As a child Pia Meenakshi always looked forward to going dairy shopping with her mother. She would impatiently nudge her mother to quickly buy the milk coupon from the first floor and hurry down the steps to the counter at the ground floor.
Five-year-old Meenakshi wasn’t eager to buy milk – she was simply following the aroma of freshly baked breads and cakes.
Just like her, many children in Bengaluru would impatiently wait at the milk counter of Nilgiris 1905, a supermarket which was known for flavoured milk and its bakery. “At some point, the friends who I have made later on in life, may have been there at the same time as me, with their mums buying flavoured milk and groceries,” said 28-year-old Meenakshi, with an air of wonder. “That’s how small a group our generation is and that’s what a big part Nilgiris played in our lives.”
Meenakshi is one of the five illustrators who were commissioned by Nilgiris to sketch and share their personal memory of the supermarket on Instagram. The Bengaluru illustrator chose to depict her story from the mid-1990s with visual references to the “Japanese cake” and “sugared almonds”.
“Nilgiris was an important part of everyone’s childhood – it was the place for children’s treats,” Meenakshi said, with the eagerness of one trying to explain a secret world of nostalgia.
Twenty-eight-year-old Chennai-born Kaveri Gopalakrishnan agreed. Around 1997, Gopalakrishnan moved to Mysore to live with her grandparents, but did not expect the small town to have bakery goods that could match up to the confectioneries she had tasted back home.
“We never went to buy groceries at Nilgiris, we could get that from the vendors near my grandparent’s house.”
Since her first visit to the bakery, Gopalakrishnan’s all-time favourite has been Nilgiri’s Chocolate Biscuit, a Marie biscuit covered in chocolate. “They were special to me because there was no variety of biscuits at that time,” she said. “I would quickly store my stash in the refrigerator.”
Her illustration goes back to the good old days of Mysore: “I remember their building was covered by lots of trees and that memory stuck with me.”
When Gopalakrishnan came across a bigger, grander Nilgiris on Bengaluru’s Brigade Road, she assumed that the supermarket had a country-wide presence. It was only when she sat down to illustrate her memory from Mysore, that she realised that her childhood memory of Nilgiris was shared by people her age who grew up in South India.
One pastry which stayed with every illustrator was the “Japanese cake” – a sandwich of two biscuits with a thick layer of cream, rolled in butterscotch crumbs with a dollop of hardened chocolate on the top.
This doesn’t sound like a cake from Japan, but the name is reminiscent of the French bite-size dessert Japonais, which may have been introduced through colonialism.
Bengaluru artist Sonaksha Iyengar’s family loves the Japanese cake, but the 22-year-old’s obsession was focused on the baked savouries. “I cannot stop dreaming about the bread, it truly is the softest,” she said. “The memory of something so tiny being so momentous in my head – like devouring the perfect bread or cake, is what makes the childhood connection all the more special.”
Iyengar often designs in ocean hues, but chose to work with brighter palettes to describe her childhood. “I experimented with the feel of a child colouring in rather than solid blocks of colour,” she said.
The art can be viewed on Instagram under the hashtag #StoryofNilgiris, a campaign started by the company to create an online presence and continue maintaining relations with the generation which Meenakshi, Gopalakrishnan and Iyengar belong to.
Not all illustrators, however, had experienced the childhood memory with the brand. Many Nilgiris fans, for instance, came to them fully or half-grown, in the form of students from the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology.
Graphic designer Alicia Souza had a particular aromatic memory of the brand’s velvety bread. “This may sound creepy but I always sniff the breads at the store,” she said. “The bakery conveys a warmth which the supermarket can’t.” The 30-year-old illustrator was born and bought up in Abu Dhabi.
Neethi, 27, was born in Delhi, but often makes her comfort food in Bengaluru using ingredients from Nilgiris in Bengaluru, where she now lives.
Neethi has also illustrated a visual history of the company, which is over 100 years old. The story traces the family back to three generations, when Muthusamy Mudaliar who was a mail “runner” when the British had invaded India, founded Nilgiris in 1905 near Ooty.
In 1936, the dairy and bakery was opened on Bengaluru’s Brigade Road, which is the city’s busiest street today. Back then, it was a quiet road in the cantonment area, home to the British soldiers and migrant workers from Tamil Nadu and other neighbouring states.
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