Suhasini Maniratnam’s new line of perfumes aims to empower the underprivileged single woman
From her tryst with exotic fragrances to the secret to her luxuriant, dark tresses, Suhasini Maniratnam is an inspiring mix of tradition, stories and women’s empowerment
A smear from the tiny boxes of solid perfume will make you stop in your tracks. While it is redolent with delightful familiarity — the finesse in the notes of the fragrance tells you that there is more to it than what meets the nose. We were trying out the jasmine flavour from Suhasini Maniratnam’s new line of perfumes — Haas, a NAAM Charitable Trust initiative. The actor and filmmaker’s voice is warm with excitement and enthusiasm — as she talks about her favourite project, the Naam Charitable Trust. It would be unfair to call it a cause that she supports, as an insightful chat with the actor tells us that this is more than just a cause for her. It is a personal commitment and a passionate pursuit. Talking to us about how she ended up becoming a perfumer, the actor tells us how at her Trust they are constantly trying to empower the single, underprivileged women with skills that will motivate them to a better life.
For the better
“They are basically maids. First, 68 women, we took from North Chennai in 2010. They are used to the really difficult life of survival against all odds with the water crisis, violence at home, family disputes, and assault against women. We started off with the usual — vegetable carts, stitching, cooking, paper bag making even driving — auto-rickshaw driving. For some of them, we bought the grinder so they could make arsi mawa and dosa mawa for their locality.” Suhasini admits that somehow none of these vocations excited the women. Probably it felt like the same mundane work, just like their cleaning jobs or the domestic chores they did as maids. “Perfume making changed it all.” In fact when we ask them what is it that they like about this work? They answer that after a hard day’s work when they go home — “they smell so good!”
Leading by the nose
Suhasini is the Founder of the NAAM Charitable Trust, yet she is also one of the coaches at the centre. “We are 30 of us and in Tamil we call ourselves thozhigal, and the men call themselves thozhan. Aruna Subramaniam is one of the thozhigals (she is also the trustee of Boomika Trust) and she informed Suhasini that there was a centre in Adyar (the W Square) that taught perfumery. “I put it in our group to get some of us to learn and then teach our women at NAAM.” However many didn’t have the time while others were worried about working with strong fumes and aromas due to allergies. “That left me. So I just decided to do the class, and I called them and signed them up. Yes, they were taken aback!”
While everything couldn’t be learnt in one session, it was a fascinating introduction to the world of aromatherapy for Suhasini, who went back home armed with all the materials for making solid perfumes and roll-on perfumes, room spray, car spray and spray perfumes, besides the formulae and recipes. What truly resonated with the filmmaker was the fact that the centre used only organic ingredients. “We are advocating going organic too — while avoiding chemicals and processed food,” says Suhasini, whose line of perfumes is called Haas. “Though it is under NAAM, we are using my name to elevate it from the kadhi craft kind of feel to a more niche market.” A name that her close family and friends call her — it was picked for the perfumes by Suhasini’s aunt, Vani Ganapathy, who also gave the first bulk order for solid perfumes. When it came to the choice of fragrances, the focus is on local flora. “We experimented with flowers like magizham poo, champa and ylang-ylang and finally settled on jasmine as a popular choice.” Meanwhile, they have a citrusy fragrance for men that incidentally many women like to wear too. They use jojoba oil as the base because ‘it is the best for skin too’.
Today there are five coaches in the perfume section and there are about six women making the products. “We are still supervising every step because it involves some precision and science and it is not easy for them to grasp immediately.” To make 500 pieces it takes the entire team a full day, as solid perfume needs cooking time, unlike the other products. The Haas line of perfumes had a soft launch a few months back and has already been ordered for events like Nina Kothari’s son’s wedding.
In the closet
When Suhasini consulted folks who are into the line, they were very discouraging and predicted failure. However, the enthusiastic and determined philanthropist refused to give up. “In fact, I was inspired by the woman who started Forest Essentials — she was from Chennai.” Referring to Mira Kulkarni who studied Fine Arts in Stella Maris College in Chennai and later moved to Delhi and started Moutain Valley Springs India Pvt Ltd, which is the parent company for Forest Essentials that is known for luxury skincare products that are based on Ayurveda and natural ingredients.
