazzy new slab - big fonts, fluorescent script against a dark backdrop - and was so impressed that I bought some to take home. And now I like it. Again, I don't know whether it's the taste or the aesthetics.

That said, call me old-fashioned, but I think that sometimes I would rather pay for the cost of nostalgia than contemporaneity.

Writer

Piya Srinivasan Piya Srinivasan @srinivasanpiya

The author is a research scholar.

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