The summer chilleris now trying to stay relevant for all seasons
It is not a cola and it is not endorsed by Shah Rukh Khan. It also lacks ready-to-drink convenience. Forty years older than independent India, it is still going strong.
Rooh Afza, the scarlet-hued refresher, was founded by a drug maker called Abdul Majeed in Old Delhi in 1907. This classic summer sharbat has survived Partition, the licence raj, economic reforms, carbonated drinks and tetra-pack juices. An old newspaper ad for this drink says, “When the motor car was on its way in and the horse buggy on its way out, Sharbat Rooh Afza was there."
Now that the soot-spouting motor car is on its way out and clean, cool hybrids are on their way in, Rooh Afza is still here. “Every year, we sell 2 crore (20 million) bottles," says Abdul Majeed, director of Hamdard (Wakf) Laboratories (India), the Delhi-based manufacturer of the sharbat. “We have seen a 20% increase in sales in the past four years." Majeed is the great-grandson of Hakeem Abdul Majeed, Hamdard’s founder.
Like any lasting brand, Rooh Afza has passed through moments of anxiety. “There was a drop in sales in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and our share of the throat declined," says Tarundeep Singh Rana, general manager, marketing, Hamdard. “Consumers were taken in by carbonated drinks and the Frootis of the world. Our brand needed to be reinvented and refreshed. We started new campaigns, got (actor) Juhi Chawla as our brand ambassador and established connections with resident welfare associations in cities across north India. Today, our drives have borne fruit. In the ₹ 400 crore market of powdered soft drinks and liquid concentrates, Rooh Afza’s share is 50%."
It is no exaggeration to say that the older generations have grown up with Rooh Afza moments. “I first had Rooh Afza when I was a five-year-old," says Pushpesh Pant, author of the voluminous India: The Cookbook. “It was gifted to my mother by her friend from Delhi, who was visiting our home in Mukteshwar. In just one sip, I tasted melon, pineapple and orange. There was a trace of rose and a hint of sandalwood. I found the sharbat to be a beautiful amalgam of traditional flavours and aromas."
The absence of artificial flavours, fat and cholesterol in the drink have become its USP in media campaigns. Promoted as “the healthy alternative", the print ads of the sharbat with “natural cooling herbs" ask us to “enjoy it without any fear". “Consumers’ consciousness towards natural products is increasing and there are rising concerns about artificial preservatives in food products," says Rana. “We tapped into the opportunity to stake claim to the natural refresher space."
Priced at ₹ 105, the 700ml glass bottle is identifiable on the grocer’s shelves with its neck rings and a label showing a bouquet of carrots, mint leaves, white water lilies and other flowers and herbs. The sharbat’s 22 constituents include spinach, watermelon, endive, khas-khas grass, coriander seed and the distillate of Rosa damascena, or the damask rose, which comes from the rose farms of Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh.
Hamdard’s headquarters in Delhi border the Walled City. A giant banner of a Rooh Afza bottle dominates its grey front. “We produce more than 600 products and have an annual turnover of ₹ 400 crore," says Majeed. “Almost half of it comes from Rooh Afza." The other Hamdard brands might lack the syrup’s star power, but down the decades a few have built their own consumer fan following—Safi for clear skin, Cinkara for energy, Roghan Badam Shirin for hair, and Pachnol for acidity.
However, it is Rooh Afza that is as familiar in Lucknow as it is in Multan and Chittagong. Its geographical expansion mirrors the cataclysmic political transformations of the subcontinent. Following Partition, the founder’s elder son stayed in India, but his younger son moved to Pakistan and raised a new Hamdard from two rooms in Karachi. Exoticizing itself as the “Summer drink of the East", Rooh Afza in Pakistan tastes exactly the same as its Indian counterpart. After East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971, the property in Dhaka was transferred to a local entrepreneur, who carried on the legacy that began in Old Delhi’s Lal Kuan.
Hakeem Abdul Majeed included Rooh Afza in his first list of drugs in 1908. A drink made to treat illnesses like heat stroke, dehydration and diarrhoea, Rooh Afza’s Persian name means “one that enhances the spirit and uplifts the soul". Earlier, when there was only a single factory in Old Delhi, Rooh Afza bottles were filled manually and the labels pasted by hand. Today, there is one bottling plant in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, and two in Manesar, Haryana, where the bottles are filled by a high-speed, fully automated rotary filling machine.
“One of our challenges is to prolong shelf-life usage beyond summer months and get lapsed users back to the fold," says Rana. “So we are aggressively pushing it as an additive and taste-maker, which it always was."
In fact, many of us might remember our mothers adding a spoon or two of Rooh Afza to homemade ice creams, milkshakes, yogurts, custards and kheers. In 2009, Hamdard commissioned cookbook author Nita Mehta to devise 30 recipes inspired by the drink. The Relishing Recipes From Rooh Afza, a bottle-shaped booklet, has testimonials from women thanking the syrup for pleasing crotchety mothers-in-law and impressing kitty party guests.
“We are well-entrenched in the home with the kids, the elderly and the home-makers," says Hadayat Islam, the brand manager at Hamdard. “Our challenge is to get the youth in college canteens and shopping malls. The generation that grew up in an India of the 1970s and 1980s had fewer choices and so it was easier for Rooh Afza to establish a relationship. But today, there are so many brands. If we don’t catch the attention of the milk-shy, cola-loving pre-teens, we might risk missing out on tomorrow’s market."
While “it never crossed the mind" of the sharbat-makers even in their darkest moments to tweak the recipe, they are trying to adapt to modern times by experimenting with the packaging. This year, for the first time in its history, Rooh Afza is being sold in plastic bottles at select stores in Hyderabad and Bangalore. “It’s a pilot project and we will introduce those bottles nationwide only if they click with consumers," says Islam.
Hamdard is also toying with Rooh Afza dispensing machines, one of which can be seen at the headquarters. In March, Rooh Afza’s new TV ad, in which a young family of four is bonding over carom and the sharbat, had a peppy number performed by playback singer Sunidhi Chauhan.
Adman Piyush Pandey feels Rooh Afza does not need to place itself alongside multinational soft drinks. “Rooh Afza is cool in its own way," he says. “A traditional drink that has stayed relevant, it is one of those rare brands that has a hold over consumers not because of marketing but because of its product."
In the white-hot months of May and June, the sharbat’s maximum daily production reaches 225,000 bottles.
In this season, Rooh Afza vendors are seen, among other places, in Old Delhi, in front of the Sufi shrine of Sarmad Shaheed, the walls of which are as blood-red as the drink sold outside. Walking in the intense heat, thirsty pilgrims are taken aback by the sight of a block of melting ice kept over a large vessel filled with the sharbat. Sweaty hands tremble on touching the surface of the chilled glass, wet with condensation. The first few drops go in, barely registering their presence in the dry mouth. A few moments later, the heat recedes. It’s magic.