Rishi Majumder unravels the mystique of Budhia Surma, Mumbai’s oldest Surma and Kaajal producer, a firm that boasts of a customer base that could rival Estee Lauder’s
Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
Dear Sir, I intend to place my order for Budhia Marka Surma. I am your customer for the last 60 years. Hope to hear from you by return of post. Madan, Ferozepur City
A large eye, hand painted on a signboard, attracts attention even over Null Bazaar’s usually frantic din. The brand, signed minutely on the corner reads “Budhia”. These boards, hung for over a century on most surma shops in Null Bazaar, Pydhonie, Mandvi, Chakla, Bhendi Bazaar, Dongri, Umarkhandi, Nagpara and Madanpura are too renowned to require elucidation. On tracing their origin one reaches the aged but well maintained Datu Manji Padamshi Surmawala Company building at Palagali, Samuel Street. From this tiny two-storeyed building, the company manufactures and sells Surma, Kajal and eye drops to the world’s megacities (especially in USA, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Malaysia and Sri Lanka) and India’s villages (in almost every Indian state). At a time when most traditional businesses are going bust, Budhia Surma (one of the country’s largest and oldest manufacturers) has a customer base rivaling that of many multinationals.
The ground floor houses the FDA (Food and Drugs Authority) approved manufacturing unit. Here the Surma is made by crushing Ladore stone to a powder smoother than talcum, and blending it with herbs. Certain varieties contain crushed pearls as ingredient. The Kajal is made from pure ghee, and the eye drop from high grade rose petals and herbal ingredients. Devoid of chemicals, the products are made as per prescription from the Unani stream of medicine, hailing from the teachings of Hippocrates in Ancient Greece. The surma comes in black and white, and is divided into general and medicinal. While the general Surma is used to keep the eyes clean and healthy, the medicinal remedies a host of eye problems, including even early-stage cataract. Further subdivisions are allotted as per the user’s age.
A wooden spiral staircase connects the ground floor factory, the second floor godown and a wooden officecum-retail space on the first floor. Framed here are two black and white portraits. One is of Ratanbai, who founded the company two hundred years ago with her Unani expertise. She was called “Budhia Mai” then, which led to the product’s brand name. Next to her is that of her husband, Datu Manji Padamshi, who ran the company with her, and lent his name to the company.
Many cite Budhia Surma, as representative of a traditional world that will soon vanish. But its sales grow by leaps everyday, extending every year into newer regions. The manager Santosh Sakate agrees that Surma, used by men and women alike, is more popular among the older generation. “But they recommend it to their children and grandchildren who then start using it,” he adds.
But the products bridge a more significant gap. Sakate is difficult to interview because for approximately three weeks in a month he is out of Mumbai, marketing Budhia Surma in the hinterland. The delivery of these products to unknown villages is done via post (considered more reliable than courier for such areas), and paid for by VPP (Value Payable Post). A postman once wrote to buy one for himself. On using it, he decided to buy it in bulk and sell it with every letter delivery. He’s dead now but his daughter runs the business and other postmen have followed suit. Religious units (the Dera Sacha Sauda for one) buy Budhia products to distribute it in charity, and grain sellers and rural banks offer them free to customers. The letter quoted from above, is one among hundreds received each week and would make for ideal Tata Sky customer ads but Budhia doesn’t advertise on TV or Radio. It generates this demand through striking signboards, advertisements in vernacular newspapers and the earliest known marketing technique: being close to its loyal customer base. It is unlikely that the world it outlines will disappear. Budhia Surma’s world forms the bottom of a pyramid, extending from the poor immigrant in New York to the farmer near Ferozepur. And Budhia’s office reminds us of this world in a far gentler way than Bollywood mascara ever did.
This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: