History Uncategorized

Malayalee who was pioneer of soap manufacturing

  • November 21, 2021
  • 3 min read
Malayalee who was pioneer of soap manufacturing

Do you know that a Malayalee is considered the father of soap manufacturing in India? And the soap manufactured in Kerala’s Calicut was once a favorite in England and even of the Viceroy himself? 

That is the story of AK Menon, a UK trained chemist, who started the Kerala Soaps Institute (KSI) in 1914. Back then people of Calicut fondly called him ‘soap Menon’. 

Menon was born on December 16th, 1889 in Ambatt family of Chittur, Palakkad. Kesava Menon was the fifth child of Kurumba Amma and Thachat Chathappa Menon. He graduated from The Presidency College, Madras, and went to the UK in 1909 on a Government Scholarship for higher studies in oil and soap manufacturing. In the UK, he worked with Lever Brothers (Later Unilever Ltd) in the UK and Dralle in Germany.

After his return to India in 1913, Menon started working for the fisheries department of the then Madras Government. He was appointed as the oil chemist by the government and headed the research team on fish oil at Tanur. One of the products of the research is the shark liver oil now popularly used as a tonic for children. 

“Those who grew up in the early 1950s would remember the tangy taste of the shark liver oil from KSOL which was a compulsory item for the growing kids, called (somewhat crudely in Malayalam) meenenna (fish oil),” says a blog post by The Calicut Heritage Forum. 

He later moved to Calicut and established the Kerala Soap Institute as a Department of the Madras Government. The Institute was set up in 1914, in the heart of what was known as the English Quarters, on Evans Road (the present Gandhi Road) in Calicut. 

This was the same year the British took over properties of the Basel Evangelical Mission(BEM) as enemy property. Germany’s BEM was responsible for introducing modern industries to Calicut with an aim to bring in a new culture among their converts.

KSI under Menon produced quality toilet and washing soaps that were famous across the country. The soap which was a favorite of the wife of Viceroy Willington was named after her. Later on, many students of the institute were behind the development of many soap factories across India. 

Interestingly, KSI had used several lithographs printed by the press run by Raja Ravi Varma for the promotion of KSI soaps. The most famous one was ‘Mohini on a swing, 1894’ (though later it was replaced by images of Hindu gods and goddesses). 

The KSI continued as a Madras Government unit till 1956, reportedly supplying soaps to the President of India after 1947. But, its days of glory ended in a few years. In 1964, the Kerala government took over KSI and renamed it as the Kerala Soaps and oils limited.  

The new factory was famous for products like Washwell soaps and soap chips, Kerala Sandal, Kerala Coal Tar (Carbolic Soap), Shark Liver Oil and Adamin Fish Oil Capsules for the rest. It also had a hydrogenation unit making Sudha vanaspati and Vimala refined oil.

The company was closed down in 2002, but was revived in 2010 under a new management.

Coming back to AK Menon, he married Lakshmikutty Amma and retired from services in 1948. In recognition of his services to the country, the British-Indian government conferred the title of “Rao Bahadur” on him.

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