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Taste of life: When the purity of ghee gets a mention as newspaper advertisement in Pune

On the morning of December 17, 1929, Radhaprasad Tiwari Halwai’s wife woke up as usual and entered her kitchen
By Chinmay Damle
UPDATED ON JAN 20, 2021 05:39 PM IST

On the morning of December 17, 1929, Radhaprasad Tiwari Halwai’s wife woke up as usual and entered her kitchen. The moment she stepped inside the room, she slipped and fell on the floor. The entire floor was covered in a thick layer of ghee (clarified butter). A report in the Marathi daily “Jnanaprakash” published on page 6 on December 24 states that the confectioner had stored ghee, which he had purchased from Sangli, in several vats. His son was getting married in a few days. He was also looking to make a profit by selling confections as the wedding season in Pune was in full swing. While the family was sleeping, robbers had entered the house and tried to steal the vats. But since the vats were heavy, they threw some ghee away in the kitchen where the vats were stored and took away all the half-empty vats.

Tiwari had his shop in front of Dagdusheth Halwai temple. Even though my attempts to locate the shop and the family have been futile, the story of thieves stealing ghee deserves a narration because of what happened after some people (who would remain anonymous because we do not know who they were!) got to know of the theft. They accused Tiwari of adulterating ghee (which was already stolen!) with animal fat. A scandal erupted in the city.

Although the most important milk product in India was ghee, it was difficult to obtain pure ghee in markets in Pune, and most of India till the 1950s. The production of milk and its by-products was minimal and not entirely industrialised. Villagers from Maval and Sangli districts would come with butter and ghee to sell in Pune. These products were mostly purchased by confectioners or the rich for weddings and other ceremonies. There were agents in Sangli and Kolhapur who would send butter and ghee to Pune. A couple of letters written by Lokmanya Tilak in 1892 and 1894 are archived at Nehru Memorial Library in New Delhi. In those letters, he requests his friends in Sangli to send some “good quality ghee” in four tins of 5 lbs each.

Ghee was a priced commodity, affordable to few. Till the Second World War ended, ghee was rarely purchased for domestic purposes. It was almost always a by-product, along with curd, butter and buttermilk, of the milk purchased for household usage. After the independent semi-feudal economy changed to a subservient colonial economy, affordability was often linked to conventional religious notions of what was “pure” and what was “impure”. Ghee was used in religious rituals and offerings, hence it had to be “pure”. Which meant that the housewife was supposed to be resourceful and had to manage to make enough ghee from whatever little quantity of milk was made available to her. She was judged by the texture, smell and consistency of the ghee she made.

Keeping this in mind, Justice Mahadeo Govind Ranade was trying to build a sustainable dairy industry in Bombay Presidency. The first step was to bring a mechanical cream separator to Pune, which would make the manufacturing of buttermilk, khoa, butter and ghee easier.

The Industrial Association of Western India, established by Ranade, MB Namjoshi and Vasukaka Joshi in 1891, had actively pursued this cause. Dr Ozanne, commissioner of Settlements and Agriculture in Bombay, employed a European expert in June 1891 who manufactured two cream separators in Bombay.

Ranade and Namjoshi invited Dr Ozanne to Pune where the first ever demonstration of the “made in India” cream separator was held. Ranade, in his address on the occasion of the first Industrial Conference held in August 1891, under the auspices of the Industrial Association, praised the efforts of Dr Ozanne and while accepting that lack of demand was a problem, hoped that Pune would become a hub of dairy industry in the near future. He also made an appeal to form a co-operative society so that a milk processing unit could be established in Pune which would cater to the needs of the British and the Indians in and around Pune and Bombay.

The British were not much fond of ghee. They found the smell and texture repulsive. They longed for good butter. Although large quantities of butter were made in Bombay, mostly from cream imported by rail from Ahmedabad and Surat districts, this was distributed over India for European use, or else exported to East Africa, Burma and the Strait settlements. Dairies were also established in many cantonments, including Pune, to fulfil the demand for butter.

India also imported a fair amount of butter from Denmark, the United Kingdom and France, in the order named. A large proportion of butter thus imported came in tins. There was some demand for butter after 1910 among wealthy Indians not for consumption as such, but to be used for the manufacture of ghee.

A delegation led by the Consul of the United States in Bombay, Mr Henry D Baker, visited Pune in 1914 to check whether cream separators manufactured in the US could find a market in Pune. His report shows that although he was hopeful of setting up dairies in Bombay, he was apprehensive about its utility in Pune because of lack of demand.

The Government Dairy at Khadkee, established in 1905, supplied milk to the Sassoon Hospital, to infants and invalids, and to a limited number of private consumers, when circumstances permitted. But the dairy’s daily yield of 550 to 700 pounds of milk was too small to be worked economically. When milk was scarce it often happened that the hospital required all of it. The surplus milk, whenever available, had to be converted into butter and eventually disposed of as ghee at a considerable loss, since it was impossible to produce milk in Pune, where the cost of fodder was high and grazing non-existent, in competition with villages outside Pune or in Sangli, by whom the milk for manufacturing ghee was produced under totally different conditions.

The agricultural advisers of the Government therefore recommended that the average daily yield of milk should be raised to 1,000 pounds in order to avoid much of the loss occasioned by the disposal of surplus milk in the form of ghee and efforts should be made to sell it in the markets in Pune. The dairy was made an integral part of the Poona Agricultural College. The buildings of the dairy were enlarged and a thoroughly up-to-date dairy and refrigerating plant was installed. In the budget for 1914-15, the Government of the Bombay Presidency appropriated about $32,000 for the improvements and extensions mentioned, and a special unit for manufacture of ghee was built.

In 1915, a couple of shops selling milk products started in Pune. One of them was started by Shivalingappa Gatade and was situated near Babu Genu chowk. This was the first shop to sell hung curd in Pune. Long queues were often seen outside his shop. But it took him twenty more years to start selling ghee. By then, there were a few more shops which had started selling milk products, especially ghee.

Gandhian philosophy had gained popularity by then. The diet endorsed by Gandhiji comprised ghee. But it had to be made from cow’s milk. So these shops started stocking ghee made from cow’s milk too.

But most of the butter to make ghee still came from outside Pune. And the ghee stocked in these shops was often looked with suspicion.

So, when Tiwari was accused of adulterating ghee he had purchased from Sangli, he lodged a complaint with the Poona Municipality. A case was registered under the Bombay Prevention of Adulteration Act, 1925. Samples were sent to Bombay for testing and a month later he got a clean chit. He put an advertisement in “Jnanaprakash” to declare this.

Fifteen years later, Dalda, the manufacturer of hydrogenated vegetable oil in India, had to get involved in a similar fight. But that’s another story for another time.

Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at chinmay.damle@gmail.com

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