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India at 75: The Maharajah and 14 other brands that had great impact on us

From the Air India mascot to bicycles and Aadhaar, from stationery to automobile and cosmetics, some brands have come to define the segments they represent. Here's a look at 15 such brands

Brands | Indian brands | Air India

BS Reporters 


bata store, shoes, footwear, sandals

1. Aadhaar: A billion IDs and counting

In fairness, the disagreements over Aadhaar could have been softer had it been deliberated fairly and in the right forums

It’s come to be recognised as the proof of identity for Indians. The idea of (which means ‘foundation’) sprouted in 2000 when the Rangarajan Commission recommended giving each citizen a unique ID number. But it wasn’t until 2009, when the government set up a Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) and made Nandan Nilekani its chairman, that the idea came to fruition.

Aadhaar, a 12-digit unique ID, had India lining up to offer their biometric details. It has since become the cornerstone of most government programmes. It has also been embroiled in controversies, given the use of biometric identifiers, and has been the subject of a host of Supreme Court judgements. Today, is mandatory for the direct benefit transfer schemes, MGNREGA and a host of other programmes. The process is underway to link it to PAN cards and voter ID.

2. Air India: Maharajah of the skies

Air India

India’s aviation story would be like a film without a plot if wasn’t part of it. In fact, it’s at the very heart of it. The maharajah of the skies was born (as Tata Airlines) out of the J R D Tata-led group back in 1932 and didn’t take long to find success. But a lot happened en route to this domination: in 1948, the Indian government bought 49 per cent of its shares and in 1953, acquired the remaining stake. was nationalised.

Also read: India at 75: Chelpark and 14 other brands that will take you back in time

For many, was more than an airline. During the 1990-91 Gulf War, it became a lifeline, evacuating 170,000 Indians from war-torn Kuwait — the world’s largest civilian evacuation. More recently, in 2020, it was part of the operation to bring back Indians from Covid epicentre Wuhan. Laurels and losses, Air India has seen both. Now back with the Tatas, the maharajah hopes to revive its glory days.

3. Bharti Airtel: 5G calling


In 2004, an AR Rahman-composed “hello tune” grabbed the country’s attention. It was the first time a mobile telecom company in India had launched a caller ringback tone service: “Hello tunes.”

has since dialled other firsts, too. For instance, it was the first to hit a two-million subscriber base in the country. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, it quickly expanded its reach across India, and in the 2000s also made inroads into Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and many African nations.

In India, it enjoyed the highest subscriber base for many years, until Jio arrived on the scene, pushing it to second spot. Airtel’s now heading the 5G route and has said it will start rolling out these services as early as August-end.

4. Ambassador: Burly beast

Ambassador, car

The king of Indian roads, the Ambassador, manufactured by Hindustan Motors, first rolled out in 1958. The first diesel car of Indian make, the Amby, a burly-looking beast, was sturdy, durable and did not require much tinkering.

Fixed with a beacon atop, it soon became the driving force of the country’s leaders and was a staple sight in the power corridors. A choice of the babus, the car also bridged the class gap in the country, with an affordable price point and enough room for the great Indian family.

Read more: India at 75: Horlicks to Maggi - 15 unforgettable brands we grew up with

A cult classic, the was modelled on the Morris Oxford Series III and went through seven generations, before Hindustan Motors closed down its production in 2014. It still survives in some corners of the country — and as the peeli taxi in Kolkata.

5. Amul: Asli butter

Brands that grew with India and on Indians

Founded in 1946 as part of a cooperative movement against Polson Dairy, grew under the chairmanship of Verghese Kurien. What would become an iconic brand — and “the taste of India” — was at its heart a movement to ensure fair earnings for the country’s farmers.

A market leader, the brand found its mascot in the round-eyed utterly butterly girl in a polka-dot dress — the creation of Sylvester daCunha, then the MD of advertising agency ASP that handled the account. That was back in the ’60s. The Amul girl has since kept a close eye on the goings-on in the country, meticulously recording them day after day with her puns, witty takes and compassion, depending on what emotion the event calls for.

From the Pokhran nuclear tests of 1998 to when India lifted the cricket World Cup in 2011 to Wordle, through her Amul has kept a finger on the country’s pulse.

6. Ashok Leyland: ALL on the move

Ashok Leyland, Trucks

You’ve seen that name on highways — written in block letters on large, olive-green army trucks or on the ubiquitous lorries that carry witty one-liners above the number plate.

