The Kitchen, Courtyard, and Bazaar: Meditations of “Natural” Health and Beauty

By Mobeen Hussain

Early twentieth-century vernacular literature aimed at elite and middle-class Indian women was full of contradictions in authors’ attempts to mediate conflicting colonial modernities in the pursuit of personal care, beauty, and health. During the interwar period, middle-class consumers could choose from a barrage of foreign and local products, albeit on tight budgets and alongside concerns of domestic economy (as espoused by social reformers). In domestic literature as well as advertising, the use of bazaar-bought branded products and homemade chemical concoctions were proffered as desirable resources and products, but also revealed the potential for dangerous artifice and excess. In these same domestic manuals and women’s periodicals, a plethora of methods were identified for natural beatification and aesthetic health including exercise, diet, and domestic remedies which were perceived as “natural” by virtue of being homemade. However, these concoctions, from cold and toning creams to soap, involved purchasing chemicals and ingredients not usually found in the Indian kitchen.

Vernacular texts simultaneously elaborated on the superiority of indigenous systems and practices, including Ayurvedic (Vedic-based medical system) and Unani Tibb (of Greco-Arabic origins) recipes and prescriptions (or nukshas), reviving and adapting these older practices by including select chemicals and Western concoctions. In Hifz-i-Sihhat (Preservation of Health), an Urdu-language manual written by the Begam of Bhopal Sultan Jahan and published in 1916, the chosen format for nukshas was to print English chemical names in brackets and offer an Urdu transliteration.[i] In other manuals, too, English functioned as a corroboration for the superior nature of chemicals, construing them as scientific. In a 1944 Bengali-language Narir Rupa-Sadhana o Vyayama (The Pursuit of Beauty and Physical Exercise for Women), for instance, author Latika Basu shared technical recipes containing numerous chemicals such as hydragyri cholor corrosive, ammoni chloridi purificati, and mist arneygdalae amar.  Basu embraced the bazaar alongside chemicals purchased from dispensaries and cooked up in the kitchen and courtyard of the Indian home as connected epistemological spaces in which to attain ideal beauty and health.[ii]

Cover of Ismat magazine (New Delhi), reproduced with the permission of the Endangered Archive Programme, EAP566/1/2/6, British Library.

Ready-made and branded products also came with their own contentions. Susie Sorabji, writing for the Madras-based The Indian Ladies Magazine (1901-1938), criticised the use of “paint and powder,” by arguing that English products were incompatible with the Indian locale and environment, reminiscent of nineteenth-century evaluations of western medicine in India.[iii] Instead, she advised that women should “keep the hair, that glory of a woman, intact, and dress as simply as possible.”[iv] This advice departed from that of the Urdu-language Ismat magazine (1908-1993), in which a housekeeping/house management column called Khaanadari, comprising nukshas, domestic notes, and sections on health and comportment, first appeared in 1932. The author, Mohammad Zafar, offered advice for bodily beauty including exercise, nutritional advice, seasonal adornment, tips for soap and cosmetic use, and step-by-step guides for maintaining “rang aur roop” [colour and glow].[v] Zafar’s approach, in contrast to Sorabji’s, focused on the careful selection and use of products— adornment was a delicate thing [singaari ek nazuk cheez hai] and “cosmetic goods needed to be selected with caution.”[vi] The Khaanadari column also routinely offered advice on altering skin colour, coded as making skin colour [rang] beautiful [khoobsurat], correcting the colour that was pale [zard]— read unhealthy and sickly—or purchasing prepared “rang cream” from shops.[vii]

A decade later, by the late 1940s, Zafar’s position moved closer to Sorabji’s. In a 1948 column (now published from Karachi in the newly-formed Pakistan), he delineated a difference between khoobsurati and husn (both broadly mean beautiful). He prioritised the cultivation of khoobsurati, as general beauty that encompassed inner beauty (“one always has it”) and health, over the pursuit of husn, a beauty that garnered praise, attraction, and “affects another person”.[viii] He also claimed that adornment had become a sort of purdah (female segregation) or niqab (a garment that covered the body and face), warning that bad cosmetics could ruin your face.[ix] The purdah analogy revealed Zafar’s anxiety that cosmetics were being used as superficial masks rather than as resources in the cultivation of natural beauty: a template for ideal modern middle-class womanhood. Yet, despite this late rejection of cosmetics and overt beautification, most popular literature of the late colonial period drew on and adapted intergenerational oral cultures and substances, naturalised chemicals through “cooking” them at home, and borrowed from multiple repositories of transnationally-circulated printed methodologies to transform homemade chemical concoctions into natural, authentic, trustworthy products.



[i] Sultan Jahan Begam of Bhopal, Hifz-i-Sihhat (Bhopal: Sultania Press, 1916).

[ii] Latika Basu, Narir Rupa-Sadhana o Vyayama, (Calcutta: Kailaschandra Acharya, 1944)/

[iii] See Seema Alavi, Islam and Healing: Loss and Recovery of an Indo-Muslim Medical Tradition, 1600-1900(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p.237.

[iv] Sister Susie, “Our Fashion Suggestions,” The Indian Ladies Magazine (Madras), Vol.2 No.8 March 1929, p.436.

[v] Mohammad Zafar, “Khanadaari”, Ismat (New Delhi), Vol.54 No.4 Apr 1935, pp.313-14.

[vi] Ibid., Vol. 59 No. 2, July 1937, 185-187, p.187.

[vii] Ibid., Vol. 81 No.5 Nov 1948, p.249; Ibid., Vol. 61 No.2 Aug 1938, p.181.

[viii] Ibid., Vol. 81 No.2 Aug 1948 p.105.

[ix] Ibid.


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