Lakme

An interesting account of its history.....
Many years ago, in fact it was some 123 years ago that the name Lakme rose into prominence. Well, all of you will agree that the native version, the name of Goddess Lakshmi was prevalent centuries before that. But Lakme was brought to print and western minds during the late 19th century. It was the name of an opera composed by the French composer Léo Delibes in 1881 based on a story ‘Les babouches du Brahmane,' by Theodore Pavie. But in the modern Indian mind, Lakme has always been associated with a line of pioneering beauty products and fashion shows from the house of Tata.
Nevertheless, let us first take a look at how the French play was written and what it was about. If you recall, sometime back I had written about Mata Hari and how she performed her oriental Indo –Balinese dances to titillate the public some years after. Well, she saw the business sense in all that and working on the mysteries of the orient to her benefit. But this was perhaps the dance opera which showed Mata Hari the potential of yet another kind of Asian spice in the West. The play Lakme as it turns out, included an array of characters, most specifically Lakmé, the daughter of a Brahmin priest Nilakanta living in a temple situated in the Bengal sunderbans. It went onto become a very popular opera and was played over a 1000 times in Paris during the years 1883-1931. And it continues to be played even today in various theatres. Of course it also included a retinue of western characters, especially British officers enamored by the mystery and allure of native traditions and the magnetic lure of forbidden love.
The story of how the play got conceived by Delibes in the first place, is equally interesting and for that you have to study Thordore Pavie and how he got to writing the book on which the play is based. This gent was an Orientalist and deeply involved in the study of foreign languages. During the period between 1835 and 1839, Pavie pursued Sanskrit under Eugene Bournouf in Paris. In 1839 he found an opportunity to travel India accompanying a British Chief Engineer on an inspection tour of Calcutta. That was how Pavie spent two years in India drawing, taking notes, and collecting stories. After going back, he published several of these stories a decade later titled ‘Scenes et recits despays d'outre-mer’. Many of the characters of the play Lakme come out of these tales. Philippe Gille, who was reworking the script for the new show to open in Angers after its successful reception in Paris met up with Delibes and that was when Delibes asked Gille the origin of Lakme. Gille told him that the idea arose after perusing "Les babouches du Brahmane," a story taken from a book whose author was apparently a man named Pavie. Alarmed that they had never sought permission from the author, the playwright rushed to meet him and well, as the story goes - complimentary tickets were the only royalties ever paid to Theodore Pavie, whose work had been the inspiration for the successful opera.
And that was how Lakshmi became Lakme and ended up in France, but ironically, the character in Pavie’s book was named Rukmini!! And so, the wife of lord Krishna remained in India while Lakme, the queen of wealth, went to France.
But how did Lakme find its way back to India from France? 
As the popular story line goes - In the first flush of independence, Nehru had written to JRD Tata of his concern over the loss of valuable foreign exchange due to the import of perfumes and cosmetics. He urged the industrialist to explore manufacturing these products in India. Naturally, then Tata
executives turned to France, as it was renowned for its perfumeries. Naval Tata was given the job of developing a division of TOMCO (Tata Oil Mills) that would produce perfumes and cosmetics. But what would they call this division? At that time, there was an opera playing in Paris, which had an Indian theme and in which the Goddess Lakshmi’s name was invoked. Someone who had seen the play suggested Lakme — the French pronunciation for Lakshmi, so the company was named Lakme, as a tribute to Goddess Lakshmi!

