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VOL. XXII NO. 5, June 16-31, 2012
Looking back
By V. Theetharappan

After my Inter studies at Pachaiyappa's College I joined the Advertising course of the International Correspondence School (London). I then joined V.C. Sivaswami who had started Epoch Advertising in the premises of Deepak Insurance Co., Errabalu Chetty Street. Later, Vittal Mallya took over the concern as an unit of his McDowell's group. Epoch Advertising then had very good business with a large number of clients. But then my career changed, as the article reveals.V. Theetharappan

Changing jobs to take on imported products

One Monday morning in the 1950s, at our Epoch Advertising cabin in McDowell's Corporate Office, I was busy with the various advertising schedule sheets which were to be sent to the publication offices. Our artist, R. Natarajan, was preparing a design for Santhosh Trophy advertising. Our boss, V.C. Sivaswami, would be in only at 12.30 p.m. or so after his rounds. Suddenly, at 10.15 or so, a lanky and very diffident person entered our cabin and introduced himself as P. Thangaraj Nadar, from a small village in Madurai District. He wanted to meet Vittal Mallya (our Chairman) or A.P. Herbert (our General Manager) regarding a new energy beverage that he had prepared and which he wanted to introduce in the market through McDowell's.

The Chief Accountant of McDowell's had asked him to meet Sivaswami before speaking to the top brass. We asked him to wait in our cabin. A few minutes later Herbert passed by and, as usual, wished us. I immediately followed him to his room and told him about Thangaraj Nadar. He invited Nadar to his room and asked him to visit McDowell's after 2 or 3 days by when Vittal Mallya would have returned to Madras and his uncle, B.A. Mallya, the seniormost Director of the Company, would also be there. He also suggested that Thangaraj Nadar bring samples of the product.

On the scheduled date, B.A. Mallya, Herbert, Sivaswami, T.R. Lakshmanan, a senior executive of A. Bush, Boake Roberts (later Bush & Co) and I met Thangaraj Nadar, who distributed his beverage which he had tentatively named Ovotone. We found it similar to Ovaltine. As Vittal Mallya was still in Calcutta it was decided that Nadar should bring his product to the Corporate Office on a date convenient to Vittal Mallya and serve him the beverage. And so it was. All present on the occasion were satisfied with the product and Sivaswami informed Nadar that he would have the Company's reply in a week's time. Meanwhile, I decided to meet Nadar to find out the possibilities of joining him as a Partner in his project, in case a negative reply was received from McDowell's which the Mallyas had taken over from the British owners around 1952.

When I learnt that McDowell's would not be interested in the manufacture of the product, I spoke to my father about joining Nadar. Father promised to give me Rs.10,000. The next day I went to see Nadar at his residence in the Seven Wells area and it was agreed that I would join him. Father also gave me permission to use our car, a Standard Ten, on official work. We had come by that car fortuitously.

Early in 1947, Father was the Head of the Parasitology Department of the Veterinary College and was expecting his promotion as Principal any time. So he went to George Oakes and registered for a Ford Prefect. S. Anantharamakrishnan told him that it would take nearly nine months to get it from England. Anantharamakrishnan, who belonged to our village, Alwarkurichi, came to Madras in 1917 and joined the firm of Fraser & Ross, a leading auditing firm those days. Father also came to Madras the same year and joined as a student at Madras Veterinary College.

Since my father wanted a car as early as possible, he contacted F. Nagoor, an art director and a partner of Newtone Studios, who was an authority on cars. Nagoor said that the Agent of the Indian Bank of Purasawalkam wanted to sell his car, as he had been transferred to Salem. Nagoor and Father met the Agent, who said the price would be Rs.2000 and told them that from its arrival from England he was the only owner and the car was in perfect condition. After bargaining, the price was brought down to Rs.1500. The next day we took delivery of the car, the Standard Ten I referred to earlier. It served us well and we sold it only in 1955 – for the fabulous sum of Rs. 4500! So it was possible for me to use it for Alvitone Laboratories' erection work from 1954 to 1955 December! I used to take it to the St. Thomas' Mount laboratory site, the Metal Box factory in Tiruvottriyur, and to fabrication units in T'Nagar and Triplicane.

* * *

Meanwhile, I felt the product needed a new name, as Ovotone, the name tentatively fixed, would clash with those of existing products Ovaltine and Ovomalt.

Epoch Advertising artist Natarajan was the brother of the well-known artist R. Madhavan and was entrusted with the work of designing the product's new name for the container. I suggested the name Alvitone. It contained all the letters of Ovaltine and, as a promotional gimmick, the name was split as All Vitamins in One and also as All Vitamins Toned. Natarajan did two or three rough designs for the container label and we decided to take the rough designs to Kaligambal Temple and choose the final design by placing them before the deity!

