Utterly Butterly History
It’s probably the wrong year of my life to be admitting this, but I’m a firm believer in the notion that butter makes just about all things just a little bit better.
Think of it.
Toast would stay unforgivably dry. Pastry crusts just wouldn’t get as flaky. Cakes couldn’t live up to expectations. There would be no such thing as an Irish lace cookie. Butter chicken just wouldn’t be. Neither would beurre noisette. Steamed asparagus would pine for its partner. We’d not able to clarify anything. And that would be a tragedy.
Turns out, it’s not just food that gets better with butter. History does, too. What the hey, you ask? So I’ll explain.
Sometime in the 60s, when India was newly independent and trying to figure out its socialist self, milk production was at a low, so the government introduced Operation Flood—a scheme implemented between 1971 and 1996 to (one presumes) flood the country with dairy products by organizing rural farmers’ cooperatives and connecting them to urban consumers in a sort-of massive milky grid. It was the beginning of the White Revolution, owing to the color of the substance with which we were all to be flooded.
All humor aside, this was one of the world’s largest and most respected dairy development schemes to be undertaken—with funding from the World Food Program (WEP) and later assistance from the European Economic Community (EEC) and the World Bank. It was unique in that the funds invested were not handed out as freebies, but invested in milk manufacturing, which was being organized via grassroots efforts, into a series of village-district-state co-ops. Its success was in its results: milk production rose dramatically, and India quickly became the world’s largest milk producer, and many of us take the availability of dairy products entirely for granted thanks to this ground-breaking work. (Although, as usual, per capita availability is another story entirely). The architect and father of this unthinkably massive scheme was one Dr Verghese Kurien, who founded a Co-Op in Gujarat–and who, by coincidence passed away this week, at 91.
Operation Flood was modeled on the experience of successful co-ops in Gujarat, one of which was the Anand Milk Union Limited—or AMUL.
Amul is no longer an acronym in common Indian parlance, but one of the country’s most successful, visible, and beloved brands. It rode the wave of early waves of milk marketing, having been the mother of all the Mother Dairies being established under Operation Flood. And it owed much of its visibility and success to just one of its products: butter.
Butter and Amul have become synonymous thanks to the Amul moppet: a smart, chubby little thing with blue-tinged hair cut in a fringe (not bangs, thank you very much), always in a red-on-white polka dot dress with a comically high pony-tail seized also with a polka-dot bow, whom all—and I do mean all—Indians will know, recognize, and have laughed with, and loved at some point in their lives.
A new commemorative compilation of Amul’s hoardings placed at 90 locations across the country, in 22 newspapers, and of course on Facebook, tells us that Amul’s moppet was slow to find her voice, but when she did, she held her pitch and took over, in her characteristically charming and disarming way, as narrator of the present.
Our real Miss India is nearly 50, but hasn’t aged a day since her birth in the late 60s. And she’s been with us through it all, gently following our moods and nudging them–er, co-opting them, even–into a resolutely butter-makes-it-better sort-of lifelong commitment to witty puns, good humor, and a light ethics of universal appeal.
Much like Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline, she smiles at the good, she frowns at the bad, and sometimes she is very sad. What she narrates, in 4000 hoardings produced over 40+ years, is the feel-good story we like to tell about ourselves. She doesn’t appear in each, but it’s her voice we hear in all.
Here’s an overview, inspired by Amul’s India:
She works with the stuff of popular culture, at once the actor and the fan.
She pokes gentle fun at everything, and turns most hard positions to butter (Politicians make such easy targets).
She is a very punny girl, who re-works every acronym to her advantage.
1987: Amul’s solution to Sri Lankan conflicts: Butter Diplomacy (pun of
course intended). LTTE stands for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
and IPKF is the Indian Peace Keeping Force sent to Sri Lanka at the time.
She celebrates the milestones of scientific and technological achievement:
But with an assured sense of the even bigger picture:
She's a sportsman at heart, at once player and fan:
She's a nationalist in international relations:
Her feminism and her politics have progressed with the times, but have remained ever playful (perhaps just a tad naughty):
2009: Joining the Pink Chaddi (Underwear) Campaign launched by the
Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women in response to
Sri Ram Sena leader Muthalik’s opposition to couples dating or celebrating
Valentine’s Day. Some 500 pink “love chaddis” were couriered to
Muthalik’s office on Valentine’s Day.
She understands the perils of liberalization, though she rides its wave, too. She is a swadeshi (self-made, self-reliant) at heart.
Early 1990s: Then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh’s liberalization
of the Indian economy paves the way for Coca Cola to re-enter the
Indian market after its 1977 exit. It was the end of a “Be Indian
Buy Indian” era.
She comments as a child on local politics (you just can't take offense):
And cusorily on state-reorganizations:
It's hard to say what she thinks of reservations, or affirmative action quotas. She's takes a clearly "No reservations" stance. But she reminds us consistently of what is always reserved (for bread), where there can never be reservations (on butter), and where ultimate merit lies (in butter). Her's is a quintessentially apolitical politics:
Though reservations do make her think of childhood games like musical chairs. Given how men rule with women as proxies, would it really make a difference to have more women in office?
She plays the perfect hostess when she must:
And picknics alone when she must, to butter what has anyway been turned to toast:
She marks political milestones with due respect:
And mocks political muddling with due giggles or scoldings:
She's generally quite sure that she's the brightest thing around, a fuel to rival fuel. She definitely has gold on her side:
Though there are times when she is scared, sad, or just plain mad:
You always know where her loyalties lie.
Amul’s India doesn’t collect all the images above, though it does (ahem) sandwich many other favorites and representative hoardings of the past 40 years. The accompanying narrative tracks the growth of the moppet and her emerging voice, paying homage to the architects of the dairy development program and the ad-execs (the daCunhas) who turned butter into an eminently digestible socio-political running commentary. Most of all, the book is as loving a tribute to the Amul girl as she has paid so many others over the years.
For those light history buffs out there: Santosh Desai’s title chapter, “Amul’s India,” was quite useful in tracing how the moppet’s voice changed and became more engaged, more self-assured over the decades. Renowned film maker Shyam Benegal’s commentary on the dairy movement in Gujarat, about which he made several short documentaries and one feature film (Manthan/ The Churning) was also invaluable–particularly since the 1976 film was funded by co-op members themselves, and was then used to persuade milk farmers to create further co-ops all over the country.
There’s something truly inspiring about that aspect of the narrative, which the constant adulation of the daCunhas and their “advertising genius” rather eclipses. The Amul brand just took over the grassroots brick-by-painful-brick building that was also going on–and though we love our iconic moppet dearly, it’s good to remember the people who started the work for which she could then become ageless ambassador extraordinare.
Profits from the Rs 250 cost of each book go to qualifying 10th and 12th students in Amul’s educational schemes, so there’s a characteristic Amul feel-good element to top(i) off this re-experiencing of five decades of Amul hoardings.
Makes you believe that you can have your bread and butter it, too. Golden, Guilt-free, and utterly butterly Good.
Note: updated for accuracy here and there, thanks to some comments from Aalok!