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Madras Day | Made in Madras

The long story of how a Dalit family once ruled the global condiment industry

Vencatachellum Madras Curry Powder, the preferred brand of spice at Buckingham Palace over a century ago, is owned by a company founded by an Adi Dravidar in the Madras Presidency era

August 14, 2023 06:39 pm | Updated August 16, 2023 06:11 pm IST - CHENNAI

Vencatasivasubramanium, descendant of P.V.S. Vencatachellum, poses with an array of bespoke cans of spice mixes during an interview with The Hindu in Chennai in 2013. File photo

Vencatasivasubramanium, descendant of P.V.S. Vencatachellum, poses with an array of bespoke cans of spice mixes during an interview with The Hindu in Chennai in 2013. File photo | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran

Long before Indian companies ventured out to foreign shores, one Indian brand was already truly a global brand. It ruled the global curry powder and pickles industry for close to 100 years. The brand, Vencatachellum Madras Curry Powder, is owned by a company founded by an Adi Dravidar, a scheduled caste, from Madras.

The brand name was synonymous with Madras Curry Powder the world over and continues to be fondly remembered in many countries including the UK and Australia long after its heyday.

A comment in a blog reminisces: “Disappointed to see that Vencatchellums is apparently no longer available. I wanted to recreate the wonderful curries my great grandmother (born 1872) used to make in the 1950’s [sic] from minced lamb and served with boiled rice. I can well remember the taste even now as I approach 70.”

Also read | P.V. Condiments’ journey is an interesting peek at history

The source of the English word curry is the Tamil word ‘kari’ (கறி). The word originally meant black pepper but overtime it came to mean dishes made with pepper. The present-day sense of the word could be of medieval origin. Curry — the word and the spice, both — travelled to the rest of the world with the Europeans returning from India, particularly the British. Yet another reason for the spread of curry is the readymade curry powder that made preparing curries of different kinds simpler. Curry powder is a readymade mix of spices in proper proportion.

The beginnings

Madras Curry Powder was made famous the world over by P. Vencatachellum Pillai and his son, P.V. Subramania Pillai (it was common for the Parayar community to use the title Pillai). P. Vencatachellum Pillai founded the company ‘P. Vencatachellum Condiments’ in 1860. He had earlier worked in the residence of the Bishop of Madras. Dalits in 19th-Century Madras were an enterprising lot. Unlike their counterparts in the villages, they were relatively free from caste injunctions and forced labour. Many of them were employed in the army, the first regiment of the East India Company, Miners and Sappers was called the Pariah Regiment.

Many others found jobs in industries such as textile mills, the Railways, government, and as butlers. Those employed by Europeans cooked food to suit their tastes and, in the process, sometimes even invented new dishes. One such novel dish is the Mulligatawny Soup, a corruption of the Tamil words ‘milagu thanni’ (pepper water), albeit with meat.

It is learnt that the Bishop of Madras gave P. Vencatachellum Pillai ₹500 to start an enterprise to prepare and sell his proprietary spice mixes. And thus, the company was born in the bylanes of Mylapore, Madras. The company then moved to the most prominent business address in the Madras Presidency — 1-3, Popham’s Broadway, with the factory behind Popham’s Broadway in Umpherson’s Street. P. Vencatachellum Condiments registered their name, ‘Vencatachellum Madras Curry Powder’ along with distinctive label with peacock as a trademark in the UK and Australia in 1894. P. Venkatachellum’s products were made from the finest ingredients sourced from India and abroad using proprietary recipes. Curry powder was made of red chilies from Odisha, turmeric from Chittagong, coriander from Kerala, and couple of secret ingredients.

Growth and expansion

It is said that Sharwood of Messrs. J.A. Sharwood & Co., Ltd, a British company specialising in Asian foods, during a visit to India, called on the Governor General Lord Dufferin and lunched with him. Awestruck by the taste of the curry served at the table, he learnt from the chef that he had used the curry powder made by P. Vencatachellum in Madras. He went down to Madras and persuaded P. Vencatachellum to appoint his company, Messrs. J.A. Sharwood & Co., Ltd., as sole agents and distributors of his condiments in the UK. Thus, in 1893 began a half century–long association with Sharwood’s that made Vencatachellum Madras Curry Powder a household name in the UK. Much before this partnership, P. Venkatachellum was enterprising enough to ship his condiments and pickles to the UK through Gordon, Woodroffe & Co., and to Australia through Messrs. Maxwell & Co to test the waters. In all these countries, private persons travelling from Madras also took home large quantities of P. Vencatachellum products.

