Who trusts only taste?
Where do our tender coconuts and buttermilk preparations stand in an aggressively-promoted soft drinks market? BAGESHREE S. makes an assessment.
IT'S COOL to sport a cola in hand. In fact, there are virtual wars waged to determine the relative "coolness'' of various brands. With a firm faith in the maxim that all is fair in love and war, nothing is spared in the fierce battle of words and visual images puns, digs, twisting of slogans... As two giant cola brands slug it out through advertisements and counter- advertisements, it is not uncommon to find a third getting mileage out of subverting both.
As the air raids (if one may call ads that) continue unabated, the casualties are a range of native, natural drinks. Don't the ads themselves, after all, tell us that colas have reached the remotest Rajasthan villages, riding piggyback on the popularity of cricket and film stars?
Not many may remember that people in Malnad villages, not very long ago, beat the heat with a home-made drink called Gangodaka, made by grinding greengram, poppy seeds, and jaggery. If this rather classy drink was for the areca planters, the farm hands would get their staple of water and jaggery. Butter milk with a touch of ginger was an occasional treat. These drinks are not "cool'', but certainly cooling on the system. By the way, while Gangodaka has largely been replaced by colas in the newly- acquired refrigerators in areca planters' houses, farm hands continue to drink water and jaggery.
Starting from the ubiquitous tender coconut (not so ubiquitous after the mite menace, though) to butter milk, sugarcane juice, the roadside "goli" soda, and even the controversial Neera, there are so many alternatives to bottled soft drinks. But those of us who crib to pay Rs. 6 to Rs. 8 for a tender coconut (the going rates in Bangalore today depending on the size of the nut and the locality in which it is sold), would pay Rs. 10 without a murmur for a smart bottle of "sweetened carbonated water'' which "contains no fruit''. This is the price coconut pays for having neither the right shape nor the "young and happening'' image. But Ayurvedic texts lavish praise on this humble nut. Rajavallabha Nighantu, a 16th Century text, says that tender coconut, besides quenching thirst, cures pitta, fevers, vomiting, burning sensation, and blood impurities.
Karnataka Janapada and Yakshagana Academy recently held a symposium on the traditional drinks of the coastal districts of Karnataka. Saraswati Hegde from Uttara Kannada District was given an award for her expertise in the preparation of traditional drinks at the function. Ms. Hegde can prepare a mindboggling 60 varieties of native drinks. Her repertoire includes a variety of fragrant waters (tulsi, jeera, sandalwood, china grass, lavancha, and so on), fruit juices, kashayas, butter milk preparations, and so on.
These native drinks are not only tasty and refreshing, but are also known for their medicinal value. Dr. Sucharita Pandit, an Ayurvedic consultant, points out that Indian systems do not call something "cool'' simply by how it "feels'' on the tongue. "Substances are classified as Ushna Veerya and Sheeta Veerya depending on their effect on the system. A cube of ice that freezes your tongue does not cool the body at all.''
Specific to various regions, we have a wide range of traditional drinks. For instance, besides juices made from minake fruit and belada hannu, raw mango juice with a sweet-sour-gingery taste was very popular in Old Mysore region. A drink made from ragi hurihittu, tamarind water, and jaggery was consumed for its cooling effect in the ragi-growing regions.
The academy meet at Honnavara stressed the need to package and create an alternative market to such native drinks.
Packaging and marketing are, perhaps, crucial issues. A look through the racks in the supermarkets of Bangalore will tell us that natural drinks are far from passe. One finds here a number of packed drinks that claim to be "natural''. This naturalness comes with a big price tag, though. Latest in the lot are juices imported from Australia that claim to have "no preservatives'' and "no added sugar''. These products have a relatively small but a faithful band of health-conscious patrons. Today, we get even tender coconut water in tetra packs.
There are also small-time entrepreneurs who cash in on the rather fashionable fascination for all things natural. Early morning joggers in Lal Bagh can, for instance, buy juices of their choice from an innovative woman entrepreneur who lands at the crack of down with containers of fruit and vegetable juices. Diabetics can get even bitter gourd juice here. A number of non-governmental organisations also promote native drinks. For instance, Desi, an outlet near South End Circle that sells a range of indigenously-produced products, sells herbal concentrates made from cocum, sogade beru, and so on. But these small-scale ventures can hardly compete with soft-drink giants for obvious reasons big capital investment, infrastructure, world-wide marketing network, unbeatable advertising campaigns... The campaigns are powerful enough to make us overlook medical research that says that the addictive "zing things'' have empty calories and contain phosphorous that interferes with absorption of calcium into the body. They can also create an amnesia for the goodness of native drinks.
``We are forgetting so many native drinks by sheer non- use,'' says Prof. M.D. Nanjundaswamy of Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS), which is trying to market alcohol-free sweet toddy, or Neera, tapped from coconut trees. Prof. Nanjundaswamy is livid that a "stupid and corrupt'' government that writes off Rs. 250 crore tax arrears to a cola company is inimical to farmers' initiatives. "What should happen to traditional knowledge systems of a country in such a scenario?'' he asks. The KRRS is, however, now all set to open a co-operative society in Chamarajnagar that will process and market Neera and other related products. "These totally organic products might find a market in Europe, where such products are becoming immensely popular,'' he says.
This takes us back to the same question: Is it important to find ways of dressing up native products in a market-friendly attire, rather than bemoan the loss of such knowledge systems? Prof. Nanjundaswamy says that the success of Kurien's Amul experiment is a good model: An indigenous, co-operative endeavour with an efficient network, a brand name, and a fair amount of publicity. Mr. Kurien once told Prof. Nanjundaswamy: "You see, we don't sell just milk, we sell Amul.''
Indigenous drinks, clearly, have a tough time in the present market scene. They can quietly remain within the walls of the kitchen and be forgotten by generation next, unless, of course, they are "discovered'' and patented by some American company. Or, they have to get into the ring to face heavyweight cola companies, with little or no support from the Government in a free market economy. And this they have to do without compromising on what is both their essential quality and unique selling point: Natural goodness. That is, clearly, no mean task.
Send this article to Friends by