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VOL. XXII NO. 6, July 1-15, 2012
Looking back - A newcomer's search for a home
(V. Theetharappan recalls his days with ALVITONE)

(Continued from last fortnight)

From 1953 to 1957 I was very busy with the foundation work for Alvitone, the brainchild of Thangaraj Nadar, a person from the rural interior who brought out a food product equivalent to Ovaltine!

Thangaraj Nadar’s interest in establishing an energy beverage factory was due to an unhappy incident in his life. In 1952, when one of his children was seriously ill, he went to purchase a tin of Ovaltine and couldn’t get one as the product was in short supply. A friend suggested that if he were to visit Spencer’s he could get a tin. On reaching Spencer’s (the old building), which started with a Post Office on the eastern side and ended on the western side with the Bakery Section, he hesitated to enter the complex and stood by the Post Office. A person who came out of Spencer’s enquired why he was waiting and on hearing what he needed informed him that if he were to give him the amount he would procure a tin for him from the relevant department. Nadar gave him ten rupees and was told to wait for an hour or so when he would return with the product. After waiting for over an hour, Nadar realised that he had been duped by the trickster. He returned home dejected, but immediately vowed to start a small factory to manufacture a product similar to Ovaltine.

Kamaraj, the then Chief Minister of Madras State, did his best to help us start Alvitone Laboratories. So did C.T. Devaraj (CTD), proprietor of Jayalakshmi Industries at Basudev Street, T’Nagar. He had been the Private Secretary of S.B. Athithan (founder of the Dina Thanthi group of publications), when the latter was in Singapore. Athithan was a strict disciplinarian and had all details with him whenever he visited a Government office! Devaraj was trained by him. Devaraj’s father, C. Thangavel Mudaliar, was in Singapore during the 1940s. They had a house in Arcot Mudali Street in T’Nagar, next to the late MGR’s house. The AIADMK party was inaugurated in Devaraj’s house. CTD had a number of industries in Madras and in Dindigul. He purchased a big unit owned by K.C.P. Ltd. in Virugambakkam, developed a mini-industrial estate in the land that came with it and called it Paramount Gardens. He also had a big nursery in this garden. He was our mentor.

We contacted two brothers in Triplicane who had a palatial building in St. Thomas’ Mount Cantonment just opposite the Area Commander’s Quarters. We applied for NOC permission to the Cantonment Board but our application was rejected. Then, near the Asarkhana Corner in St. Thomas’ Mount, we found a big building with a large open area. The Cantonment was not prepared to give us the NOC even for this building. In fact, we were sent running from pillar to post. We felt that someone must be causing trouble for us!

Eventually, we met Chief Minister Kamaraj. Thangaraj told him that he was completely engrossed in the work of commissioning the various equipment of the laboratory and that Theetharappan, who contacted officials and private concerns, would provide full details. I pointed out that we had applied for a Trade Mark on 23.7.1955 and had been given the No.170, 133. We also provided all the test reports, including those from the Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore. I then mentioned that we felt representatives of rival products in India were influencing the Cantonment authorities to refuse us the NOC for a building. Kamaraj promised to help and advised us “to distribute the invitations for the inauguration of the factory.”

Before setting out to distribute the invitations, we had lunch at Geetha Café in T’Nagar, then the leading café there. Those days, Geetha Café would always be full of Telugu film personalities. After lunch we went to Jayalakshmi Industries to meet our mentor, CTD, and briefed him on developments and got his advice for our future actions!

Alvitone Laboratories was inaugurated by Kamaraj on July 7, 1957 at Asarkhana, a bungalow in St. Thomas’ Mount. Twenty years later, it moved into its own building in Pallavaram, next to Lakshmi Talkies and opposite TTK’s Maps and Atlases.

To the great relief of Thangaraj Nadar, Govindaswamy, Naidu and Theetharappan, the VIPs from the Area Commander’s Office and St. Thomas’ Mount Cantonment on reaching Alvitone Laboratories immediately went up to Chief Minister Kamaraj and stated that the relevant NOCs from the Area Commander’s Office and the Cantonment Office would reach Alvitone Labs in a couple of days. Kamaraj had advised us to also invite the distributors of rival product, and they all attended and went around the factory along with the VIPs!

