– A problematic dose of Ayurveda, Nationalism, and returning patriarchal control of Indian Beauty standards

Much has been written about how gender dynamics in India are in the middle of a cataclysmic shift. While the idea of ‘stree shakti’ (female power) has long existed within Indian society, it carries with it a static, virtuous image of a woman living within traditional social roles (as a mother, as a daughter, a wife). This has been used to legitimize development campaigns around reproductive health and the like. But, more recently, in response to cases of ­violence and inequality against women, there has been a social reassessment of a women’s needs in relation to her present role in society and society’s treatment of her. There are more facets to a woman’s identity now than a mother and wife – she is a colleague, a commuter in public transport, and much more.

Since then, this conversation has played out widely in popular culture. Several TV serials and movies highlighting a female point of view and brands voicing this sentiment - encouraging men to #sharetheload, #respectwomen and more… The new improved ‘stree shakti’ narrative has become a hegemonic, moral discourse that none can fault – thereby becoming particularly difficult for traditional patriarchal systems to challenge.

Conversations with women across both urban settings and women in less developed tier two and three towns reveal that whatever their context, women desire (and often feel the pressure) to participate in this modern discourse and take steps (either haltingly or in more adventurous ways) to do so. Some of their experiments and failures have been beautifully pictured in the recent film, Lipstick Under My Burkha.

With social permission easing up, women are now able to step out of traditional expectations with a little more ease, but are always conscious of not taking a step too far. She wants to be modern, but rooted and Indian at the same time –without having to make a choice. The men in her world are on the sidelines, temporarily disempowered while she takes a step out into the sun.

The Beauty and Personal Care category in India today sits at intersection of all these ideas.

Skin care and beauty products with a Natural and Ayurvedic positioning conveniently help resolve the modernity vs. tradition tension for many Indian women. Naturals and Ayurvedic skin care is now a developed sub-category with players across the price spectrum and branding - from Forest Essentials, Kama, Bipha Ayurveda, Garnier Ultra blends, Patanjali, Himalaya and more. These brands neatly package the ideas of grandmother’s wisdom, heritage, purity, safety and efficacy in a bottle.

Hindustan Unilever’s (HUL) new Ayurvedic brand, ‘Lever’s Ayush’ is the latest entrant into this space. As a business move, it’s a clear way to combat the rise of Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali brand. While all brands need to cleverly tap into contemporary cultural narratives to resonate, Lever’s Ayush subtly brings back the voice of patriarchy masked by symbols of ‘Indianness' and heritage – all at a time in India when women are just beginning to feel the weight of traditional expectations easing slightly.

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With statements that incite patriotic pride, (“foreigners are tapping into Indian heritage and Ayurveda”, “the wisdom of the ancients”, “our 5000-year heritage”, etc.), the brand quickly taps into the ebullient contemporary nationalist sentiment. A strategy that has worked for Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali, but feels a bit forced for a global FMCG conglomerate’s new brand – despite calling it ‘Levers’ Ayush’ (as the company was previously called rather than Hindustan Unilever, the Indian arm of the company).

More questionably, the brand uses a generic ‘baba’ (godman) to introduce the product as a panacea to the pimples and other skin care concerns that trouble her. It is this ‘baba’ (an elderly male figure clad in traditional attire) that informs the beautiful, modern, young celebrity of the power of Indian Ayurveda. He is pictured as the carrier of Indian heritage educating the young girl that has travelled too far from tradition about the purity of Ayurveda. The ‘Indianness’, and ‘pure’ credentials of Ayurveda along with the sanction of a baba clad in white and gold are used to lend credibility to Ayush brand.

Further, by bringing a baba into the mix and talking about Indian heritage, the brand seems to equate Ayurveda as part of ‘Hindu Indian’ heritage rather than make it accessible to a more secular audience. In other ads, it is Akshay Kumar (clad in orange - the colour of the right-wing Hindu nationalist brigade) who mockingly pipes at her to use the ‘Ayush’ brand of Ayurveda.

Could it be that this Baba and Akshay represent the temporarily disfranchised male patriarchal system that has for generations told Indian women who have strayed too far from their roots to tone down their expressiveness and be more ‘Indian’? (Interestingly, Akshay Kumar has also starred in movies playing the role of the protector of the downtrodden. E.g. Toilet and Johnny LLB, etc.) The brand seems to bring patriarchal control of beauty standards, as if to say, “Enough of all this modern business ladies, be more Indian instead.” It brings back a male point of view about what’s modern and Indian and what’s not.

Definitely, the rise of Patanjali has shown that there is tremendous potential in Ayurvedic products, but the use of the godman is gimmicky at best – notwithstanding all the dubious associations he comes with. Despite what many may say, Baba Ramdev is driven by real followers acquired over years. An elderly actor in white and gold robes hardly comes close.

The Aryurvedic positioning is an accessible way for women who are expressing themselves for the first time to take baby steps into the modern world of skin care. The brand holds the potential to stand for Indianess, patriotism and embrace the positive female empowerment discourse in healthy way. But while competing directly with Patanjali, HUL chose to force the Patanjali positioning onto Ayush embracing hollow patriarchal symbols instead. It will be interesting to see how this challenger brand from an international conglomerate evolves as it tries to go after a hyperlocal competitor.

It would be refreshing to see Ayush take a modern stand on beauty standards with its Ayurvedic positioning and look beyond the baba for a new expression altogether - one that is free from all the baggage that the baba comes with…