Perhaps it’s a sign of the times we live in. Or may be a return to our roots. Or it could simply be good business sense, or perhaps philanthropy. But when Baba Ramdev announced in January that he would turn his Patanjali Ayurved Ltd into a non-profit entity, making charitable organization Patanjali Seva Trust its holding company, he wasn’t the first to do so.

Way back in 1906, before India got freedom and when Pakistan and India were undivided, Hafiz Abdul Majeed, then 23, started a Unani clinic in Delhi and went on to standardize and sell packaged Unani products such as Rooh Afza, a fruit-based drink, and Roghan Badam Shirin, cold-pressed almond oil, Safi, a blood purifier and Cinkara, an energy drink. There were Unani practitioners and clinics present across the country.

In 1962, the company set up the Hamdard National Foundation, which carried out the organization’s charity work. The Hamdard trust looked at issues of minorities and worked on safeguarding traditional medical systems. It set up the Institute of History of Medicine and Medical Research (IHMMR) to promote research in Unani medicine. In 1981, the Hamdard Education Society was set up to promote education among marginalized sections of society. Promoter Abdul Hameed received the Padma Shri award in 1965 and the Padma Bhushan in 1992. Various prime ministers and presidents graced the inaugurations of the organization’s hospitals and institutes.

Moreover, with Rooh Afza, a drink the manufacturers say contains no artificial flavours, fat or cholesterol, and is made with cooling herbs and used to treat conditions such as heat stroke, dehydration and diarrhoea, the company was well-entrenched in homes across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Following Partition, the founder’s younger son moved to Pakistan and started over from two rooms in Karachi; the older son remained in India. Likewise, after East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971, the company transferred its business there to a local entrepreneur who continues its legacy. 

Yet, as India modernized, the company struggled as it shied away from its past. According to Santosh Desai, a writer, social commentator and managing director of Future Brands, the company got trapped between the old and the new. It considered its past a constraint and tried to be modern and cool. To be sure, this was the period post-liberalization in 1991 and multinational companies had started to make inroads into the country. Even companies like Dabur India Ltd, set up in 1884, moved away from their Ayurvedic roots and focused instead on being seen as packaged consumer goods makers with a range of herbal and natural products.

However, now there is an increasing cost attached to modernity—consumers are concerned about contamination, depletion, pollution and use of chemicals and their side effects. Environment is threatened with unsustainable production. Moreover, even controversies like the Cola pesticides issue and safety concerns over Nestle’s Maggi noodles have led to consumers feeling that packaged foods from MNCs have either high sodium, potassium, fats or sugar content. Also as consumerism rises, there is attached guilt of consumption.

All this has circled back to the emergence of a new set of companies that have embraced the Indian tradition and the production of natural and herbal products and are celebrating them unapologetically.

So, we have Hector Beverages Pvt. Ltd, marketer of the Paper Boat brand which was launched in 2012, which has based its business on marketing ethnic drinks evoking nostalgia and childhood memories. This platform, notes K.V. Sridhar, founder and chief creative officer of Hyper Collective, a strategy, communication, content and design platform, could have been claimed by Parle Agro Pvt. Ltd, makers of Frooti or even Dabur and Hamdard as they had the rights to it.

Meanwhile, Patanjali Ayurved, which started in 2006, manufactures and sells everything from pulses to ghee, biscuits to shampoo, juices to anti-ageing creams. It has also expressed interest in entering new areas such as infrastructure, solar power and apparel. Also, unlike its predecessor which got limited by its own heritage, Patanjali Ayurved plans to ride the Indianess wave and milk it for all its worth.

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