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Fizz king of Tamil Nadu: Story of the humble Bovonto as Pepsi-Coke lose charm

Its unique grape flavour immediately differentiates it from giants that dominate the cola market. With embers of fire and text that has a raw quality stamped to its label, the humble Bovonto, brings back a flood of memories to anyone who happens to chance upon it. An occurrence that is becoming increasingly common following the pro-jallikattu protests, that brought Chennai to a standstill.

Bovonto, a grape-flavoured aerated drink, manufactured by Kalimark first hit the stands in 1958. The company itself, completed a century of its existence in 2016. Now, as the rampage against global soft drink companies continues as an extension of the jallikattu protests, a drink that quenches your nostalgic thirst, is set to replace the empty spaces in refrigerators and shelves across the state.

“I am part of the 4th generation in my family which has been running this soft drink business for over a century now,” says R Palani Raj, the proprietor of the company, who manages the Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Kanyakumari units. “We have 9 manufacturing units in all and they are all run by family members,” he adds. Now, a prominent name in the business, Palani Raj recalls the struggles of his great grandfather who first set up this business. “Palani Appa Nadar, was the son of a wealthy businessman. He, however, left the family and set out to achieve something by himself in Virudhunagar. It was a riches to rags story for him. He was out on the streets selling buttermilk and even dried cow dung to make ends meet,” says Palani Raj. 

“After one point, he began to loan out money to people. During this period, a man who owned a shop that made soft drinks was unable to pay him back and instead gave him his machine. My great grandfather brought the machine back home but had no idea what to do with it,” he explains.

The machine would have been left to collect rust in a corner of their home if it wasn’t for the resourcefulness of Palani Appa’s wife Unnamallai Ammal. “My great grandmother figured out how to use the machine and encouraged her husband to learn as well. He was then helped by some workers from a factory, who taught him more advanced methods that can be used with the machine.” But learning was not enough in 1916, at a time when people were not ready to experiment with new products. So, Palani Appa would set off on a bullock cart to villages nearby to convince shopkeepers to give his products a try. “They would add different food colours to the drink. In those days, these drinks were called ‘colour’ and several existed in the market already.”

Then, how did this new face in the market get shopkeepers to readily sell his drink? “It was ingenious really,” laughs Palani Raj. “He would go to the shops as a customer ahead of time and buy one of the regular drinks. He would take a sip and then tell other customers, ‘This tastes terrible. You should try the new drink launched by Kalimark. It tastes wonderful.’ A day later he would go there with his product as a trader and a shopkeeper who would already be curious by now, will agree to test it.”

After this, there was no looking back for the company. They have launched eight products and set up nine factories across the state. They now supply to Karnataka, Mumbai, Delhi, Dubai and even Australia.

With the Tamil Nadu Vanigar Sangam calling for traders to ban Coca-Cola and Pepsi products from March 1, Kalimark and several other local brands will see a big boost. “And we intend to capitalise on this,” says Palani Raj. “

For many in the state, Bovonto is a household name. “It was during my 12th standard that I first drank Bovonto,” recalls Guruprasad, a software professional based in Chennai. “I always have a bottle of the soft drink in my fridge. It is far better than Pepsi and Coca-Cola. I really hope it makes a comeback and is available in more shops after the ban comes into place,” he notes.

For 75-year-old Gowri Narayanamurthy, the drink represents summer days with her four sons. “They would come all sweaty after playing out in the heat and I would be ready with glasses of Bovonto for them and their friends. But the drink slowly disappeared from the local shops. They had only Coca-Cola the last time I bothered to check,” she claims.

The Tamil Nadu Vanigar Sangam, predicts a change in the current situation. “Shops have already started stocking Indian brands. There will be a greater demand once the ban is in place. This will be really advantageous for local products,” says Tamil Nadu Vanigar Sangangalin Peramaipu President AM Vikramaraja.

Several companies including Kalimark have already begun getting enquiries regarding their other products from vendors. “We are currently doing research to reduce the carbonation in our drink and to make it more of a juice,” says Palani Raj. “When the demand increases, we will be ready for it,” he says with a tone of finality.

Source: The News Minute