From acting to organic farming and Ayurveda: Aditi Deshmukh’s many lives

Former actor Aditi Deshmukh's career took a turn to organic farming and rural development a decade ago. She's going a step further with her new Ayurveda-based beauty enterprise.

By Maya Lalchandani

Raised in Bengaluru and Delhi, television actor and social entrepreneur Aditi Deshmukh has ended up making an unlikely location her karmabhoomi, or land of action: Latur, located in the Marathwada region of southeast Maharashtra.

Here, the 46-year-old mother of two runs her farm-to-table produce venture, 21 Organic, which she launched in 2016 inspired by a lack of access to clean and chemical-free food in India. Deshmukh has also adopted 26 villages in Latur as part of her role as the executive trustee of Vilasrao Deshmukh Foundation (VDF).

This Republic Day, she launched a new beauty label Namaskar Ayurved, which she founded along with former banker and angel investor Gita Nayyar. While Deshmukh has certainly put her money where her mouth is in terms of her commitment to organic farming, rural development and Ayurveda, what is less visible is the inner transformation and challenges that the former model and actor has undergone in her quest.

Aditi Deshmukh

“I am not an agronomist,” Deshmukh tells eShe. “I am a woman who wants to provide healthy and chemical-free food for people.” While not having the technical know-how related to farming was a bit of a challenge in her early days, she realised that, “eventually, one has to work on the ground with whatever knowledge one has, or background one comes from. Farming involves a real connection with the soil and adapting practices that the land will permit.”

Articulate and well turned out, Deshmukh (née Ghorpade) was born in Bengaluru to highly educated parents belonging to the Maratha community. An alumnus of Hansraj College, Delhi University, her modelling and acting career spanned almost a decade.

Her life then catapulted from film glamour to politics and social welfare when she found herself in an arranged introduction to Amit Deshmukh, the son of late Congress leader Vilasrao Deshmukh, who was then the chief minister of Maharashtra.

Aditi Deshmukh with her husband Amit Deshmukh and sons Avir and Avan

Married in 2008, she joined VDF, which was founded by Amit in the memory of his father, in 2011. The same year, feeling an acute need to provide her children with fresh organic foods devoid of toxins and chemicals, she started farming on a patch of ancestral land in Latur. Subsequently, over meetings with farmers, women and youth, she realised the need for a holistic approach to farming and rural development.

The way she looked at it, “I effectively moved into a space where I felt there were a lot of opportunities and resources at my disposal to be able to effect change.”

The crops grown on the Latur farms overlooked by the foundation were climate-resilient, which automatically transitioned the farmers back to their natural farming practices, thereby establishing a supply chain for organic produce. The farmers focused on mainly seasonal crops and vegetables indigenous to that region, such as tubers, carrots and radishes.

“India is an agrarian country that has treasured its agricultural practices for generations. One of the biggest concerns for most farmers has been the connectivity to the market and fair prices,” says Deshmukh, explaining the role of her venture 21 Organic in the process. “We have ensured that the farmers receive proper training and fair prices for their produce, and are well-connected with the market.”

While organic farming is a practice that most farmers are well aware of, she says, making them cognisant of the long-term benefits has made a difference. The farmers in Latur, a region that is chronically drought-prone, successfully managed to transition 2500 acres of land before the pandemic hit.

Aditi Deshmukh founded 21 Organics in 2016 to cater to greater demand for chemical-free produce

“A large number of consumers today have become aware of the benefits of organic farming and there is great demand for organically grown fruits and vegetables today. India has the highest number of organic producers, followed by Uganda and Ethiopia,” says Deshmukh, who is a yoga aficionado and is passionate about cooking wholesome traditional meals for her family.

Not one to stop at just one thing, Aditi understood that if one ventured into the family lives of the farmers or villagers, she would also need to help them with social initiatives and education opportunities.

Though the Marathwada region has its unique challenges, Aditi chose certain issues in Latur that needed urgent attention, such as healthcare, education and gaining employment for women in the own homes.

As women had to manage both their homes and their lands, Deshmukh understood that it would be hard for them to uproot themselves and make a move to the cities to eke out a living. She made it convenient for them by bringing the enterprise into their homes, be it through farming initiatives or skilling them in textile work and so on.

Aditi Deshmukh is executive trustee of Vilasrao Deshmukh Foundation, founded in the name of her late father-in-law and former chief minister of Maharashtra

Further, Latur saw its women getting short courses in personality development, nursing, free sewing and tailoring classes, since many big chains like D-mart, Reliance and Shoppers Stop were looking for trained staff from Maharashtra districts. The foundation helped these women find employment from their homes itself, so that they would not fall prey to the urban migration system. They also took on issues related to senior citizen welfare and sanitation issues.

Of late, 21 Organics has moved rapidly from vegetable farming towards medicinal herbs. The herb worth a mention here is Aswagandha, frequently used in Ayurvedic therapy. Starting with a 10-acre trail, Deshmukh’s enterprise began cultivating 150 acres and moving on to 600 acres in the Latur region. The adaptogen is one of the key ingredients now being used by Deshmukh in her skincare label, Namaskar Ayurved, which has been sought-after by celebrities and beauty bloggers alike since its launch.

Besides these farming and rural initiatives, Deshmukh heads the Goldcrest Group of Schools, including the first ICSE schools in Latur and others in Navi Mumbai, and the topic of women’s entrepreneurship is one she holds dear.

“India has 432 million working-age women and 13.5 –15.7 million women-owned businesses. Women are the backbone of any household; we are resilient and strong when it comes to the decisions we make, which makes us great leaders,” she says, citing research that shows women demonstrate a higher degree of emotional intelligence.

“Women understand what the gaps in the market are, and what consumers require today because we are consumers ourselves and this holds us in good stead to understand the pulse of the market,” she avers.

Of course, her husband has been unstinting in his support. While Amit Deshmukh started VDF in admiration for his father’s devotion to societal upliftment, he acknowledges his wife’s contribution to it: “Aditi has immersed herself in the roles and responsibilities connected with the various initiatives that she has embarked on, be it the schools, her farm-to-table venture, or the VDF with its various projects. I never cease to be amazed at her capacity for hard work and I am very impressed with her sincerity and commitment.”

I asked Aditi what is the most significant life lesson from her personal journey that she wants to pass on to her kids, Avir and Avan. Quoting the Bhagwad Gita, she says, “The fruit of your action is in performing the action itself. Our duty is to put in our best efforts without worrying about the result, and striking a balance to perform all our life’s roles to the fullest.”

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