Finding a creative outlet with this line, Suhasini has created her own line of wardrobe sachets where most of the ingredients in the tiny, fragrant potlis are from your kitchen counter, she tells us. Suhasini then proceeds to explain that making a perfume is not just mix and match randomly. “There is a chemistry to it and there is a mathematics to it and I have failed so many times before finding that perfect formula — after numerous trials and errors!” A jasmine fragrance does not mean merely using the essential oil of jasmine. To bring across the right aroma you need to blend it with lavender and rose. “I have experimented drop by drop and have had a panel of friends to judge the fragrances before finalising. “An extra drop of juniper berries or a drop less of cyrus oil can make all the difference, you learn.”
Suhasini walks us through the fragrant garden path, literally. Did you know that samrani (frankincense) is the base fragrance for all skin products? If that has got you thinking, Suhasini gives us another nugget of information. “In any men’s perfume vettivair is the base perfume.” Yes, the same vettivair which street vendors in the city are found weaving into blinds along with bamboo blinds for the summer. Sourcing organic elements locally, Suhasini tells us how she has made a cupboard freshener using camphor, sandalwood and tulasi. “Some of my friends who live abroad tell me that when they open their cupboards they feel they are entering a puja room!”
Being mom and more
• Talking about future plans, the effervescent and charming actor is quick to share, saying, “The next few weeks I am taking time out for my son!” He just finished his doctorate and has been away from the country for 10 years, and is coming home before starting his new job. “So, I am going to concentrate on parenting! All of us have to do that!”
• Talking about future projects, she tells us that she has signed up for a Telugu show that will be on the floors soon in Hyderabad and where the title has been taken from a famous song (Malli Malli) from Suhasini’s movie.
Girls run the world
NAAM Charitable Trust was founded by Suhasini Maniratnam in 2010 – “and is committed to education and empowerment of single women from the underprivileged segments who are unmarried, widowed, abandoned by their spouses or victimised in any way.” From counselling and self-defence classes to vocational training, the organisation along with the trustees bring forth a personalised and committed involvement with hopes to make a difference to the community and to create a livelihood and healthy ties for these single and underprivileged women. Besides the line of perfumes under the brand name Haas, they also have the oil concocted by Suhasini’s 85-year-old mother “that is the secret to the almost-60 years old actor’s gorgeous, long tresses!” The secret 16 ingredients have been passed on to NAAM! Also expect sweet mango pickle, gooseberry jams and other such traditional offerings.
“I don’t want just a retail presence. That’s why our products are not on store racks. I want people to come to our NAAM centre in T Nagar — meet us and hopefully get more involved than just buying products from us!” says Suhasini.
By order only, at NAAM Charitable Trust. Details: 90946-77777.
Sustainability, saris and sachets
In fact, in her bid to support sustainability, the actor tells us how she encourages everyone to bring back the cupboard freshener sachets for a refill. Soon Suhasini tells us how the quaint, silk sachets have a story to tell. “We have been collecting pre-loved saris for the past eight years and the sales has helped us with educating so many children!” The first time that the saris were auctioned was at Joy of Giving, a charity initiative by popular restaurateur M Mahadevan at Chennai Trade centre. Suhasini collected saris from Aishwarya Rai, Rekha, Kiran Rao and Kushbu — besides from numerous other luminaries and celebrities. “My sari got more money than Aiswarya Rai’s!” says Suhasini, elaborating how people responded with enthusiasm and generosity once they understood that it was all for a good cause. In fact, her sari was bought by M F Husain’s son who bought it for Rs.35,000 and then gave it back to Suhasini — “because it was my wedding sari. A lucky sari that I promised will bring happiness to any marriage — like mine with Mani Ratnam!” At another occasion, the violinist Viji Krishnan sent across 120 saris to “use it for the NAAM cause.” Sometimes they would come across saris that might have been damaged or stained — those saris were cut up and used for the pretty exquisite wardrobe sachets — all fragrant and upcycled. Some of the material is used for scented strips to add some fragrance to your drawers and cupboards even at the workplace.