Scholarship as Soap: A Photo Essay

A close up of a bespoke soap that is transparent but not so uniformly tinted with the perfume concentrate that gets its viridian green colour from North Indian vetiver
Pond Water (2019)

Some ideas don't make it. Some can exist but only for a moment, and some still are scraped and utilised to build something new. The following is an account of all my explorations between 2019-2022 into very complex ideas that took shape as soap. I don't mind open-sourcing my concepts because it is just too expensive and laborious to replicate in a fast-paced volume-to-scale commercial world.


Summer 2020:

One of my first explorations was to recreate architectural elements in elaborate soap molds. The mold for the soap pictured above was kindly sent to me by Spandana Gopal who spearheads the design company Tiipoi. This photograph below captures my first attempt at pouring transparent turquoise-hued soap into a cooled opaque soap-shell. The process of creating just one soap from start to finish, took me two hours. This led to an excited exchange between Spandana and myself over a suitable design concept for their brand. I came up with the idea for a Rajasthani stepwell and their then designer, Andre Pereira, created the first mold for me to try out, and we took it from there.

The first mold didn't exactly work out but I for the sake of experimentation I took the idea of "water" filling int the steps instead of an opaque material. The visual effect was marvellous.

This prompted another idea for an "inverted" stepwell as seen in my sketch below but it was too complicated so we went with reforming the original stepwell shape.

By 2019, I had already developed the "soap as water" idea for another Indian label: Ka-Sha. This ethical slow fashion brand made me cotton flowers from scrap fabric that I "drowned" into transparent soap. The effect, most spectacular, made these flowers appear as if they were suspended in frozen liquid. Again, the process took me over an hour and beyond that one-off collaboration, the idea didn't go further. The flowers were not just ornamental. I dipped them in perfume first and then set it in hot soap. I had to work very quickly: I poured the soap halfway into the mold, quickly place the flower, and hold it in place until it began to set. Then I filled the mold up all the way, making sure the flower stayed in place.

Back to the stepwell:

These are photographs of my initial attempts with the second mold that was much more suitable and compact than the first silicon rendition. I experimented with several colours and shades before settling on what works best for Tiipoi. By November 2021, I made 30 of these soaps. It took me a fortnight to craft each one, but by the time I shipped them to Bangalore, unseasonal wet weather conditions that winter meant that the entire lot had begun to "sweat".

Soap is hygroscopic in nature. Meaning, it pulls moisture from the atmosphere, so that's the reason I don't actually make soaps during the monsoons. So, here's another idea that didn't go forward. However, we enjoyed the soaps, as did many of my family and friends. We found it enjoyable to hold and take in the fragrance which was a blend somewhere between lime, jasmine and aquatic lotus-notes. With each use, the layers of steps revealed themselves. With the soap that I use, I am down to my last staircase!

There is another reason this exploration cannot go further, and that's because my supplier has stopped stocking this grade of transparent soap-block. This grade was expensive and apparently I was the only person buying it while other cheaper, inferior grades of transparent soap-blocks were selling easily. Only someone as fussy and particular as me noticed the difference between three types of transparent soap-varieties.

One side of the Stepwell soap sliced off to reveal a submerged doorway



In Summer 2021, I developed my most triumphant soap titled "Bagh-i Babur" as part of my synesthesia explorations of 17th and 18th century garden paintings from the Mughal era. During my research, I came across so many illustrations of octagonal-shaped marble fountains and water basins, central to the garden layout. A cursory search on Islamic geometric patterns and their significance revealed that the square represents the physical world, the circle represents the spiritual realm and the octagonal is the shape that holds the two worlds together, connecting their energy and dynamism. I was awed by the conceptual potency in this form and decided to commission a mold in that shape.

Once I created the basic form - a "marble" white vessel and a transparent pool of "water", I played around with the colour and scent. Now that was alot of fun!

Apart from the soaps above that "translate" my friends' personalities and interests into fragrance and colour, the two examples below take the scholarship of Dr. Dipti Khera who writes extensively on the mood and atmosphere encoded in Rajput paintings, and of Dr. Sylvia Houghteling, who expands on the textiles of Mughal era. In the first instance, the soap recreates the intensity of the red pigment employed in the paintings of this era. In the second, the colourful "threads" are recreated with liquid soap-dye. Dipti's soap was scented with a rich indulgent tuberose, rose and saffron perfume, while Sylvia's was laced with the fragrance of cashmere, violets and lotus. I'm very pleased to say that both these women enjoyed their unique edition soaps!

Once again, it is a real pity that I cannot craft more of these soaps because this particular transparent grade is no longer available - and I had so many plans to turn entire scallop surfaced water cascades from Mughal mausoleums into spectacular soaps!