New Delhi: Shahnaz Husain has been an icon for generations of Indians. She didn’t just create a flourishing business empire in the 1970s when most women still couldn’t step out of home, she pioneered an Ayurvedic beauty brand when no Patanjali or Forest Essentials existed. Ex-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has been her client as are thousands of ordinary women who trust her formulations. Here’s a small chit-chat with the Founder-Director of the Shahnaz Husain Group on what inspired her to take up Ayurveda and how she’s keeping her 50-year-old brand going…
At what age did you decide to get into Ayurveda; what inspired you?
I started my first herbal salon, based on Ayurveda in 1971. While I was training in London in cosmetology, I came across instances of damage caused by chemical treatments. A well-known model also lost her eyesight, after using a certain mascara. It was then that I started searching for a natural alternative. My study of Ayurveda convinced me that it could provide safe answers to beauty care. After my training in leading beauty schools of the West, I returned to India and set up my first herbal salon and adopted Ayurvedic beauty care.
You got your training in cosmetology/beauty care in Iran and Europe if I am not wrong, did any of those specialize in Ayurveda? How easy or difficult was it to locate Ayurveda institutes at that time (60s/70s)?
I trained in Beauty in leading beauty institutes in the West, like Helena Rubinstein in London, Lancome in Paris, Christine Valmy in New York, Swarzkopf in Germany and Lean of Copenhagen. I studied Ayurveda in India from ancient Ayurvedic texts translated in English. I later learnt Ayurvedic treatments from Ayurvedic physicians.
Any original (or even translated) Ayurveda texts that you read on beauty care?
I studied Ayurvedic translated texts, which contain details of thousands of plant products, minerals and other natural substances, along with their methods of collection and extraction, as well as various combinations and prescriptions. Later, I also had Ayurvedic doctors for training in Ayurvedic treatments. I combined them with latest scientific cosmetic techniques to devise products and treatments.
Your thoughts on Ayurveda, Yoga and meditation as forms of healing…
Ayurveda is the oldest and most developed system of herbal healing. It follows a holistic system, with prescribed diet, exercise (yoga) and meditation, because it views good health as total well-being of body, mind and soul. It is not only a system of healing, but a way of life. It activates the body’s natural healing processes. Although it is an ancient system, it can be adapted to any culture at any time in history. In fact, it is very relevant to the current age, in terms of counteracting stress, environment pollution, toxic build-up and other problems of modern life.
At a time when “natural healing” and “meditation” have become the buzzwords, and the Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) himself is India’s Yoga ambassador to the world, how does it feel to have been the “original Yoga ambassador of India?”
I was referred to as “India’s Beauty Ambassador” by the Washington Post of the U.S.A. I also propagated Ayurvedic beauty care and Yoga is a part of it. I do not consider myself as the Yoga ambassador. However, Prime Minister Modi has upheld India’s traditions of Yoga and Ayurveda. Due to his efforts, International Yoga Day is celebrated worldwide. Indeed, he is India’s Yoga Ambassador to the world.
You are a great example of how a woman, in spite of the rules and regulations imposed by society, can achieve so much and become a brand unto herself…what challenges did you face during your journey, work-wise & personally?
The Shahnaz Husain brand has been built up in a very personal way, right from its inception. Having adopted a totally new concept of herbal care and cures, I had to increase awareness of the healing powers of herbs and the dangers of chemical and synthetic ingredients. I did this by contributing articles in leading newspapers and magazines. I had to overcome social and economic hurdles. It was a time when women were just stepping out of their homes into the career world. I borrowed Rs. 35,000/- from my father to start my first herbal salon in a small way. It was my family’s support and understanding that helped me to overcome barriers and realize my dreams. Entering the international market was the biggest challenge. India was not even represented at that time, but I attended International Beauty Congresses on my own steam, speaking on Ayurveda and trying to popularize Ayurvedic beauty care. I participated in the Festival of India in London in 1980 and was given a counter in the Perfumery Section at Selfridges. With international cosmetic empires pumping billions of dollars into a hysterically mad cosmetic industry, selling youth & dreams in bottled jars, there I stood up and sold India’s ancient civilization in a jar. It was not easy. To everyone’s surprise, the entire consignment sold out in 3 days, breaking the store’s existing cosmetic sales records. It resulted in a permanent counter at the London store. From there, we moved on to Harrods in London, Galeries Lafayette in Paris, the Seibu chain in Japan, La Rinascente in Milan and El Certe Inglis in Spain. The Shahnaz Husain Group has experienced the increasing demand for Indian Ayurvedic products across the globe.
What advice would you like to give to the Indian woman of today?
Woman empowerment is the need of the hour. Very early in my career, I started encouraging women to become financially independent. To me, woman empowerment means financial independence and self-reliance, because they open the door to career opportunities, including entrepreneurship. Indeed, woman empowerment is the key to building a secure future. Empowered women can follow their dreams and be a force to reckon with.
You were once the only player in the “Ayurvedic beauty care” sector; now that there are so many others, how are you reinventing and pushing your brand?
It is true that I am the pioneer of Ayurvedic beauty care, which has driven the growth of the beauty business in India. The Shahnaz Husain brand name has established unquestioned and unwavering brand loyalty. It has been able to keep the trust and faith of the consumer. The Group has always had its finger on the pulse of market demands. Its commitment to research and development, as well as the launch of highly innovative formulations from time to time, are some of the reasons why the brand has developed so strongly. Our franchise system has helped us establish a global network of salons and retail outlets.
Any aspects of Shahnaz Husain that the world is not aware of?
I wanted to make a positive contribution towards empowering the less privileged and physically challenged. So, I started free beauty training courses for the speech, hearing and visually impaired, as well as for acid attack survivors, to make them financially independent and self-reliant. I have written a book on beauty, which has been put into Braille for the visually impaired. We have also contributed to Government Skill Development projects by training and certifying over 40,000 under-privileged women. I also formulated the Chemoline Range for cancer patients, based on Ayurveda, to alleviate the effects of chemotherapy and radiation on the skin and hair. The products are given free of cost to cancer hospitals in India and abroad.
Any new work-related projects or personal hobbies that are keeping you busy these days?
We have launched our Germ Fight Series to offer protection from the pandemic. The advanced formulations contain natural disinfectants and germicides, along with emollient and organic ingredients that moisturize, nourish and protect the skin. We have introduced products for personal use like Hand Wash, Soap, Face Wash, Hand Moisturizer, Hand Cream and Chyawanprash. More products are ready to be introduced. I love poetry and Keats is my favourite. I also write poetry and express my innermost feelings in verse. I love to paint too and my regret is that my demanding career does not allow me to indulge in my favourite pastimes.