The story goes, Jawaharlal Nehru dispatched Raghunandan Saran, a freedom fighter, to Madras (now Chennai) to invest in an industrial venture. And on September 7, 1948, Saran founded Ashok Motors, named after his son. After assembling England’s Austin cars for a few years, revved up its engine for the first time in 1955. Whether it was full air brakes, power steering, rear engines, or 18- to 82-seater double-decker buses and 7.5-49-tonne haulage vehicles, introduced concepts that later became industry standards.

Also read: India at 75: 'Hamara Bajaj' to Luna - 15 brands that you will never forget

Seven decades on, the flagship of Hinduja Group is the second-largest manufacturer of commercial vehicles in India. Globally, it is the fourth-biggest bus maker and the 19th largest manufacturer of trucks, with units in the UAE and the UK. It builds special purpose vehicles for India’s defence forces, which are a regular spectacle at the Republic Day parade. On the way, it has forged numerous transnational partnerships and exported the light of Atmanirbhar Bharat to the world.

7. Atlas: Bicycle diaries


It was the first bicycle of choice. Nay, it was synonymous with the bicycle itself. The venture — started by Janki Das Kapur from a small shed in Sonepat, Haryana, in 1950 — grew into a 25-acre factory complex in just a year, when it rolled out 12,000 cycles. By 1958, Atlas was exporting bicycles, and seven years down, it was India’s largest cycle manufacturer, having pedalled way ahead of Raleigh and Hercules. At the 1982 Asian Games, it was the official bicycle supplier.

Atlas ruled the market for over two decades with its iconic black Junta cycles, before conceding the top spot to Hero Cycles. It held on at No 2 for over 10 years during the 1980s and ’90s, before falling back. Unable to improvise or upgrade and with its wheels jammed by the pandemic, Atlas finally went into the sunset in June 2020.

8. Murphy: Right frequency

Murphy Radio

The Murphy Radio and its child mascot got the whole of India tuned to its frequency. Founded in 1929 in England by Frank Murphy and E J Power, it was the first radio to be fitted with automatic tuning correction with station names on the tuning scale.

When the brand made a foray into India in the post-Independence era, the poster child in its ad campaign lived up to the jingle — Ghar ghar ki raunak — sung by Mohammed Rafi. Families would gather round the radio to hear wartime bulletins or Binaca Geetmala.

A dream of expectant mothers, posters and calendars with the Murphy baby’s face used to be hung in homes, obstetrics/gynaecology clinics — and even barbershops. The brand still survives, but the radio has long fallen silent.

9. Bata: Finding feet

bata store, shoes

Photo: Sanjay K Sharma

A Czech brand whose name became synonymous with durability, Bata arrived in Calcutta in 1931 and soon, everyone was wearing a Bata — from school shoes to formal office-wear. With one of its first taglines, “Beware of tetanus. Even a small injury could be dangerous — so wear a shoe”, Bata taught India to wear shoes and eventually introduced the concept of seasonal footwear in the country.

Its 99.99 paise price tag soon came to be known as the Bata rate, an attractive deal in a highly price-conscious market like India. It helped the brand to become the largest stakeholder in the country’s footwear market.

With time, however, Bata came to wear a worn look with stiff competition from foreign . And so, in 2009, it decided to reinvent itself with snazzy showrooms, premium shoes, trendy bags and better product distribution. And now with a new ad campaign, with actor Disha Patani as the face of its 24x7 Casual Collection, its message is that if it’s cool, “it’s got to be Bata”.

10. Bisleri: All bottled up


“Regular water or Bisleri?” How many times we’ve been asked that question while dining out. And how many times we’ve promptly replied: “Bisleri.” The brand has come to be trusted as water that one can safely assume to be, well, safe.

Ironic as it is, Bisleri has turned the tables on us Indians who would wonder at phoren-returned relatives’ mortal fear of drinking water and their preference for colas instead. Originally an Italian brand, Bisleri was brought to India as early as 1965. Back then it was available in glass bottles in two varieties — bubbly and still — and was largely found in five-star hotels or in the refrigerators of affluent families.

Also read: India at 75: Parle-G and 14 other brands inseparable from the India story

But that changed when Bisleri International was incorporated as an Indian company in 1984. With water in the cities becoming increasingly unsafe to drink unfiltered, Bisleri soon flooded the market. Competitors were, of course, quick to appear. The brand responded with a switch in the colour scheme from blue to green to stand out and also launched quirky ad campaigns that hit out directly at phony .

