India’s masala king, founder and face of MDH, dies at 97

Mahashay Dharampal Gulati, who died on Thursday at the age of 97 after a cardiac arrest, earned several sobriquets over the years: MDH Uncle, Dadaji and Masala King. It was the last that most aptly described the man behind the New Delhi-based masala maker MDH Private Limited, who single-handedly made the packaged, ready-to-use, spices popular across the country.

Dressed in a red turban, white sherwani (long coat) and a pearl necklace, the moustached, bespectacled, ever-smiling Gulati was the face of his brand, featuring in almost all its ads over the decades. MDH is short for Mahashian Di Hatti, which is Punjabi for the “shop of a respectable man”.

Gulati’s was one of the remarkable post-partition refugee success stories. Born in 1923 in Sialkot, Pakistan, Gulati came to Delhi in September 1947. Starting as a tangewala (horse-cart puller) in Delhi, he built MDH, started by his father Chuni Lal Gulati as a small shop in Sialkot in 1919, into a ₹2,500- crore brand. After selling his horse cart in 1948, he bought a small wooden khokha (makeshift shop) at Ajmal Khan Road in Karol Bagh, where he started grinding and selling spices under the brand name Mahashian Di Hatti. The packaged masala was among MDH’s first innovation. The cardboard box pack launched in the late 1940s carried Gulati’s image.

As the business picked up, in 1954, he set up a spice store in Karol Bagh, and in 1958, handed it over to his brother Satpal Gulati. Today, it is famous as Roopak Stores.

Gulati always believed in the power of adverting, and MDH was one of the first companies to launch an aggressive print ad campaign in 1948, placing advertisements in Pratap, a popular newspaper among Punjabi refugees those days. In 1984, when the company launched its first TV ad, he was once again its brand ambassador.

“People ask me why I don’t get Shah Rukh Khan or Amitabh Bachchan to promote my masalas. Why should I ride on their success to promote my brand? I am the man behind the success of my product, so shouldn’t I be promoting it,” he told HT 2009.

MDH was formally incorporated as Mahashian Di Hatti Private Limited in 1965 and today has 19 factories. Beginning in the 1980s, new rivals kept entering the market, but MDH products — today there are about 45 — remained popular as ever. “The secret of his success was his passion and indefatigable energy. He brought a personal touch to whatever he did. He was very punctual, disciplined and visited his factories every day. For the past 50 years, he worked almost 18 hours a day and was in his office from 9am to 6pm every day,” said Rajinder Kumar, executive vice president of MDH. “He used to say that he knew about his brand and consumers and so liked to promote it himself…” added Kumar.

Gulati became the highest-paid CEO in the packaged consumer goods business in 2017, drawing a salary of ₹21 crore — most of which went to charity. Conferred Padma Bhushan for his contribution, he also ran a number of educational institutes and a super-specialty hospital, Mata Chanan Devi Hospital, in Delhi. In 2012, he published his autobiography, Tangewala Kaise Bana Masalo ka Shahenshah, which translates as “how a tangewala became the masala emperor” .

President Ram Nath Kovind, Union ministers Rajnath Singh and Piyush Goyal, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, his deputy Manish Sisodia and Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra mourned the passing of Gulati. “Dharm Pal ji was very inspiring personality. He dedicated his life for the society. God bless his soul,” Kejriwal tweeted.

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