The 75th year of independence cannot ignore the rising culture of startups in India. But what was it like doing businesses before independence amidst the foreign rule? This question takes us to the 1795-year-born shop Bhagat Halwai, the first shop in the heritage city, Agra.
"The shops could not remain open all the time. The shopkeepers of Agra were allowed to operate for just 3-4 hours in a day, that too was not fixed. The English would come and state the new timings for every single day," says the eighth-generation owner of 'Bhagat Halwai', Riddhi Bhagat, who has grown up listening to the century-old stories of her sweet and snacks shop. Contrary to the lakhs of shops in Agra at the current time, there were few businesses before independence, and Bhagat Halwai was the first ever established in the city.
Riddhi Bhagat opens the chapter of her age-old shop, and the first page dates back to the year 1795 when a teenager named Lekh Raj Bhagat, nearly 13-14 years of age, migrated from Dausa, Rajasthan, to Agra. He settled in Belanganj, near the Yamuna river, keeping up the tradition of settlements on the banks of rivers in ancient times. However, he changed the tradition of relishing sweetness after the meal in the city.
With the first-ever shop opened in Agra, Lekh Raj Bhagat started making 'Gondh ke Laddoos' in a small space. According to Riddhi Bhagat, before this city's development, people would eat sugar or jaggery after food; hence, Lekh Raj Bhagat's attempt was a hit and trial method to earn a livelihood. He managed to comply with the residents' expectations of Agra due to his hygiene standards.
Riddhi Bhagat mentions that her ancestor would draw the Yamuna water at around 4:30 a.m. every day to prepare sweets. Not just this, he would use 'dona', a local term used for the bowls made of leaves to take the money from people to maintain sanitation. Bhagat suspects that he would have started making 'Besan ke laddoos' around the same time, as people were impressed by Lekh Raj Ji's shop.
The daily operations, though, were not very easy. The country was already under the rule of the East Indian Company for the past 38 years. Besides the timings restrictions, Riddhi Bhagat says that Britishers would impose the taxes according to their will, and the shopkeepers would have to follow those. "They would visit the store and state the amount to be paid," Bhagat says, remembering the stories she has heard from her elders.
Adding to it, Bhagat says that the Britishers would often take or eat from the shop without paying Lekh Raj Ji, and he would happily serve them. "He used to feel contented by serving Britishers sweet, as he won't see anything wrong in feeding those who wanted to eat," Riddhi Bhagat says, adding that "even years down the line, nothing has changed as the higher authorities and government officials have just taken the position of Britishers, and the paying of taxes are done legally."
Being conscious about a particular type of sugar, locally called 'Khaand', Lekh Raj Ji would travel nearly 300 km to a few small villages in Uttar Pradesh to obtain it for his sweets. Not only was the distance the challenge, but also the fact that there was no conveyance readily available to the Indians, and they would have to take permission from the Britishers to use the bullock carts or horse carriages. "As India did not have the manufacturing bases for cars, the Britishers had dominated the local transport for their travels," Bhagat says.
It was the sheer determination of Lekh Raj Bhagat that the people gave him the name 'Bhagat Ji', and the shop was named 'Bhagat Halwai', otherwise, the shops at that time were signified by numbers like 1, 2, 3, and so forth. When Riddhi Bhagat mentions this, a sense of pride can be sensed in her tone. Making her pride even more justifiable, she says that Lekh Raj Ji did not use to write the recipe of his sweets, but his descendants managed to maintain the same taste, she adds, "It's in our blood that we know how to make it the same way."
Witnessing the 'modern India' revolutions
After the British Government took control of India in 1858, the following years saw various political movements in the country, of which Bhagat Halwai also became a part. Riddhi Bhagat mentions that the shop witnessed various historical moments during the freedom struggle movement. Being the oldest shop in Belanganj, people would gather and discuss different plans.
One of the stories Riddhi Bhagat has heard from her elders is of Chaudhary Charan Singh, the fifth Prime Minster of India, who once came to Bhagat Halwai without security. Due to the lack of communication channels, the then owner of the shop asked him if he was the Prime Minister, to which he replied, "No, but I will be one very soon." The incident simply implies how devoted ancestors were
to their work, Bhagat says.
Finally, in 1947, when India was likely to get independence very soon, the situation was not very good for the shopkeepers and traders. Bhagat highlights that the shops were asked to stop operations and were shut for nearly 4-5 months. Only 2-3 months post-independence, the shops could be opened again. Even though India was lacking on various sides immediately after 1947 on the economic front, at least the shopkeepers and traders did sigh in relief.
The owners of Bhagat Halwai also saw it as an opportunity to refresh their menu and added staple breakfast, including Poori Sabzi and the now popular items from Agra - Petha and Bedhai, Daal Kachauri served with Aloo Curry and Kashifal Sabzi. Now, transportation was easy, and the owners could easily go and buy the ingredients as there did not prevail black marketing and product hoarding like before.
"Doing business is harder than managing businesses before independence."
Since its first establishment, the owners of Bhagat Halwai have not tweaked the recipe. The sweets are still made of 100% ghee, and the owners do not intend to change it even in the future. "Our elders have always taught us that the foundation should be the same and it should be the way Lekh Raj Ji had laid its base," Riddhi Bhagat says.
The business expanded and grew up to many other outlets in the city. "There used to be a time when the brothers and the late owners would sit together at one store, but they bifurcated with newly opened stores," she says. Bhagat shouldered the shop's responsibility at the age of 25 after completing her studies in law. Being one of the directors of the shop, Riddhi Bhagat shares that Bhagat Halwai, spread over three floors and an extensive factory, has more than 80 sweets along with snacks like Dosa, Noodles, etc.
While the expanded business has turned the profits to manifolds, Bhagat says it is comparatively harder to carry a business in the current time. "The shop was a small undertaking years ago, but it was also easy to reap profits and manage the operations. Doing business is harder than before due to various government rules," she says.
Another major hindrance Bhagat mentions is the ignorance of online delivery partners, who often take the orders and eat instead of delivering to the customers, ultimately damaging the shop's name. Similar situations had occurred at the peak of Coronavirus when the shop collaborated with Zomato to distribute food to the needy, but it turned out that the delivery partners used them instead of sending it to the patients, after which the shop took on their own to help people.
Bhagat recounts an incident and says that once, a man visited their shop and pointed a gun at them, saying he did not get his order from the shop. "We had sent the order already, and it could be only the delivery boy who would not have delivered the food," she adds. However, the audacity of putting on a gun astonished Bhagat to the core.
Sometimes, as Bhagat says, even the customers put bad reviews and complain to get their money back. "We know that we send the fresh and quality food, so it is next to impossible that they find the food not good. Such behaviour is very disheartening for us." In addition, Bhagat also highlights that delivery partners face various problems in smaller cities for which they are seen protesting very frequently.
Despite the shortcomings of the present-day world, Bhagat descendants follow the principle of Lekh Raj Bhagat not to complain and give immense priority to their staff. "We are here because of our staff," Riddhi Bhagat says. Another priority for them is to uphold their century-old tradition of baking sweetness.