So it seemed, but a slightly deeper study suggests that the name was arrived at after great deliberation at the Tata Sons offices at Fort Bombay. In fact, other versions also exist about there being a popular cabaret dancer from India names Lakshmi in Paris and her anglicized name Lakme came to being imaginatively used by Simone Tata for the cosmetics line, which remains to this day, one of India’s most trusted brands.
But the real storyline is not exactly as popularly stated, though pretty close. That story is as interesting as is the person who was at Lakme’s helm from the very start, none other than Simone Tata, the wife of the ‘other Tata’ – Naval Tata. French by birth and of Swiss upbringing, she is even today considered to be the Cosmetic Czarina of India. Brought up in Geneva, Simone graduated in Arts from the Geneva University. As is oft mentioned, she was fond of travelling, and came to India as a tourist in 1953, where she met her future husband, Naval H. Tata. They were married in 1955 and she settled down in Bombay.
How she came to control the cosmetic line making powders, compacts, lipsticks, creams and all that which go on to hide the many blemishes and highlight the lovely features of an Indian lady, is the story worthy of attention. It tells us about the times and the way India struggled after independence to create its own identity. In fact it was as heady as it was turbulent for the new bureaucrats and its inhabitants. With numerous hurdles to cross, not knowing friends from foes in the geopolitical scene, enmeshed in the grip of poverty, but seen as a major player in the world stage, the young India carefully took the first steps led by Jawaharlal Nehru. Today a lot of people find fault with him and Krishna Menon about why they did not ensure the wellbeing of the Indian army and why it was never equipped and trained. But what they do not know, arguing vehemently in the aftermath of the Chinese debacle, is that fluid money was not something India possessed in required quantities then. The tax revenue system hardly existed and the government as well as big Industries struggled to make ends meet.
Lakme was born during such a period. It was also a period when high society obtained its beautification products by import from the West. Lakshmi or the goddess of wealth was most certainly not smiling on her own country in those days and in jest one could remark - perhaps because she was in France!
As the story continues, Indira Gandhi, Vijayalakshi Pandit and Padmaja Naidu rose up in arms representing womenfolk and decided to ask the government what they planned to do with the increasing demand for cosmetics which had until then been imported and were now in the banned list. An angry delegation led by Indira Gandhi was finally met by Nehru’s PA, MO Mathai who was asked why these things could not be made in India, if imports were banned. (Mathai’s recounting of the story is quite hilarious as to how Indira stopped talking to him for a week when he questioned her about the percentage of affected Indian women. According to him, they then waylaid Nehru himself! Not to stop there their offices were flooded with telegrams from irate women lambasting the Finance minister . Finally MO Mathai was spurred into action and contacted Naroji) MO Mathai got in touch with NAD Naroji (then local director for Tata’s in Delhi) of the Tata’s (Even though the Tata’s themselves were not in good favor with the socialist leaning government and the Industrial policy resolution of 1956 was not auguring well with the industrialist), got Nehru’s approval (and a prime ministerial carte blanche to get the project up and running without any bottlenecks) and that was how Lakme was created by the Tata’s with some French collaboration and a government nod and support.
And now the storyline takes a steep dive down India, to the Southern city of Cochin where Tata’s had previously started TOMCO or Tata Oil Mills Co at Tatapuram. JRD’s friend Padshah had met an American named Thompson who was pressing copra for oil in the Philippines and that was how the idea of an oil plant in India was born. He explained to Padshshah that the US needed the coconut oil and that it made great business sense. But the Americans had in the meantime invested heavily on coconut plantations in the Philippines and to protect this investment levied huge import duties on coconut oil from India. As it looks, Thomson in the meantime became TOMCO’s advisor and misspent the huge capital invested by the Tata’s in buying machinery and things like boats and boathouses for himself. He took the Tata’s on a right royal ride, till they saw light and fired him. But Tomco was a reality and quickly diversified into making ancillary products using oil, like soap (Soap John or PT John was the man behind this). Competition with the British manufacturer Lever’s was stiff though the market stabilized however after a price cut attempt by Lever’s failed. Tata’s 501 and Hamam became popular.
But what has TOMCO of Cochin got to do with the fragrant Lakme? Lakme eventually started as a 100% subsidiary of Tata Oil Mills (Tomco) which was part of the Tata Group. Later, Tata Oil Mills decided they needed a Managing Director for Lakme.
Simone on the other hand, had left war-torn Europe and it was in India that she found peace and her future life partner. Was she meant to play the role of the society wife of a well-heeled businessman? Well, as matters turned out, she was contacted by a director at Tata sons and asked if she could join the board of Lakme after it was formed. She was told that it was a small time job, a couple of hours of work every three months. Not long after she realized that it was much more, when she found it a demanding job, though it was an unpaid one, for Lakme had no money to pay a salary. Interestingly when the MD post of TOMCO was offered to Simone, Naval was the first to say No! No!, and Simone questioned him on why he was trying to decide on her behalf… Simone modelled the company around Revlon, evolving in methods as time went. Initially she used her pocket money to visit beauty parlors in Paris and learn the tricks of the trade, the various creams and powders. But then again, marketing it in India was not easy, so the first Lakme Lavender talc was actually advertised as a fabulous French fragrance. The Lakme vanishing cream was launched simultaneously. So that was how she went on to provide yeoman service and by hard work and dynamic focus, promoted Lakme to position it a prominent jewel in the House of Tatas. Since then it ruled the roost until 1986 when it was divested ironically to the same company Tomco had competed with, the Lever organization Hindustan Lever for over 200 crores. Simone continues her busy life immersed in the workings of the Westside stores and other philanthropic matters.
But let us get back to the opera Lakme one last time. Lakme in the story is more popular as a singer amongst her people though the British officer was enchanted by her looks. The costumes and posture of Lakme evoked some amount of curiosity, especially that of Lilly Pons in New York. Her bare midriff caused quite a sensation above an apparently original 200 year old Indian silk skirt which she wore. The play itself got a further boost when British airways picked up one of the songs to play in its commercial some decades ago. GK Bhoghal who studied the play opines that Delibes depiction of Lakme promote a category of female extravagance that surpasses current associations of excess with seduction, sensuality, insanity, promiscuity and sexual deviance.
Like I do sometimes, I have to leave a question at the end, much in the lines of the Canterbury tales, to connect up with the next topic. What connection could Lakme or Lakshmi have with Saint Sarah?
References
Exemplary CEOs: Insights on Organisational Transformation - Shrinivas Pandit
Tata: Evolution of a Corporate Brand - Morgen Witzel
The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century edited by Rachel Cowgill, Hilary Poriss
The Voyage to Excellence: The Ascent of 21 Women Leaders of India Inc -Nischinta Amarnath, Debashish Ghosh
Theodore Pavie's ‘Les babouches du Brahmane’ and the Story of Delibes's Lakme – Charles PD Cronin & Betje Black Klier
The Creation of Wealth: The Tatas from the 19th to the 21st Century - R. M. Lala
"Jeh", a Life of J.R.D. Tata - Bakhtiar Dadabhoy