11. Bollywood: Brand of brands

Bollywood, DDLJ

How does one even begin to describe a brand like Bollywood: India’s biggest entertainer; society's mirror; the most influential influencer; a world of story-tellers and dream merchants; one of the country’s most popular exports... Where does one start from: from Dadasaheb Phalke or Dadasaheb Torne?

From Satyajit Ray or Bimal Roy? Or Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Bhattacharya or Shyam Benegal? Who does one include and who does one leave out: Yash Chopra, Karan Johar, Zoya Akhtar, Farah Khan, Anurag Kashyap? Which stars does one focus on: The gorgeous Madhubala? The institutions called Prithviraj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar? Or Raj Kapoor, who had the world dancing to his tunes? Or Rajesh Khanna, the superstar who told us he hated tears? Or Amitabh Bachchan, who was angry for us all? Or Shah Rukh Khan, who came from nothing and became the baadshah of Which cinema does one write about: commercial, parallel, art? Or which genre: action, romance, horror, thriller?

isn't one brand. It is a brand of — big, small, endearing, larger than life. And it’s touched us all.

12. Boroline: Miracle in a tube


If Mysore Sandal was born out of necessity, Boroline was part of an intrepid Bengali merchant called Gourmohon Dutta’s effort to start a pharmaceutical company in 1929 to help the country throw off the imperial yoke. It quickly became an emblem of economic self-sufficiency in a nation still under British rule. It was as much a political statement as it was a skincare product: 100,000 tubes of Boroline were distributed free when India got her independence on August 15, 1947.

Today, Indians still swear by this perfumed all-purpose miracle cure for anything, from chapped lips to shaving nicks. You would be hard-pressed to find a purse or a bathroom shelf anywhere in West Bengal, in particular, without the signature green metallic tube.

It has been a brand going beyond profit margins or sales graphs, without any change to its formulation or positioning. An ointment? A cosmetic? The debate still rages.

13. Britannia: Packed with goodness


The “Brit” in comes from the British merchants who started selling biscuits from a small house in Kolkata (then Calcutta), or so it seems. No one knows who the initial promoters of the company were or what it was called initially. The name was given 26 years after its formation, in 1918.

What is known for sure is that the Bourbon maker (not only for adults) started with a sum of Rs 295. It was the only company east of the Suez Canal using gas ovens — that it imported in 1921.

The firm was also trusted by the government to feed its soldiers during the Second World War. Gabbar Singh’s approval further shoved the packets in people’s hands. The brand’s promise of a ‘Good day’ has held true all these years.

14. Byju's: Learning curve


When Byju Raveendran’s eponymous edtech firm began operations in Bengaluru in 2011, India had already witnessed 64 years of independence. But it would be remiss to not mention the granddaddy of Indian start-ups as the country turns 75 — such has been its impact in just over a decade.

Consider this: the firm has been valued at over $22 billion; its app, which racked up 2 million downloads within three months of launch in 2015, boasts over 100 million downloads; and its platform offers content for everything from ‘Kids Learning’ to ‘IAS Coaching’.

Not just that. Top celebs such as Shah Rukh Khan endorse the brand, which is also the jersey sponsor for the Indian men’s cricket team since 2019. The Covid-induced lockdowns supercharged its business as schools were shut, and coming on the heels of its fundraising spree, it has quickly expanded across national boundaries.

Some even consider Byju’s to be an investment company, thanks to its steady stream of acquisitions from brick-and-mortar test prep firm Aakash Educational Services to WhiteHatJr, which teaches coding to kids. But as schools reopen, there are question marks about the strength of its business model, with the firm also facing allegations of employing predatory practices to sell courses, a charge Byju’s denies.

15. Camlin stationery: What’s in my pencil box?

Camlin, stationery

Buying a Camlin stationery box before the start of a new session used to be a welcome annual ritual for school students in the nineties and noughties. In 1931, Dandekar and Co started off by making ‘horse brand’ ink products.

When it launched Camlin pencils, it initially used wood imported from California and later switched to cedar from Kashmir. After Independence, the demand for wooden pencils grew and deodar was considered as an option.

Dandekar piloted the research for a substitute and after intensive trials, poplar wood from Kashmir started being used by Camlin and other pencil makers. The brand began its product diversification from the 1970s. It forayed into colour pencils in 1970, and in 1984, into pharmaceutical products. It got a new identity in 2012 after Japanese firm Kokuyo acquired a majority stake in Camlin. Although the pencil manufacturing business has been shrinking lately, Camlin has acquired a global reputation over time.

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First Published: Thu, August 11 2022. 18:34 IST