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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Calicut Soap Factory and Raja Ravi Varma

We had some time ago written about the glorious days of the Kerala Soap Institute, (KSI) Calicut which used to supply its famous Sandal Soaps to the Viceroy's House and the Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi after independence. (Please read here:

The good news is that our speculation about the factory's obituary was rather premature! The state government showed great determination in reviving this heritage factory and we shall soon see our favourite 'Kerala sandal' on the shops of premier supermarkets. We do hope the quality equals that of the Mysore sandal - which incidentally learnt the art from Kerala Soap Institute, Calicut.

Getting the Viceroy of India to endorse the product was nothing less than a coup! But, using Raja Ravi Varma's lithographs to popularise the soap was something out of this world; but this was what the management of KSI did.

Raja Ravi Varma had started a lithographic press in Bombay in 1894 on the advice of Dewan Madhava Rao. It was called the Ravi Varma Fine Arts Lithographic Press (FAL Press, for short - those from the older generation might recall glossy calendars of gods and goddesses hanging from barber shops and tea stalls with the legend 'FAL Press' in the corner!) The press was managed by the painter himself and his brother Raja Varma. It churned out a large number of lithographs which were used as Calendar pictures. Many of these were paintings by Ravi Varma himself and others were by famous artists like C.K.Raju and Ramalingam.

The most famous lithograph of the artist used by KSI was 'Mohini on a Swing, 1894' which suggested freshness and natural fragrance, so appropriate as qualities for the sandal soap! But, then, some time later, Amco Batteries, Bangalore bought the lithograph and it disappeared from KSI Calendars. This was replaced by Hindu gods and goddesses.
It would be nice if Kerala Government could revive these heritage lithographs and use them in wrappers, calendars and other materials to revive the century old legacy of KSI.

Calicut has another legitimate claim on the works of Raja Ravi Varma - but therby hangs a tale! In 1904, the Viceroy, Lord Curzon conferred on the great artist the title Kaiser-i-Hind on behalf of His Majesty the King Emperor.

The citation mentioned the title, 'Raja' for the first time against the name of Ravi Varma. The Maharaja of Travancore, Sri Moolam Thirunal objected to this 'usurpation'. Ravi Varma, however, defended the title by claiming that his ancestors belonged to the royal family of Beypore, near Calicut. Anyhow, he continued to use the title 'Raja', since then.

Ironically, both the grand daughters of Raja Ravi Varma were later adopted by the Travancore palace and one of them became the mother of the next Maharaja, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma!

Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India (2010) by Rupika Chawla
Wikipedia article on Raja Ravi Varma


  1. CKR you are a very Positive and optimistci man. Hope it will not fall to land shark. Looking forward to a bath with the new born Kerala sandal.
    One time Mysore government deputed satff to learn about bthe manufacturing technique of the soap!!!.Nobody will believe it.

  2. I have forgotten the kerala sandal - i was reading ravi varma's diary the other day and it had some stuff about spending the day in the kovilakom at beypore..more on that later..then we shall see if what he said had any truth - which I doubt..

  3. Thank you, Premnath. We should never give up - after all, when we wrote about it last year, the real estate sharks were hovering around this property. But the govt. has withstood a lot of pressure and re-opened the factory. The soap has been released into the market.

  4. Maddy- Thats an interesting bit. Although a digression from the main point, one would definitely like to know more about the genuineness of the claim by Ravi Varma. I doubt whether the kovilakam at Beypore existed during his time! Look forward to your post.

  5. I havae seen the reports of the Dept of Indusstries of Madras Presidency from 1923.Every reopot has more than one page on Calilcut Soap Institute. This was a production centre, and Rand D Centre and a training institutiion and played an important part in transfer of soap technology. In fact the MD Mr A K Menon was referred as "soap menon" by people of Calicut. I am waiting for the new avatar of Calcut Soap Factory.

  6. Yes I too remember to have used the Kerala Sandal Soap. Looking forward to see them in the super markets. Thanks for this piece of information.

  7. Thank you, JP for this interesting piece of information. It was indeed started as an R&D centre as it was for the first time that sandal wood oil was being tried out as a fragrance.
    Many thanks, PNS for the post. We have not seen it in the market although the Minister had inaugurated the sales some time ago!

  8. kerala soaps was inaugurated in 2010 under KSIE the newly introduced soaps like kerala sandal vep and kairali are excellent in fragrance that last long..... the other products are Coaltar, Thrill exotic and chempakam. Washwell washing cake performs well.
    for enquiry:
    PH: 0495 2762455


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