Before that, Sivaswami, Thangaraj Nadar, Natarajan and I went to Ramakrishna Lunch Home and, after an hour, we came out to pay the bill. As we came out we saw the proprietor, V.R. Ramanatha Iyer. As VRR knew about our product, he enquired about the progress. Incidentally, VRR, my father and five others were Executive Committee Members of the Agri-Horticultural Society. When we told him about the name we were thinking about, he invited us to his room and discussed the choice in detail. Before leaving his room he called his assistant, Mani Aiyar, who was operating the billing machine (the first one in the State) and informed him in code words to bring six packs of sweets. He gave a packet to each of us and said the extra packets could be offered to Annai Kaligambal. Mani Aiyar, after leaving Ramakrishna Lunch Home, started Egmore Café, just opposite Egmore Station. Next to his building was Tourist Home, the restaurant-cum-lodging house owned by Rm. Alagappa Chettiar.

At the Kaligambal temple we placed before the deity the rough sketches of the wrapper design for Alvitone and the design which we got back from the Chief Sivachariar, Sambasivachariar, was used for the tins for the next 45 years!

The next day, Thangaraj Nadar and I went to Raman Street to meet A. Palaniappa Chettiar, a leading gemstone dealer in Burma who had come to Madras as an evacuee during World War II. He became a prominent films distributor in Madras, apart from continuing in the gems trade. He was well known as Subbu & Co. Palaniappa Chettiar. We visited him to rent a big shed he owned on the Cooum bank in Aminjikarai for our factory. We agreed to a rent of Rs.150 a month and we gave him an advance of Rs.150. The place later became Arun Hotel and Palaniappa Theatre and his son Arunachalam managed the concerns till his premature death. Now his grandson A.M.P.A. Palaniappan is running Ampa Sky Walk mall there.

We used the shed just for a month or so. We realised that transport from Aminjikarai to our dealers in various parts of India would be difficult as we had to send the products to Basin Bridge Station for the northern market and for the southern districts, Egmore Station. I met Palaniappa Chettiar and he understood our predicament. He returned the advance given – even though I didn't ask for it. Moreover, he said wherever we started the laboratories we shouldn't forget to send him an invitation for the inauguration function!

(To be concluded)

The Minister's query

One evening, when we met Minister Bhakthavatsalam to get a letter of introduction, the minister discussed the product with Nadar who informed him that, apart from the main ingredients, egg and a herb were also used. Bhakthavatsalam pointed out that only the names of the main ingredients were mentioned on the wrapper of the tin and brochures and not eggs or the herbs. Nadar explained that eggs were necessary for invigoration but if mentioned it would stop pure vegetarians from buying what was an excellent health drink.

Promoting the product

Epoch Advertising handled Alvitone advertising from thebeginning. Nadar knew many of the stalwarts in the advertising, PR and printing fields, like P.S.G. Rao (D.J. Keymer's), Subramanian (Elegant Publicities), Ramachandran (Efficient), M.C. Appaswami Chetti (Blockmakers), G. Umapathi (Uma Printers), Chari (Chari Advertising), Gemkars (a group of young men who left Gemini Studios), V.K.N. Chari (Gemini Studios), R. Madhavan, R. Natarajan and their maternal uncle K. Madhavan who were in the banner and press advertising design business, and Blaze & Central, who made advertising and documentary films!

The annual Congress Exhibitions used to be held in December at the Congress Grounds and were very popular with the people of Madras. The main entrance was just opposite the Sun Theatre, where we now have the memorial to Veteran leader G.K. Moopanar. In those days, the Exhibition used to daily have Carnatic music performances by leading musicians of Tamil Nadu. Stalls of all the leading industrial houses in Madras were hosted here. Alvitone also used to have a stall. Next to us, Mammen Mappillai and his wife used to have a stall for their M.M. Rubber & Co. Their manufacturing unit was then in Tiruvottriyur and they made balloons!

To advertise Alvitone at railway stations Nadar contacted the Chief Commercial Manager, one T.A. Taylor (if my memory serves me right), and in his office there was one Varadharaja Mudaliar who helped us a lot (he died in 2007 or so at the ripe old age of 105). Almost all the side walls of the platforms of suburban stations from Beach to Tambaram had huge Alvitone advertisements painted on them. Certain road bridges crossing train lines (like the bridge in Guindy near the King Institute) had on its side walls, over the railway lines, large advertisements for Alvitone. At Central Station, above the second floor on the front wall, two large panels of Alvitone advertisements were painted. They really caught the eye as you entered the station premises!

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In this issue

Welcome restoration approach by Government
Garbage collection plans go awry again
Looking back
Driving Down Memory Lane
Masters of 20th Century Madras science
Three looks at heritage
There's heritage in idlis & sundal
The plight and the challenge
More Iyengars of cricket
Butterfly tricks

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan


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