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In black and white

The queen of herbal cosmetics has entered the mass market with a low-priced fairness cream

Photo: Bijoy Ghosh

Recipe for success? Shahnaz Husain: `I'm not reinforcing a colour complex; I'm only catering to a large demand'

It was the phenomenal success, definitely. But there had to be more to it than just that. The tempestuous hair, and flamboyant clothing, perhaps?

Ten seconds since her first word, however, it was easy to guess what it really was that made her so inerasable from memory — her unabashed pleasure in being Shahnaz Husain.

"There are a million multinational cosmetic giants," she said, "You know why none of them can match up to me? Because there is only one Shahnaz Husain."

She's created one of the biggest Ayurvedic cosmetics company in India, but it is still the woman that overshadows the brand. "I've never had to advertise," she said. "It was a decision I made when I started my cosmetics company 35 years ago. Why must I pay others to do a job I can do a thousand times better?"

Decades ago, she was the woman who taught us do-it-yourself makeovers on DD's Shahnaz Husain on the Kitchen Shelf. Today, she's an award-winning leader of herbal beauty care and the Ayurvedic Ambassador for 2004. Coming from a conservative Muslim family of Chief Justices and Nizams, business wasn't an option Shahnaz considered.

Till she went to Denmark to "randomly do a course on cosmetics. I hadn't studied Ayurveda, but I knew it existed. And that herbs could only cure; they wouldn't hurt us."

Her eyes wide, she reels off cases where traces of mercury were found in a woman's blood stream, and how it was pinned down to a chemical-based cream she'd used on her face. "Most kajal is also 30 per cent lead, you know... and so many of our women use it."

But with her premium quality herbal products, was she really reaching out to all those women who used "cheap kajal"? "Darling, I never planned to be upmarket. Initially, there was no excise duty on Ayurveda. So for 15 years, I could sell things for Rs. 10. But excise has caught up with me. Besides, even the herbs are rarer and thus, costlier."

Although she already makes an upmarket fairness cream, Shahnaz has now entered the mass market with one at a medium-range price. It is, what she calls "an intelligent economic move because the fairness products market in India is Rs.2,200 crores."

Then quickly, "Oh, I know what you press people will ask now, `Madam, by promoting fairness, are you saying dark skin is bad?' It is not about whitening the skin; it's about diffusing melanin and protecting stressed skin from the harsh sun's rays."

She adds quickly: "My product is different. I'm not reinforcing a colour complex; I'm only catering to a large demand." But couldn't she afford not to do so? "Maybe. But everyone is entitled to have fair skin, don't you think? It boosts self-belief."

Coming from someone whose unflinching self-assurance comes from 35 years of hard work, this seems like an all too simple route to self-respect.

ROHINI MOHAN

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