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Indian biscuit company that made migration of the Sindhi population to Gwalior possible

In ‘Branded in History’, Ramya Ramamurthy explores how colonial Indian brands — both home-grown and foreign — were produced, distributed and marketed.

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Meanwhile, coming back to biscuits, another little-known brand famous in its time, J.B. Mangharam, was formed as a company in 1919: they were manufacturers of ‘energy food biscuits’ made from glucose. Originally intended for British soldiers, the biscuits soon became popular among children. My father, born in 1946, remembers to this day, the ditty: ‘chai piyo aur biskoot khao, J.B. Mangharam ki, energy food biscuit, energy food biscuit’ (drink your tea and eat your J.B. Mangharam biscuits). The Mangharams were originally from Sukkur in Sindh province but they had branches in Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi with a factory coming up in Gwalior in 1951. After the death of the founder, the company was restructured in 1969 and 1977, and finally became a part of Britannia in 1983. Sadly, that was the end of the J.B. Mangharam brand. Established in 1937, the Sukkur factory was declared evacuee property and allotted to Muhammad Yakoob who renamed it Yakoob Biscuit Factory. It was considered one of the top Sindhi-owned companies along with Kaycee’s Blue Star and Motwaney’s Chicago Radio. The Mangharam family arrived in Gwalior sometime in the 1940s. They negotiated special tax concessions with the then Madhya Bharat government. A large number of Sindhis followed them to settle in Gwalior. In the 1950s and 1960s, the biscuits and sweets were packaged in brightly coloured tins featuring images from Indian traditions (Shakuntala and Bharat, Mira Bai, baby Krishna, Krishna with flute) and cities (Mumbai VT, Howrah Bridge, the Golden Temple) and are now sought-after collectibles. They ran ads for their biscuits saying: ‘Growing children expend energy every minute of the day… as they run and play and in the very process of growing up. They need a diet that replenishes energy and builds strong healthy bodies. This is why J.B. Mangharam’s Energy Food Biscuits are so good for the children – they are made of sun-ripened wheat, milk and glucose. Every ingredient rich in vitamins and energy.’ The ad depicts a happy bonny baby with a curly mop of hair, dressed in a dainty open neck smocked top. Perhaps there is a connection between Sindhis and bakeries. Bombay Bakery in Karachi is very famous as is Karachi Bakery in Hyderabad and Bombay: these bakeries were run by Sindhis and were famous eponymous imports from Karachi.

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Why did Mangharam biscuits lose out after Independence? Kiran Khalap of chlorophyll pins this down to what is known as source credibility: ‘Source credibility is always at the back of your mind when you shop. For instance, during World War II, Japan was not actually known for their high tech, or German vessels which were made from German silver were actually looked down upon. Today if you think of Japan, the first association is with high tech and engineering. Similarly, in those early days of independence, there was the famous quote: “Where in Ethiopia is India?” We were associated with poverty. We also were the source for diamonds and made jewellery for the rich and famous in the West. Of course, now in the new millennium we are associated with software, jugaad and entrepreneurship. So, in the same way if you are seen as a British company [or a brand in India providing goods to the British], source credibility comes with it.’ What changed after Independence? Why didn’t brands like Mangharam biscuits manage to switch allegiances? According to Kiran you cannot, or it happens over time, until you create a new association or find another story. He adds, ‘If you look at Horlicks or Parle-G, these were all brands that were addressing the carbohydrates and milk deficit. Horlicks grew on the strength of milk shortage in East and South. Now we have a protein deficit and scarce minerals deficit like selenium, zinc and vitamin D such that even people in the cities suffer from that. So, it is about how you change the narrative as per the requirements of the time.’

Ambi Parameswaran has a different angle to the same question. He says, ‘I think that if you too strongly identify with a colonial power, when they go you are going to lose a large part of your clientele so you need to desperately reinvent yourself. Let’s not forget, a lot of these brands were from colonial powers – Dalda was from a British Dutch company but they became so much a part of the mainstream that they were seen as an Indian brand, which is another dimension one cannot ignore. Now the failure of Mangharam could also be for a lot of other reasons – bad management or family infighting – so it may not only be because they were seen as British and Indians will not buy that. Let’s be clear, if you look at the top 10 per cent of India – if you tell them the British used my product, they would love to use it. That was seen as an endorsement. If the British can use your biscuits, I would love to use your biscuits. That may not be a negative at all – a lot of these brands could have failed for other reasons, not just because they couldn’t change. Even today whatever is imported is seen as better – why will someone not buy your biscuits because the British bought it?’

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Ambi raises a valid point but political turmoil could have led to mismanagement as well. Is there a case for keeping political alignments neutral? Ambi says, ‘If you are in an industry which is not on a firm footing and then if you are too strongly aligned with the wrong political side, when the winds change you can get caught in the crossfire. The classic case is Jet Airways [which was declared financially unviable and grounded, suspending all operations in April 2019]. If you are in an FMCG kind of business which is mass based it may be different but even there, when the Janata Party government came in, they threw Coca-Cola out. One of the biggest bottlers of Coca-Cola then was Congress MP Charanjit Singh. He launched Campa Cola; it didn’t go very far but Thums Up became very big. That is just one example from the FMCG space but otherwise political winds affect industries like real estate and infrastructure where you depend a lot on government policies.’

This excerpt from ‘Branded in History’ by Ramya Ramamurthy has been published with permission from Hachette India. The author is a former journalist and a communications consultant based in Mumbai.

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