Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXVIII No. 16, December 1-15, 2018
It was a week before Diwali when I had gone to interview Badrinath, the current owner of the iconic Dabba Chetti Kadai – well known for ‘Naattu Marundu’ (traditional herbal medicines). The small shop on the busy Kutcheri Road in Mylapore was teeming with customers. It took me almost 50 minutes to get the attention of Badrinath, for an interview. He rightly advised me to come after Diwali and preferably around 11 a.m. when he would be comparatively free. Two weeks after Diwali when I reached his shop around 11.30 am, on a weekday, I was surprised to find Badrinath still surrounded by half a dozen customers. And there was a continuous stream arriving by foot, two-wheelers, and cars. It took me 45 minutes before Badrinath agreed to spare some time for me and answer my questions while he continued to attend to his customers – some placing specific orders with a long list in their hands, some seeking his advice about the ideal medicine for their specific health issues, and others seeking his approval for herbal medicines recommended by some doctors. Badrinath was catering to the demands of every one, unfazed, without loosing his cool and with information on his fingertips. He was being helped by his wife and two assistants in identifying and packing the medicines.
Badrinath is the third generation of the Chetty family to run the business started by his grand-father, Krishnaswamy Chetty together with his brother back in 1885. Though initially it was started as a kirana shop, also having a paints section, it began specialising in herbal medicines only in the early 1890s. The starting of Venkataramana Ayurvedic College down the road in 1905, provided an opportunity for the shop to supply raw materials to the dispensary being run by the College. That was the beginning of the evolution of the shop specialising in herbal medicines. Since the products were neatly placed in tin containers on display, it came to be known as the ‘Dabba Chetty Kadai’ in the neighbourhood and this eventually became the official name of the shop – a memorable brand name for quality herbal medicines, which has survived for 127 years.
Though in the early years, the shop sold only the raw materials required for making medicines at home based on paatti vaidyam, (Grandma remedies), in recent years, based on the demand from the customers, who were hard pressed for time, the shop started selling ready-mixed medicines – mostly lehyams. Though the Diwali lehyam is most in demand during the Diwali festive season which lasts for about two weeks, what sustains the shop is the continuous demand for post natal lehyams used by young mothers after their delivery. The shop also sells a few typical puja items apart from a very limited number of branded Ayurvedic products, supplied on demand.
I was also surprised to learn from Badrinath that the shop which went through a lean patch a few years ago has picked up business with a lot of young persons patronising to shop. It seems the internet and the increasingly popular google doctor are playing a major role in the revival of herbal medicines among the youngsters. I could vouch for this judging by the number of youngsters who visited the shop. Three of the six customers whom I talked to had come to buy the ‘Post natal lehyam‘.
Do his customers come only from the Mylapore area? Badrinath’s prompt response was, “No, they come from all over the world. Wherever our people are located in India and the world, they come to us searching for specific items. Many of them are from USA, Australia, Middle East, Europe etc. and belong to all age groups. It is the word of mouth advertising and our guaranteed quality which have helped us gain popularity over the years.”
Most popular items are Chukku, Homam, Panam Kalkandu. The major problems for which the herbal medicines are sought are for common cold, other seasonal ailments, and diabetes, besides, the ever popular ‘post natal’ lehyams.
I asked Badrinath, a commerce graduate, who has been running the shop for the last 40 years, if he ever thought of growing bigger and opening more branches like what other food and snack units like Grand Sweets or Adyar Anand Bhavan have done. He said he was content with the current operations where he could guarantee the quality of the products sold from his shop which occupies just 180 sq. ft area and another 280 sq. ft godown area located in the neighbourhood.
He was hesitant to talk about the future of the shop. His two sons who are still in college may or may not come into the business, as it involves a lot of hard work, sweating it out in a roadside shop amidst the constant noise from the passing vehicles enveloped by the smoke, dust and grime which naturally follow the heavy traffic on the road. Yet, since it is a profitable business one of his sons might get into it and take the ‘Dabba Chetty’ brand name to greater heights as the second generation of the owners of Grand Sweets have done to that iconic brand. Let us hope Badrinath’s dream comes true and the ‘Dabba Chetty Kadai’ continues to serve its customers in the years to come.