Lakme is set in British India in the 19th century. Nilakantha, a Brahmin priest, is bent on rebelling against the occupying British, who have forbidden him from practicing his religion. When Nilakantha goes to attend a gathering of the faithful, his daughter Lakme and her servant Millika are left behind. The two go off toward a river to gather flowers and sing the famous "Flower Duet." As they approach the water, Lakme removes her jewelry and leaves it on a bench. Nearby, British officers Gerald and Frederic are on a picnic with two young English girls and their governess. The girls notice Lakme's jewelry and want sketches of the pieces. Gerald agrees to stay behind to make the drawings. Lakme and Mallika return, and Gerald hides. Then Mallika goes off, leaving Lakme alone. When Lakme spots Gerald, she's frightened and cries out. But when people come to help, she sends them away. Lakme's heart is doing flip-flops over this young stranger, and he's taken with her as
well. But Lakme knows it's dangerous for them to be seen together, and she tells Gerald to forget he ever saw her. When Nilakantha returns, he's furious at finding Gerald with Lakme and says the officer will pay for his affront to Lakme's honor. Nearby, British officers Gerald and Frederic are on a picnic with two young English girls and their governess. The girls notice Lakme's jewelry and want sketches of the pieces. Gerald agrees to stay behind to make the drawings. Lakme and Mallika return, and Gerald hides. Then Mallika goes off, leaving Lakme alone. When Lakme spots Gerald, she's frightened and cries out. But when people come to help, she sends them away. Lakme's heart is doing flip-flops over this young stranger, and he's taken with her as well. But Lakme knows it's dangerous for them to be seen together, and she tells Gerald to forget he ever saw her. When Nilakantha returns, he's furious at finding Gerald with Lakme and says the officer will pay for his affront to Lakme's honor. Gerald is recovering in the forest, with Hadji watching over him, when Lakme arrives. They hear singing far in the distance, and Lakme tells Gerald it's a band of lovers going to drink from a sacred spring whose waters confer the gift of eternal love. Lakme wants to get water from the spring herself, and when she leaves, Gerald's friend Frederic turns up. He reminds Gerald that he's been ordered to a new post, far away. Gerald knows he must fulfill his duty and leave Lakme behind. When Lakme returns from the spring, she senses what's happening. Knowing she's about to lose Gerald, she finds a flower that's known to be poisonous and swallows it. Overwhelmed by her act of devotion, Gerald drinks from the cup of sacred spring water. Doing so is a holy declaration of love — a vow of fidelity that even Nilakantha can't revoke. The poisonous blossom takes effect, and Lakme dies in Gerald's arms as her father looks on.

Comments

Bernard said…
Hello sir,
Thank you very much for this post. The History behind this Opera and the Cosmetic brand was really wonderfully narrated. Good work !. Years before when British Airways took up the flower song and used it as part of its advertisement, that's when I first heard this piece.
Anyway, thank you very much for this wonderful post.
Bernard

Maddy said…
Thanks Bernard
I was actually working on the Lakme opera and then sort of deviated on to the Lakme cosmetic story to combine them, glad you liked it.
rgds
jk47 said…
Hi Maddy,
Nice to read about the history of Lakme(both the opera & cosmetic brand), a cosmetic brand i love. I am bit of a tomboy but when i have to use make up, i prefer Lakme.
Well written piece by u.
Take Care.
Maddy said…
Thanks jk47..
glad you liked it..
the post on GV raja is in progress, will come up soon.
rgds
jk47 said…
Thank u Maddy, for taking up my request seriously. As usual, your articles are fun to read, enlightening as well.
By the way, a question to you: do you know how many articles you have written here till date ??? I have lost count, i just want to know if you know....
Take care.
Maddy said…
thanks JK47..
I think over 500, but only 400 or so can be called articles