As caste lines blur, Iyengar bakery owners fight for survival and brand in Bangalore

Sandeep Moudgal has a great piece on the topic. How certain castes/communities come to being associated with certain products and then how they keep looking at ways to revive and stay in competition. It just makes for a great reading.

Iyengars that run bakery shops in Bangalore are one such community. They migrated from Hassan and started bakeries across the city:

In pre-independence India, struck by poverty, illiteracy and a lack of livelihood, the family of Narayan Iyengar decided to move away from their village on the banks of the Hemavathi in Hassan, like many others of his community. As an apprentice at his relative’s bakery, he worked his way up to launch his own Iyengar Bakery in Bangalore. That was circa 1948, in the temple suburb of Malleswaram. Old-timers from the community of Bakery Iyengars recall Narayan as the first man to start an Iyengar bakery in the city. Little did Narayan know that he would one day be known as the pioneer for 200 to 300 Iyengar families starting their own bakeries here.

Circa 2016, the era of Iyengar bakeries is fast changing, with the number of Bakery Iyengars (subcaste who make bread) dwindling, and outsiders in the industry increasing. With the culinary skill of making bread and biscuits passed on from generation to generation, Bakery Iyengars are still the true-blue bakers of Karnataka.

While it is difficult to authenticate the era of migration for Bakery Iyengars to Bengaluru from Hassan, several bakeries mushroomed in the 1970s bakeries mushroomed in the 1970s and 1980s. Be it VV Bakery in VV Puram, MB Bakery in Chickpet or Surya Bakery in Majestic, all the authentic Iyengar bakeries arose out of poverty and a lack of employment opportunities for this Brahmin community from Hassan. Almost all Bakery Iyengars hail from 16 villages in and around Hassan district.

“Back then, government jobs were hard to come by for the community, and we had small parcels of lands in Hassan which we couldn’t cultivate due to drought and a lack of investment. Slowly, our children started migrating and began using their knowledge to bake bread and biscuits in the towns and cities where they settled. This is how we remember our growth in the bakery business,” said Sampath Iyengar, who migrated to Bengaluru in 1971 and worked with his uncle KDJ Iyengar’s bakery, near Yediyur Lake.

Sampath today owns the successful chain of LJ Bakery in the city. With his son following in his footsteps, Sampath believes his legacy of authentic Iyengar bakeries will survive. But for the less fortunate, whose children have moved away from the family business, the struggle is far greater.

Hmm.. The brand association was so strong that most bakeries added Iyengar to their names. This included even those who started a bakery but were not from the community:

According to the Iyengar Bakery Association, which is more or less defunct, the struggle of authentic bakeries arose primarily due to labour problems. The bakers claim their apprentices learnt the skills, mastered them and branched out to start their own bakeries, leaving them with no skilled labour in the market. Besides, apprentices from other communities, like Vokkaligas and Lingayats, began using the Iyengar tag to sell their bakery products. According to association secretary Seenappa, the Iyengar prefix was the brand name which got people’s confidence. “It is difficult for us to even recognize original Iyengar bakeries in the city, or for that matter, across the country. As of now, we have close to 180 identified authentic Iyengar bakeries registered with us. But in reality, there are 600 to 700 Iyengar bakeries in the city,” said Seenappa.

Iyengar Bakery owners put the ratio at 1:4 -for every authentic Iyengar bakery, there are four bakeries run by other communities and some even by Keralites.


Both labor and capital are responsible for the decline

Seenappa echoed the feelings of Bakery Iyengars, that labour was the most important reason for the dwindling number of bakeries. “Add to this, the rising cost of real estate and rents, and it’s a crisis for middle or upper middle class Bakery Iyengars,” he said.

While caste may be the primary concern for the slow demise of existing Iyengar bakers, their next generations have also decided to branch out into the professional sector. “When we started our careers in the bakery, there was a lack of education and employment opportunities. Today, our future generations have a lot of opportunities. But those who are ready to fight will continue with this legacy of feeding others with our trademark delicacies,” said Sampath Iyengar.

Several Bakery Iyengars migrated to Chennai in Tamil Nadu, in the hope of succeeding in that state. While in the 1990s, the number of Iyengar bakeries was close to 90, today the number has shrunk to only 13. Bakery Iyengars claim their way of making bread is much older than today’s method with yeast. They use age-old techniques to ferment flour and add maida while the use of yeast came into prominence after English bakers introduced it

 While early entrepreneurs used wood ovens to bake, industrialization and technology have replaced them with mechanized ovens.
Pretty much on expected lines.
India has so many such stories with most facing similar troubles. What was it about certain communities which made them excel in certain businesses?

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