Shahnaz Husain speaks about taking Ayurveda to the world, her early days, competition, and why she’s not a beautician

“White House,” the gentleman accompanying us tells the security guards when ushering us in. Inside Shahnaz Husain’s really big house in Greater Kailash, the ‘white house’ is a big, white-themed room — white walls, white faux fur rugs on squishy sofas that suck you in and make getting up extremely ungraceful, white curtains. Whatever’s not white — golden, mostly — becomes so in the glare of the lamps (a dozen of them) and crystal chandelier. (There’s another in the lobby, looking over giant Chinese vases overflowing with cloth flowers, masks from Italy, half-a-dozen wall clocks and a staircase that leaves them behind to wind up.) Back in the ‘white house’, an R&D meeting is scheduled to begin in a couple of hours, so a table’s laid out like a product catalogue. There is a lot happening. But then, it’s Shahnaz Husain. In small towns, even two decades ago, a ‘Shahnaz facial’ used to be what called for a special occasion. “We use only Shahnaz herbal products” would be what beauty parlours (not today’s see-your-face-in-the-floor unisex salons) advertised as a USP. Dragged by mom to a Chinese beauty parlour for the monthly haircut in a sleepy town in West Bengal, one remembers the white plastic jars with green labelling perched high in glass showcases, to be brought out for wealthier, often relatively idle, customers. A glass-framed “Trained by Shahnaz Husain” certificate would often occupy the lone clutter-free, prominent wall. (Some would paint that credential on the name board outside.)

But Ayurveda, a novelty four decades ago, is a bandwagon that many have hopped on to. Be it a Kama or Forest Essentials, several companies have discovered the appeal of India’s traditional herbs. Ask her how she perceives competition, and with a wave of a bejewelled hand Shahnaz replies, “Doesn’t matter. There’s room for everybody. If a thousand more companies come in, more people will know about Ayurveda.”

A few students of Janaki Devi College are here to invite her for the event. After signing half a dozen copies of her biography, she offers one suggestion — “Call a few other colleges too, so more kids can listen.” Addressing youngsters is another passion. There’s an MIT lecture next month. (She calls herself a “master performer on Ayurveda and India”.)

Many know the story of how, while living in Tehran — her husband was posted in the Indian embassy there — Shahnaz developed an interest in cosmetic therapy and cosmetic artistry. “I wanted to study abroad, for which I needed money. But my husband was a government officer. The fees came equivalent to my husband’s annual pay. I started crying. He said, ‘Stop crying. You take all my salary and give me food. That’s enough, I don’t want anything more. Mere kapdey India se aa jayenge.

(Previously, before she left for Tehran, her father persuaded the Mother Superior at Shahnaz’s school to allow her to sit for the Senior Cambridge exams even when she was only 14 years old and had to jump four grades. That remained her only academic qualification.)

A chance meeting with the British wife of a local Iranian in Tehran, who wanted to start the English version of the Iran Tribune aimed at expat readers, provided her the means to fund her education in the field — writing.

“She told me I could write one article a week in the Iran Tribune on any aspect of beauty I wanted. In short, in two years, cover-to-cover there were 20 articles by me, under ‘Shahnaz Husain’, ‘anonymous’... They were only designing the cover. The wanted politics, I gave them politics; they wanted jokes, I gave them jokes; they wanted funny articles, they got it; they wanted short stories, I gave them the story of Jenny the dog who got lost and came back. I was minting money. It was so strange. At one time I had no money to pay my fees. Now I had so much I couldn’t handle it. My husband told me, ‘The government will ask me where the money’s coming from. I’m a government officer. You’re not liable to explain, but I am.’”

Her education now — in U.K., France, Denmark and Germany — now adequately funded and complete, a few years later she returned to India.