In those days there were beverages like Bournvita, Ovaltine, Barlova, Nestomalt, Ovomalt, Potsum and a few more. Except Ovomalt, all the others were imported products. Ovomalt was manufactured by one Ramanujam of Omalur (Salem) and each batch of the product took nearly a month to manufacture as it used fermented pulses and the process of the germination took nearly a month. It was indeed a very good energy beverage, but as Ramanujam had certain difficulties, a leading press baron took over his concern, but somehow failed to make a go of it. The foreign products were costly and were also in short supply. The Defence Minister of India at the time, N. Gopalaswami Aiyengar, helped Ovomalt and Alvitone find a place in the Defence Department Stores as they were the only Swadeshi products in the energy beverage category!

It took from 1954 to 1957 for Alvitone Laboratories to be inaugurated after all the stumbling blocks in its way were overcome.

When the first Director of the Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore, V. Subramaniam, along with a few scientists, visited Alvitone Laboratories at St. Thomas’ Mount, Nadar took them around the laboratory and explained to them in Tamil the salient features of the machinery (all made by him). When I accompanied them to Central Station after their visit, they spoke about the ingenuity of Nadar making such machinery even though he was not a technically qualified person!

Nadar’s lack of knowledge of English and any other language except Tamil, was no great impediment for him! He was a regular visitor to the Kirana Merchants’ Association at Sowcarpet to make purchases of raw materials for Alvitone manufacture. The kirana merchants in the 1950s were all North Indians and the main languages they spoke were Hindi and Gujarati. But Nadar had no problems communicating with them.

Nadar, till his death at 62, was constantly on the go, looking for new opportunities.

Footnote: In the middle of 1956, when Alvitone was doing well, my father, for no reason at all, decided to sell our Orme’s Road bungalow and asked me to resign from the partnership of ALVITONE Laboratory. I tried my best to convince him that ALVITONE would be a success and it would be better if I were to continue. When Father attended a function at Dasaprakash, M. Bhakthavatsalam, then the PWD Minister, to whom I had mentioned about Father’s decision, advised Father to let me stay on with Alvitone. Later, during one of his meetings with Kamaraj, Thangaraj Nadar told him about Father’s decision. A couple of days later Kamaraj surprised Father by calling on him. My parents and a cousin, S.T. Thiagarajan (Secretary of the George Town Co-Operative Bank) were astonished by this sudden visit. Before broaching the subject which he wanted to speak with Father on, he enquired from Thiagarajan about P. Natesan’s method of working as Bank’s President. Dr. Natesan was a leading venereologist in the State and was a prominent figure in the co-operative movement also. A few decades later the State Co-Operative Training Institute at Anna Nagar was named after him. But when he returned to the main matter for which he was visiting us, Kamaraj was not successful with Father (who was a few years older than him) who bluntly refused to allow me to continue with Alvitone Lab.

Search for another formula

Once, Thangaraj Nadar and I, after inspect-ing some work at P. Natesan & Co (Triplicane), drove to Egmore Station so that Nadar could travel to St. Thomas’ Mount. On our way, we stopped at Shama Bhatt’s Udipi Hotel, which was next to the old Egmore Post Office and the then famous Account Test Institute on Commander-in-Chief Road, to have our breakfast. Shama Bhatt’s restaurant was famous for its Mangalore bonda and Mangalore khashayam. I had known Shama Bhatt during my school days, in the early 1940s, when he had a very small restaurant near the Madras Veterinary College (Periamet). Later, he shifted to Commander-in-Chief Road and then he built handsome premises on Egmore High Road, which housed the restaurant called Matsya. Most of the Udipi and Palghat Brahmin restaurants served the khashayam drink in the mornings.

I also recall that on Bunder Street in George Town, there used to be a small kiosk (during the 1950s) where a portly middle-aged man used to sell a very tasteful yellow-coloured cool drink from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Many of the British firms on First Line and Second Line Beach, Thambu Chetty and nearby streets used to send their orderlies (mostly Telugus who used to be always busy with their thakkalis drawing out cotton thread from balls of cotton during their spare time) to this shop to bring them the yellow milk in flasks. Thangaraj Nadar knew this vendor well, as they used to meet at the Kirana Merchants’ Association when they went to purchase their raw products.

Nadar tried his best to get the secret formula behind the yellow drink from the vendor but, despite all his cajoling, failed. The vendor, due to his ill-health, closed the shop in 1962 or so, and a wonderful secret was lost.

– V.T.


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In this issue

Still no solutions to woes caused by parking
How do we curb cell-phone use on the roads?
It's fascinating to catch up with local history
Looking back
When Madras went on the AIR
Driving Down Memory Lane
The actor in the shadows
There's urgent need to list heritage in 800 towns

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Dates for your Diary


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