New Delhi: At an age when most people retire or give up on life, 96-year-old Dharam Pal Gulati, popularly known as the Spice King of India, is giving tough competition to youngsters. He does daily rounds of his factories in Delhi and Gurugram (Haryana), copes with busy official schedules and snatches time to check WhatsApp messages on his smartphone!
Conferred with the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award (for trade and industry) early this year, Gulati is the founder of the Mahashian Di Hatti (MDH) group and the company exports its products to more than 100 countries.
Sporting a moustache, the bespectacled man in a crisp off-white kurta-pyjama and waistcoat is seated in his office/factory in the Kirti Nagar Industrial Area in West Delhi. The red turban and three-string pearl necklace add a touch of royalty to his style. The man with the always cheerful disposition has fine listening power but his speech is barely a whisper now. Still, he is able to communicate quite clearly.
SPICE OF LIFE
“India has an ancient history, where every household across the country would grind spices manually to make their own blends to create a distinct taste in dishes. I visualised the concept of ready-to-use spices and merely made this process easier,” Gulati tells Gulf News.
His struggles have become a success story and Gulati is a role model to many. “My mantra in life has always been to maintain quality in products and keep the prices affordable,” he says with sincerity.
No wonder MDH has been successfully selling spices in attractive packages throughout India and abroad for the past many decades. Having over 60 variants, its best-known products are Deggi Mirch, Chaat Masala and Chana Masala. The businessman and philanthropist presently owns 17 manufacturing units in India and one in Sharjah, UAE. His several charitable institutions include schools and hospitals.
Twists and turns
In a way, Gulati’s life is not unlike a million others, having faced the trauma of Partition. He was born in 1923 to Chunni Lal, who set-up the spice company Mahashian Di Hatti in Sialkot, Pakistan in 1919. Gulati, a grade five drop out, was never keen on studies and joined the family trade at the age of 10. His business acumen set him apart even then. Apart from assisting the family in grounding and making packets of different spices, he prepared small packets of henna and sold them to women in residential areas, earning an additional income.
However, the family was forced to move to Delhi in 1947. To begin with, Gulati bought a tonga (horse cart) ferrying passengers from one destination to the other. But fed up with the profession, he started selling jaggery on the streets. This time, he was not content with the earnings. Gulati shifted to one product and then another — from mirrors and soaps to fabric and hardware, he tried selling them all, but nothing held his interest for long.
Back to his roots
“I then resolved to go back to my roots and sell spices,” he says. Starting from a shack, he opened a store in Karol Bagh in 1948. A shop in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk followed soon after.
In 1954, Gulati set up Roopak Stores in Karol Bagh. The first modern spice store in Delhi, it was later handed over to his brother Satpal. Gulati expanded the business by purchasing land in Kirti Nagar and setting up his first spice manufacturing unit in 1959.
“It might seem simple today, but it was not an easy task, given that in those days people were suspicious of pre-packed content and preferred freshly ground spices,” Gulati recalls.
The company began by advertising in vernacular newspapers as to why people should opt for MDH products. Since Deggi Mirch, originally marketed by the Gulatis’ in Pakistan, had been a known brand, the tagline read ‘Mahashian Di Hatti of Sialkot Deggi Mirch wale.’ Both quality and nostalgia worked in their favour.
MDH became the pioneer in introducing packaged spices in small cardboard boxes, which carried the photograph of Gulati. To date, with few design variations, the packaging has remained the same.
Face of the firm
Gulati is perhaps the world’s oldest ad star who featured in his own TV commercial. It happened by sheer chance years ago when actors Shafi Inamdar and Neena Gupta were waiting and the person slotted to play the bride’s father failed to turn up. “When the director suggested I act as the father, I agreed, as it meant saving some money,” he grinned.
Ever since, Gulati has been part of all MDH TV commercials.
However, the nonagenarian no more consumes the spices he manufactures. Instead, he relies on a simple diet of dairy products and fruits.
1919 – MDH was founded by Chunni Lal in Sialkot, Pakistan
1948 – MDH was founded by Dharam Pal Gulati in New Delhi
Number of manufacturing units – 18
Spice variants – 60
Exports to over 100 countries
Best known brands - Deggi Mirch, Chaat Masala and Chana Masala.
Manufacturing unit in Sharjah, UAE