Anusha Parthasarathy on the 127-year-old Dabba Chetty Shop that has been supplying ‘country drugs' to Mylaporeans and people across the world
Tin boxes are stacked on top of each other with their mouths welded open. Dark, wooden cupboards that have long lost their sheen display multi-coloured bottles. Traditional charms hang from the darkened ceiling. A steady stream of customers armed with long hand-written lists patiently await their turn, mindless of the heat and traffic. The Dabba Chetty Shop on Kutcheri Road has survived over a century in the place it initially began, watching Mylapore grow from a quiet neighbourhood into the city's bustling cosmopolitan hub.
Seated on a wooden bench opposite a digital weighing machine, K. Badrinath watches his customers as his fingers drum the fading green sunmica on a wooden table. Four generations down the line, there are few changes in the shop since it began in 1885. “My great-grandfather S. Krishnaswamy Chettiar started it. Of course, one can't be sure why he began a shop that sold herbal medicine, but I've heard that back then, we also sold paint, hardware, provisions and other things. At that time, it was just a small room with a thatched roof. The rafters and the cement roof were put in later on.”
Dabba Chetty Shop has been supplying ‘country drugs' to Mylaporeans and people across the world. Nestled between the many old shops that dot Kutcheri road, Krishnaswamy Chetty chose the area since it was close to Arundale Street, where he lived. Since the store stacked its wares in neat tin containers, customers began calling it ‘Dabba Chetty Kadai'. The name stuck before Krishnaswamy officially named it so.
“Initially, we only sold raw materials for medicines. Over the last few years, we've begun to sell prepared medicines because people don't have the time or the energy to make them,” says Badrinath, “In the old days, you had the ammi kal in which you grind and mix. These days its just mixies and grinders which won't give you the same results. People started asking us to prepare them and now we only sell those.”
Dabba Chetty buys from wholesale merchants in George Town. The shop was popular from the beginning since it was the first in and around the area. “There were always wholesalers in Parrys,” says Badrinath, “and some other shops have come up here as well, but when we started, we were the only ones around. We usually get our raw materials from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and other places. Of course, these are available here too. But for us, quality is important because that has been the reason we've lasted so long. Also, only products that are from their place of origin are of good quality,” he says, while quickly ordering his staff to replace a medicine that a customer claims to have not worked.
After Krishnaswamy Chetty, K. Rajamannar Chetty took over the shop. By this time, the sale of paints and provisions was stopped and the shop began to specialise in herbal medicines. In 1905, when the Venkataramana Ayurvedic Dispensery began, the shop's popularity grew. R. Kannaiah Chetty, Badrinath's father took over and Badrinath joined his father at the shop after 1975. “My father would tell me that there were trams that ran through this road. And Nageswararao Park was just a pond. A lot has changed the last few years. But the one positive change I've noticed is that there are now more trees than before,” he says.
The shop's main business comes from post-natal and Deepavali medicines. “We get customers wanting medicines for cold, cough, back pain and headache but our main income comes from the post-delivery medicine that we sell. Our Deepavali leghiyam is also very popular, though we sell it for only about fifteen to twenty days around the festival,” says Badrinath.
There was a slump in business a couple of decades ago, but Badrinath is hopeful of the future.
“Yes for about 10 or 15 years, business was slow, but things are beginning to change. I've seen an increase in the last four or five years and I guess people's attitude towards herbal medicine is changing.” He adds, “These are made from natural materials, most of which are part of our everyday diet. In the old days, if you had a cough, they'd mix a pinch of turmeric in warm milk or give you fenugreek seeds for a stomach ache. Herbal medicine is just food that cures.”