After P. Venkatachellum’s death in 1887, his assets were partitioned between his sons. One of his sons P.V. Subramaniam Pillai inherited his father’s business. He had been assisting his father very early in life and learned the trade passionately. P.V. Subramaniam Pillai propelled the business to great heights. He mechanised the production process with state-of-the-art machinery from England. He added a number of items, such as chutneys, sauces, confectionaries etc., to the catalogue. Production was increased manifold to cater to the increasing demand. The products were available in all departmental stores and neighbourhood shops in most European countries and in the United States. The curry powder tin and the colour label were easily recognisable. Pickles and jams were sold in uniquely designed glass bottles. Some of these containers are still retained by connoisseurs as souvenirs. They are still found on auction sites. In the next 20 years, ‘Vencat’s’ was enough to ring a bell in the UK, and simply ‘Vent’s’ in Australia. It is said Vencatachellum’s Madras Curry Powder was preferred at Buckingham Palace too. By 1915, the products had won hundreds of international awards from South Africa to Paris. These awards were proudly advertised and printed on product containers.

P.V. Subramania Pillai then expanded the business beyond condiments. In 1889, he purchased an old ice factory in Madras, scrapped the old machinery and assembled the factory with the latest British Linde Compression system, which was capable of making five tonnes of ice in a day. It also had a refrigerated storage facility. All these were new in this part of the world. The factory supplied ice to the Government House, private clubs and restaurants, and was sent to even far off towns in the presidency. Vencatachellum supplied 250 pounds of ice everyday to hospitals in Madras free of cost.

The local agents advertised the products in every major newspaper across the world. The advertisements were creative and lively. In all advertisements, the name “Vencatachellum’s” was prominently displayed, and the geographical origin of the product, — 1, Popham’s Broadway — was prominently mentioned, possibly among the earliest instances of a business’ place of manufacture having earned goodwill of its own. Magazines carried recipes centred around Vencatachellum spice-mixes. Anglo-Indian cuisine books invariably recommended Vencatachellum’s Curry Powder. Over a period of time, the advertisements show how Vencatachellum’s Curry Powder had become integral to the local culture.

The phenomenal growth resulted in employment forhundreds. The ice factory alone employed 200 people. Government records and newspaper reports of that period suggest that P.V. Subramaniam was a generous philanthropist. He ran a school for the downtrodden named, “Vencatachellum Poor School,” in Chintadripet, where 150 boys and girls were provided education free of cost. He was a benefactor of many charities, orphanages, hospitals, and organisations working for the needy. A certificate from the government of India, commending his contribution in public life, reads: “By command of his Excellency the Viceroy and Governor-General in Council this certificate is presented in the name of her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, Empress of India, to M. R. Ry. P. V. Subramaniam Pillai, Avergal, merchant, son of P. Vencatachellum, in recognition of his charities to the depressed classes.

A report in The Hindu reads, “Mr. P. V. Subramaniam Pillai, who has acquired fame in his business, first came forward as a public man in connection with, the movement for the elevation of the Panchama community, for whose benefit he, as a distinguished member of it, opened and endowed schools, whose maintenance is a charge on his liberality, whose improvement is a source of anxiety for his mind.”

P.V. Subramaniam Pillai built a temple in Washermanpet, Madras, where people from all castes congregated. This temple, Sri Dakshinamoorthy Swamy Temple is still managed by the family. He further created endowments in many temples in the Madras Presidency. One endowment was created in the Varadharaja Temple in Kanchipuram to bear the expenses for a day during the annual weeklong temple festival. From the reports of the time, we learn that he was a loyal British subject. The celebrations he had organised for the Diamond Jubilee Celebration for Queen Victoria in 1897, and later for commemorating the coronation of King Edward VII are the stuff of legend. Newspapers across the country recorded the celebrations in awe.

