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Show and Tell: The Promise of Ayurveda
A fortnightly newsletter that breaks down the visual construction of imagery.
First, I know this newsletter has come out on Thursdays in the past, but I’m playing around with the date of release a little. Not just because it wasn’t finished on Thursday, (too many sweets for Diwali made me sluggish) but also because I’m wondering if it’s more of a weekend read. I think I need to amend the subheading above to say “roughly fortnightly” till I settle into a definite posting schedule.
In the late 1800s, the average Indian only lived for 25 years. By 2018, life expectancy at birth had risen to 69 years. Now, this is a slightly more complicated idea than the data alone suggests. The statistic is weighted by the fact that many children died very young in the past, lowering overall life expectancy. India has long struggled with high infant and child mortality. If a person got past the age of 10 even in the 1800s, they could conceive of living till their sixties or seventies. As of 2018, far fewer children were dying – although still unacceptably many – so more survived into their sixties.
Still, it is no coincidence that the usual Indian blessing is “sau saal jio” or “ayushman bhava”. A long life was desirable, not inevitable, even if you survived childhood. Ayurveda stems from this, because it literally translates to the knowledge of longevity. Its promise was to prolong life, and it likely did. Sushruta Samhita was one of the earliest treatises on surgery, Charaka Samhita on medicine. Indian physicians codified a great deal of knowledge, and possibly made significant advances in the field of medicine in the early Vedic period, for the time.
Some present claimants of the Vedic civilisation do have a tendency to rest heavily on past laurels, though, and to refuse to admit that any advances of the last 2,000 years are comparable. If one were to believe their WhatsApp forwards, the ancients flew planes, understood quantum mechanics, and performed advanced surgeries. It’s really all just been downhill since, but one’s life is best spent in a futile attempt to recapture that Golden Age.
Ayurveda as branding
In the past few decades, there have been several companies capitalising on this veneration of the old. The first one that comes to mind is Vicco Turmeric. Do you hear the jingle in your head too, the moment you read the name?
That was a brilliant campaign for sheer recall power. Also maybe it was one of the few ads that ran ad nauseum on Doordarshan at the time. But its most telling words to me are “nahi cosmetic”. They tell you that the cream isn’t superficial: it doesn’t just improve your appearance, because that would be frightfully shallow. Its promise was deeper, and linked to vague Ayurvedic properties. Those “healing” powers were a bit of a red herring. No one was buying Vicco turmeric to slather on burns. You were buying it to become fair – or euphemistically, to “glow”. That it didn’t actually make you fairer was quite beside the point. You believed it did, and that was enough.
The packaging worked in favour of that reading too. It came in a tube like an ointment, not in a pot like cold cream. Those eye-searing orange and yellow colours seemed to reiterate the point that this cream definitely wasn’t cosmetic. It didn’t care about its appearance.
I bought it too, back when I was a teenager and my mother frowned upon make-up. It broke me out godawfully.
The ad touts the international recognition such Ayurvedic remedies as turmeric and sandalwood were beginning to receive. This is a recurring theme in many of the following ads as well: the tacit or overt endorsement of white people. Their recognition of the wisdom of our ancients is something a certain kind of Indian still longs for.
In more modern times, there has been a proliferation of companies that capitalise on these ideas. Unilever made an unembarrassed grab for a piece of the market with their “Lever Ayush” which resulted in this ad which makes me chuckle for its sheer bizarreness. Of course it stars Akshay Kumar, who appears in a poof of incense any time a marketer repeats the phrase “majoritarian appeal” thrice.
There are several other examples, from the confusingly lustful…
… to the high-end “luxurious Ayurveda”.
In several of these products, you can see the carryover of the Vicco Turmeric strategy: the packaging is not the sort you would see in expensive cosmetics: no glass or thick plastics. Creams still come in tubes quite often, like ointments. Words and phrases like “herbal”, “natural”, “pure” and “ancient wisdom” are repeated. The colours and styles are bright and high-contrast, and the fonts recall Sanskrit.
When belief gets twisted
If it were just beauty and topical applications, that would be one thing. But Ayurveda has been used to market not only products that prolong youth, but those that purport to prolong life itself. This is where it gets dangerous.
Patanjali, for instance, straddles both kinds of Ayurveda: products that make you beautiful and ones that give you health. The marketing really leans into Baba Ramdev’s own personal brand, and maintains a low price point. The packaging is heavy on plastic, Hindi lettering and clashing colours.
The dangers of taking herbal supplements have been flagged for years. While most are harmless and might even have a placebo effect, some contain toxins like lead and arsenic in unacceptably high proportions.
This year, with a global pandemic spreading, hospitals overflowing, and no relief in sight, people have been quick to believe in Ayurveda. Patanjali came up with Coronil, calling it a cure for the virus. They marketed it as clinically tested till widespread outrage made them stop. Other “immunity boosting” supplements contain quinine that when taken regularly could cause kidney damage.
The worst offender is the government itself, with the AYUSH ministry recommending a treatment protocol not backed by any credible studies, as documented by a recent Indiaspend report.
How to be well?
Wellness was originally defined as the opposite of illness. The term acquired currency in America in the 1970s, and has come to mean a person achieving a state of physical and mental well-being as a product of their individual efforts. Here, the word “individual” is key: a person’s well-being was their own responsibility. Never mind the gruelling working hours and long commutes necessary to earn the means of survival, or the increasing pollution of earth, water and air, or the gradual shrinking of social security and community support. Your health was in your own hands, goddammit, and if you tried hard enough and bought this moon dust, you too could be well.
In India, the circumstances are both similar and more dire. People live in overcrowded cities with poor air, tainted water and cramped space, in order to earn a livelihood. Government healthcare is underfunded, overstretched, and frequently downright cruel. Private healthcare is crushingly expensive. Sickness pushes millions of people below the poverty line each year. So why wouldn’t people buy the herbal supplements that promise them health and longevity? Why wouldn’t you desperately want to believe that a plant can cure cancer and that if you rub that oil into your joints for long enough, your arthritis would go away? After all, 5,000 years of wisdom must be worth something. It can’t just all be… cosmetic.
The belief in miracles
"Beliefs are remarkably resilient in the face of empirical challenges that seem logically devastating"- Lee Ross, Craig A. Anderson
We are susceptible to a range of cognitive biases that marketers are only too aware of. Given the social conditions in our country, belief perseverance is especially strong. It is indeed considered virtuous to persist in a belief, long after it has been debunked, because “science doesn’t know everything”.
We have been primed to trust the ancients as all-knowing. To question them is well-nigh sacrilege, and those who do are patronised or reviled. And thus we are primed to fall for marketing that exploits our beliefs. All the advertiser need do is invoke 5,000 years of tradition channeled through men in beards with authoritative voices.
So they sell us the creams that will make us fairer, the pills that will make us stronger, the powders that will give us happiness, and the tonics that will take away our pain. But what they sell us really is the hope that if we believe hard enough, we too can be well.
Links I read that I thought you might like too:
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Even as formal trade slows, the globalisation of taste is rampant.
Body confidence is temperamental.
Harry Styles is achingly beautiful.
How Diana wore her emotions not just on, but as her sleeves.
Show and Tell is a newsletter that breaks down the visual construction of imagery. It comes out every fortnight. If you like it, do subscribe, so it can show up in your inbox?
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