Of Afghan Snow, Kabul street dancers and fabled Kabuliwalas once upon a time!

For India and Indians, one of the most enduring Afghan connections that developed, rather accidentally, was in the form of “Afghan Snow”, the first beauty crème, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor 

Mahendra Ved Sep 02, 2021
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Afghan Snow crème, Kabuliwala film

The young today would have no idea and the old would have only hazy memories, if at all, of happier times in Afghanistan, torn by conflict for the last four decades.

Although a monarchy and deeply conservative society, Afghanistan was a modern state where women studied and worked freely. It attracted tourists. University faculties had outstanding academics. Media thrived. Besides local languages, there was the readable and newsworthy Kabul Times that was founded in 1962 with a modern printing press.

A measure of democracy prevailed.  Masoud Khalili, a former Afghan ambassador to India, recalled that in 1965, an election campaign would take place on Radio Kabul on which various party candidates canvassed.

Except for the last decade of the last century, Bollywood was popular with the Afghans, who traveled to and from India for education, medical treatment and business. The disruption of the decade was when the Mujahideen ruled, to be thwarted by the Taliban. Post-2002, it was common to see all Kabul theatres running Hindi films. Amitabh Bachchan was wildly popular after he starred in Khuda Gawah, shot on Afghan locales.

Business was easy. Exports to India, for instance, included dry fruits and asafoetida (hing). Among those who traded in that commodity was the father of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  

Came the Kabuliwalas

The ‘Kabuliwala” (the vendors from Kabul), immortalized in a story by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore that was later made into a much-watched Bengali film, was a familiar figure in many Indian cities. He sold among other things, dry fruits. For Indians, Afghanistan and dry fruits were synonymous. A significant break came in the late 1980s when then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, unwilling to import California almonds because they were not a priority item amidst hard currency crunch, was pressurized by US President Ronald Regan. Almond exporters wanted Reagan, a former California governor, to sanction India for Gandhi’s refusal.  

Peace has eluded the Afghans since the monarch, King Zahir Shah, was overthrown in 1973. The intervening period has seen squabbling communists, the Soviet invasion in 1979 and a civil war during the brief years of mujahideen rule that paved the way for the Taliban. Removed from power after the United States-led invasion in 2001, after nearly two decades, they were back in power last month.

Widespread fear is that this spells the end of democracy, restrictions on women’s movement and girls’ education, and return of some, if not all, of political, social and religious curbs. This makes a hark back to the last century’s better times special.   

An old issue of The Atlantic (July 2, 2013) carries an article by Alan Taylor with several black and white photographs. The caption of one of them reads: “Dancers perform in street of Kabul, Afghanistan, December 9, 1959 following President Eisenhower's arrival from Karachi. After a five hour stay in Kabul, Ike flew on to New Delhi.”

Taylor writes: “Fractured by internal conflict and foreign intervention for centuries, Afghanistan made several tentative steps toward modernization in the mid-20th century. In the 1950s and 1960s, some of the biggest strides were made toward a more liberal and westernized lifestyle, while trying to maintain respect for more conservative factions.

“Though officially a neutral nation, Afghanistan was courted and influenced by the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War, accepting Soviet machinery and weapons, and U.S. financial aid. This time was a brief, relatively peaceful era, when modern buildings were constructed in Kabul alongside older traditional mud structures, when burqas became optional for a time and the country appeared to be on a path toward a more open, prosperous society. Progress was halted in the 1970s, as a series of bloody coups, invasions, and civil wars began, continuing to this day, reversing almost all of the steps toward modernization in the 1950s.”

Afghan Snow 

For India and Indians, one of the most enduring Afghan connections that developed, rather accidentally, was in the form of “Afghan Snow”, the first beauty crème. It was neither Afghan, nor snow, but had the blessings of the then Afghan monarch. Indeed, if it hadn't been for this Afghan connection, the history of Indian beauty products might have been different. , including the name of the first Indian beauty cream.

The year probably was 1919. The world was trying to recover painstakingly from the damages of World War I. The Spanish Flu that killed millions across South Asia had benumbed people. Mohammad Zaheer Shah, the last king of Afghanistan came to India. His tour itinerary included a meeting with Indian merchants in Mumbai, then Bombay.

Among those he met was a perfumer from Rajasthan called Ibrahim Patanwala. He had, as the story goes, brought a gift hamper of perfumes, hair oils, talcum powders and several other products of his company for the king. Among those was a tiny bottle of a thick, pearly white liquid without a label. The curious king asked what it was and came to know that it was the newest product of the Patanwala Perfumery which was yet to be named. He took a bit of the cream from the bottle and said that it reminded him of Afghan snow.

That struck Patanwala. He asked Zaheer Shah if he could name the cream Afghan Snow. The king agreed happily. And thus the first Indian beauty cream acquired its Afghan connection.

The bottle for Afghan Snow used to be imported from Germany and the label used to get printed in Japan, which drove the 'swadeshi' (nationalist) movement protagonists to assume that it was a foreign product, and should be boycotted. Patanwala explained its history to Mahatma Gandhi and sought his help. In a rare gesture, Gandhiji endorsed the product in newspapers, stating that it was purely Indian. The rest is history.

The bottle had a golden-colored cardboard packing which prominently had a snow-covered mountain range. The ad line was “An Ideal Day Cream”. Another one, having the same snow-clad mountain, has a pretty lady in the foreground holding a flower. The punch line: “Share Her Secret.”

Patanwala was popular for organizing balls and parties in India’s metro cities, attended by the crème de la crème of society, including stars like Nargis and Raj Kapoor. The brand also sponsored India’s first Miss India contest in 1952 in Bombay.

Generations of Indian and South Asian women have used Afghan Snow.  “The cream was endorsed by celebrities like actor Poonam Dhillon, and was extremely popular in India till the 1970s,” according to Ashraf Dalal, director of E.S. Patanwala Pvt. Ltd.

After virtually ruling the Indian beauty cream market for half a century, the product lost out to multinational corporations. Hindustan Unilever, the pioneer among the MNCs, entered with products, including “Fair and Lovely,” that caught the modern fancies. 

With 'multinational' forces in uniform out of Afghanistan, only time will tell if its people will get a ‘fair’ chance to cleanse the blood of their snow-clad mountains. 

(The writer is a veteran journalist and South Asia watcher. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at mahendraved07@gmail.com)