Life & Style

Wash with care

An old picture of Chellam Soap Showroom   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Remember Bengaluru’s infamously frothing Bellandur Lake or how detergent waste choked Yamuna in Delhi? These incidents have not really taught us that soaps, detergent powders and liquids are not the same. What we do understand is the products serve the same purpose – they clean our clothes.

Given the modern choices in the laundry aisle, synthetic cleaners promising quick wash, more volume, fragrance and what not tend to tempt us. And we make the mistake of ignoring the harmful substances in them -- like surfactants, bleaches and brighteners, alkalis and enzymes – that wreak a slow and silent havoc on the environment and even on our skin.

One man in Madurai thought about it way back in 1938 and pioneered eco-friendly washing and cleaning products under his name -- V S Chellam. The simple laundry soaps that he handcrafted in his small factory contained second grade edible coconut and ground nut oil and a little filler. They came in long bars weighing 500 gm or one kg and monopolised the markets in South India, especially Tamil Nadu and Kerala till the 1970s.

Apart from a small retail shop on Amman Sannathi, Chellam offered home delivery within the town using the services of 20 delivery boys who carried the products in tin boxes fixed on the rear seat of their bicycles – like the motorcycle food delivery boxes today! Another half-a-dozen old military tempos bought on auction wheeled out supply to neighbouring districts and States. People would gate crash the VSC stalls at Tamukkam Grounds during the Chithirai festival. Rajesh Kanna, Chellam’s grandson, remembers stories about Morarji Desai stopping by to buy the laundry soap during his visit to Madurai in 1978.

The soap’s popularity and utility is still remembered by many old timers. Even lyricist Vairamuthu mentions in KallikkattuIthikasam that he associates the brand with his mother who asked him to wash his clothes with the soap by the river bed at his native place near Theni.

Following the historical shortage of edible oils, the laundry soap business dipped and phosphate-induced detergents took over the market. The rest is history. Banned in many countries, phosphates are still used in our country to soften hard water and enhance the cleaning ability of the detergent, thereby contaminating water bodies.

It was at the turn of the century that Kanna decided to prop up his grandfather’s products again. “With increasing pollution, less rains and water shortage, I felt it was time to cajole people to switch to green cleaning products,” he says. The Chellam brand, best associated with biodegradable laundry soap, continued its production and the products moved again, albeit slowly.

“But old timers came back to us appreciating the quality of our soap," he says. “Our customers are our ambassadors as they give us positive feedback."

This January Kanna launched ‘Soap Shop’ on Kamarajar Salai with a basket of careful choices and eco-friendly green surfactants. An exclusive showroom for herbal washing soaps and liquids, it has brought back to the shelves chemical-free competitive products priced between Rs.11 and Rs.60.

Sophia Parveen, resident of Pudur, who picks up a carton full of 450 gm bars, says as a child she had seen her mother wash clothes at home with Chellam laundry soap and now she is here with her mother-in-law to buy the same. “I am sending them to my relatives in Saudi Arabia too,” she says.

To keep up with modern times, Kanna has re-introduced the vegetable oil containing laundry soap not only as a bar but also as soap cakes, flakes and in liquid form. He has mechanised operations to augment production and added variants like medicated soap for washing infant clothes and express wash soap for difficult stains. Customers are rewarded with ‘no-carry bag’ discounts and he is also promoting the ‘reuse concept’ to avoid packaging material that adds to garbage later. The liquid washes are also sold in five litre bottles and 25 litre cans which people can refill as they do with drinking water cans.

While selling his products, Kanna also talks to his customers about rain water harvesting. “If people use stored rain water to wash the clothes with eco friendly cleaners, then the discharged grey water can go from laundry to landscape,” he says. In his own way, he is contributing to saving the environment.

For more information on VSC soaps, visit

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 8:46:25 PM |

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