In 1947, a young man migrated from Pakistan’s Sialkot to Delhi, with Rs 1,500 in his pocket, scars of the Partition, and the recipe of a special spice his family sold. To make a living in this new city, the young man operated a tonga in Karol Bagh for “do aana” per ride before setting up a humble spice store in a 14 ft X 9 ft shop in the area in 1947 — one that would grow to become MDH Spices, a business empire which reported revenues of Rs 1,062 crore in 2018.
On Thursday morning, the founder of MDH Spices, Mahashay Dharampal Gulati — the grand old man of spices — suffered a cardiac arrest and died at a Delhi hospital at the age of 98. Apart from being one of the most successful CEOs in India, Gulati was also a pop culture icon, who was rarely seen without his red turban, twirled moustache, and a string of pearls around his neck. The brand’s catchy jingle “Asli masale sach-sach, MDH-MDH” for its ads too is a cultural phenomenon, with the masala packed in colourful packs with Gulati’s photo finding a home in kitchens across the country.
Back in 1984, when MDH released its first TV ad, featuring actors Shafi Inamdar and Neena Gupta, Gulati made an appearance as a guest at a wedding. He would go on to do a cameo in every ad of the brand after that, in his signature style.
In 2017, in an interview to author Mallika Ahluwalia, who profiled him for her book Divided by Partition, United by Resilience, Gulati spoke at length about a carefree childhood in Sialkot, with his two brothers, five sisters, and seven cousins under the same roof; quitting school; and his father’s and uncle’s joint business of spices called “Mahashian di Hatti”.
On August 20, 1947, as violence spread following Partition, the family moved to a refugee camp, before leaving for Amritsar in India on September 7. By September 28, Gulati was in Delhi.
Ahluwalia, who is the co-founder of the first Partition museum, that opened in Amritsar in 2017, wrote about Gulati telling her about hitting the jackpot with an advertisement in Hindi newspaper Pratap that read, ‘Mahashian di Hatti of Sialkot Deggi Mirch Waale’. According to him, it attracted buyers from as far as Cuttack in Odisha.
Ahluwalia told The Indian Express, “I met him at his office in 2017 in Delhi’s Kirti Nagar, and he was in his mid-90s and still working every single day. To me, he was an embodiment of the post-Partition refugee, who had sheer grit and determination to make it. I also used to see him in Nehru Park every evening. He was so humble.”
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Deputy CM Manish Sisiodia were among those who tweeted their condolences at Gulati’s death. Kejriwal said Gulati was a “very inspiring personality who dedicated his life for society”.
He shot his final ad for the brand last year with director Prabhakar Shukla. “Even at 97, he flew down to Mumbai. He was so involved in the process, eager to know all that we had planned. There is only one brand recall of MDH and that is Mahashayji,” said Shukla, who had also directed a film for the company’s centenary celebrations in 2019 and remembers how involved Gulati was with every stage in the making of his masalas.
Karthik Srinivasan, a branding and communications strategy consultant, pointed out that while a lot of entrepreneurs have been their own product or service’s brand ambassadors, “Gulati was one of the early Indian entrepreneurs to have his own face on the products he sold… So it becomes pretty difficult to miss him, to ignore him.”
The organised spices retail market in India is highly fragmented across regions with nearly a dozen brands, including Everest, MDH, Catch, Tata Sampann, ITC’s Aashirvaad, Ramdev, Patanjali, Badshah, Goldie Masala, MTR Foods, and others. Everest leads the all-India spices market, and MDH is a close second. ITC’s Aashirvaad range of spices is a market leader in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh and MTR Foods in other southern states. ITC recently acquired Sunrise Foods, which is the leader in West Bengal and the eastern states.
Often asked why his company did not feature popular actors in its ads, Gulati would say he did not want to ride on the success of superstars such as Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan. Since he was the person behind the success of MDH, he should be the one promoting it, he said.
“Dharampal Gulatiji was the ultimate grand-dad of the brand mascot movement. He brought his persona and its reliability to brand MDH. He will be missed. My advice to MDH masalas would be to use the persona of Mahashayji in an animated form. That’s the ultimate transition from brand persona to brand icon,” said brand consultant Harish Bijoor.