By the early decades of the 20th Century P.V. Subramaniam Pillai Vencatachellum owned large tracts of land and hundreds of palatial bungalows in the most prominent and fashionable addresses in the city. Among others, on the banks of Adyar alone, he owned the Brodie Castle, The Grange, Somerford, Morison Gardens, Graemes Gardens, and that fine piece of real estate called “Bishop’s Gardens”. These residences were let out to high-ranking colonial officials, the Chief Justice and other Judges of the Madras High Court, and chairmen of large private corporations. Many of these properties on Greenways Road are now owned by the government and are official residences of Cabinet Ministersand Judges of the Madras High Court. He also owned considerable property on Poonamalle High Road.

Political activities

Adi Dravidars were active in modern politics from 1850 onwards at the latest. They organised themselves under various names such as Dravidars, Parayars, and Adi Dravidars, held conferences, and presented their grievances to the government. Leaders such as Markandan Pillai, father of that great merchant of the late 19th Century, B.M. Madurai Pillai, Father John Rathinam, Pandit Iyothee Thass, Rettamalai Srinivasan, and M.C. Rajah played an active role in securing the rights of Dalits. They also ran their own printing presses and published newspapers and books.

The Vecantachellum family too actively participated in politics. P.V. Subramaniam Pillai, along with M.C. Rajah’s father Maiyilai Chinnathambi Pillai, established the Madras Adi-Dravida Mahajana Sabha in 1892. P.V. Subramaniam Pillai contributed financially to Adi Dravida conferences and meetings. Then in 1917, he and other Adi Dravida leaders under the leadership of M.C. Rajah petitioned the Montagu-Chelmsford Committee to rename their community as Adi Dravidars.

P.V. Subramaniam Pillai’s nephew, P.V.S. Sundaramurthy Pillai, served as a nominated member representing Adi Dravidars’ interest in the Madras Legislative Council. P.V. Subramaniam Pillai’s grandson, P.V.S. Vencatachellum, was Sheriff of Madras. P.V.S. Vencatachellum’s wife, Jothi Vencatachellum, a Congress member, was a Cabinet Minister, first woman minister in Tamil Nadu, for more than 10 years, first in Rajaji’s government as Minister for Women Welfare, and then in Kamaraj’s government as Minister of Public Health. It was during her time as Health Minister that medical colleges were established in Coimbatore, Chengalpattu and Tirunelveli. The family donated a large tract of land behind their temple to the Stanley Medical College and Hospital. She also served as Governor of Kerala from 1977 to 1982. She was conferred the Padma Shri in 1974.

‘Pickle tycoon dead’

After the time of P.V. Subramaniam Pillai, there were many disputes among the family members. His brother’s son exported curry masala powder under the same name to the UK. He lost the case in the Madras High Court. After the death of P.V. Subramaniam Pillai, such problems only intensified. There were commercial disputes. These were compounded by trademark issues in India and England, which together led to Madras Curry Powder losing its monopoly in the curry masala market. It is said that many properties were usurped by friends. To overcome the problems, loans taken for business expansion which became a burden in later years. Due to property disputes between heirs, the company was managed for some time by a court-appointed commissioner. Some of the properties were auctioned to pay up debts.

P.V.S. Vencatachellum bought the company at the auction. He ran the company well, even though commercial disputes with foreign agents persisted. The company’s UK distributors, Sherwoods took advantage of Vencatachellum’s problems and sold a Curry Masala Powder under the name ‘Sharwood’s Vencat’ for some time. This shows the brand value of the name Vencatachellum. The business gradually declined but still was a name to reckon with until the 1970s. When P.V.S. Vencatachellum passed away, the newspapers wrote: “Pickle tycoon dead”. After him, the company is still run by Vencatachellum’s descendants.

This is the story of just one branch of the large Vencatachellum family. Information about other descendants is scarce. It seems that many of them are government officials and businessmen today.

It is an incredible feat that such a large global company was built by a Dalit family in the 19th Century. This is an example of the entrepreneurial spirit of Dalits. The fact that the trademark Vencatachellum is still recalled around the world speaks volumes about the goodwill the company created.

(The author is a Chennai-based IP lawyer)

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