Setting her sights on a house in Westend in New Delhi, she asked her father to lend her Rs. 35,000. He did, but the same night she got robbed. A delay in procuring the amount again meant the Westend location was gone, and Shahnaz had to ask her landowner in GK to let her open a salon there. “The road you came by today? That wasn’t there. I remembered a lecture in London by an Englishman; the daily lectures were for an hour each, his was for two minutes. I thought, ‘Two minutes mein kya sikhayengey?’ He said, ‘Even if you start in a desert, if you’re good the clients will be there.’ That suited me now — penniless.”

Things took off, aided by a sharp business acumen. “We just put a board outside. I didn’t know how to explain myself. I was into treatment and cures, not in beauty. Even today the Press calls me beautician Shahnaz. I’m not. I do treatments and cures with plants and flowers and herbs. That’s my specialisation. I thought nobody knew who I am or what I was doing, so I decided to give a ‘coffee party’. I sent invites to all media houses. I was opening the first natural, organic treatment centre in Ayurveda. Ayurveda they understood, but nobody at that time had any idea what organic was. Those days chemicals were in — ‘Sahib Singh hair dye’ and everything. For them Ayurveda was haldi and gulab and chandan; there was no concept of an Ayurvedic cream.”

She recalls, “When I came to India, Ramma Bans was doing six facials for Rs. 36 . A Rs. 6discount on that. You know what I did? My first facial started off with Rs.1,000 . Twelve facials? Rs.12,000 , no discount. Full head to foot? Rs. 5,000… People were flying from Mumbai. Everybody used to behave quite professionally. Nine O’clock Nargis, 10 O’clock Nutan, 11 O’clock Tanuja. Those days I didn’t have factories; I was making products in the verandah of my house.”

Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, played mentor. The ‘Festival of India’ was to begin at Selfridges in London in 1980, and Mrs. Gandhi persuaded her to take part — three weeks before the event. Shahnaz recalls, “I told her, ‘Humhari to koi baat hi nahin sunega.’ She said, ‘Humari toh sunega.’ I told her it would be difficult, that all the space would be already occupied. ‘Jagah bana dengey,’ she told me. I had hardly reached the first traffic light when I got a call telling me I was going to London.”

There rose another problem. “I couldn’t take plastic containers to London! Their packaging is so advanced, the jars like little visions. Thirty years ago we really weren’t so great in plastic.” Khurja pottery came to the rescue, in cartons on hand block prints and gold dust, with lachkas from Lajpat Nagar. “It was so beautiful,” she smiles.

“The second time I went there, Elizabeth Taylor came on crutches, Michael Jackson came. Next year Princess Grace came — she took 12 jars of cactus cleansing cream.” She tells you how for 10 years before that she didn’t retail in London; instead just travelling there, holding press conferences, talking to people and returning. It’s this relationship with the press that she’s harnessed over the years — getting others to talk about her work instead of advertising.

It’s time for the photo shoot, and she tells you she needs to change. Fashion’s a big love too. Pointing out to the faux leather gold cuffs on her tunic, she informs you, “This was a handbag that I cut. This chappal was very horrible black cloth. I covered it with fabric… You know, Pierre Cardin once asked me to work with him on a fashion line.”

There could be a book in the pipeline too — “One Life is Not Enough”.

When she almost stayed back in Iran…

When I was in Tehran I was offered a job by the palace, to head the national beauty centre there. And they told me I’d get one ticket to go to India every month. I wrote to my father. “I have very good news for you. I’ll settle down here and visit you once every four weeks… The only thing is I have to take up Iranian nationality.” I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it.

He wrote back, “Dear Shahnaz, read your letter with great pain and concern and worry. I think the glamour, the gold and the excitement of the West have made you blind. As far as your Indian values are concerned, you’re born in India, you’re born Indian, and you die Indian, and as far as I’m concerned my advice is you should be buried in the soil of India. Your unfortunate father.”

I cried and cried. The moment I got his letter I said, “Pack up!” I was so embarrassed when I came to India — I didn’t see him for a month.

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