Janane Venkatraman & Neharika Rajagopalan step into an 86-year-old store suffused with the smells of milk, butter and ghee

The chaotic and cramped Purasawalkam High Road in North Chennai conceals a weary building, crumbling with age and grime. It is almost closing time, and yet B. Venkateswara Rao and Company is full of customers clamouring for milk and butter. V. Jaganmohan, one of the partners, is writing out bills and handing out change. Held aloft by six strong iron pillars and the loyalty of the consumers who frequent it, this shop is Chennai's oldest dairy store.

B. Venkateswara Rao came to Madras from Andhra Pradesh and set up a small shop in the northern part of the city, which was booming then. His son, Jagamohan, points to a fading sepia portrait on the wall and says, “My father started this store next door in 1921, in front of a house owned by a family of Marwaris. We shifted to this space in 1926.”

The store started operations by selling butter and ghee that was brought in from Tenali, in Andhra Pradesh. Once they shifted to the current location, the business expanded to include provisions as well, even if the majority of revenue still came from butter and ghee. Jaganmohan says, “We managed to buy this building only in the late 1940s, though we had already been there for more than a decade by that time.”

As the store grew, they opened branches in Mylapore, Triplicane, T Nagar and Ice House. But only the Triplicane branch remains. “We started opening branches in the late 1950s. But gradually, we've had to close them down due to the shortage of manpower, especially after my father passed way in 1990.” Venkateswara Rao ran the store till the end with his older son, Narayana Rao, who took over after his father's demise. After he died in 2001, Jaganmohan and his other brother, Ganapathy, began to manage the store.

The front of the shop is packed from floor to ceiling with different cans of oil while the inside holds various provisions, poultry feed, cattle feed and groceries. A wizened old man dips a small pitcher into an oil can, pours the oil into a tiny bag, ties it with twine and hands it to a customer with a neat flourish. “We no longer buy butter and ghee from Andhra,” says Jaganmohan. “We now sell ‘Uthukuli' and Aavin butter and sell around 70 to 80 kilos a day. The demand for ghee is approximately 100 kilos everyday. We make the ghee ourselves.”

A short behind-the-scenes tour reveals two huge vats used to melt the butter. They are gleaming, having just been scrubbed clean, but the aroma of warm syrupy ghee still lingers. “I took charge of this store in 2001, but I started helping out was when I was 19,” says Jaganmohan. “Business was steady back then and North Chennai was completely different. A lot of Brahmins and Anglo Indians lived here. Christmas here used to be such a vibrant festival.”

The last customer is here asking for milk. He gets his change while the rest of the staff winds up the day's work. Once the lights are switched off, the only thing still running is a grandfather clock that has been there for ages. Like the store itself.