One day in 1957, Bollywood legend Shammi Kapoor was walking down the lanes of Pune after the premiere of his film Tumsa Nahi Dekha at Alpana Talkies (then called Shirin), when he noticed several people crowding around one shop.
Curiosity prompted him to see what this was all about. When he went to the spot to inspect, he found that the source of interest was a modest tea shop.
“He ordered a cup of tea and immediately asked for another – he loved it so much. Shammiji then offered to pay, but my father refused,” recalls Chandrashekhar Nartekar, owner and fourth generation entrepreneur of Aadya Amruttulya, a tea shop on the Sonya Maruti Chowk in Budhwar Peth area.
It wasn’t just Shammi Kapoor that fell in love with the wholesome cup of tea served in this tiny store – the who’s who of Bollywood, alongside politicians and freedom fighters have come to love this 97-year-old shop. “Over the years, Mohammed Rafi, Asha Bhosale, Lata Mangeshkar, Johny Lever, Dada Kondake, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sharad Pawar, late Balasaheb Thackeray, and so many more have visited us and enjoyed our tea. Sometimes to refresh their senses after a tiring day, other times to gather for casual discussions,” Chandrashekhar (58) tells The Better India.
He explains that the reason this humble tea shop attracted such glamorous clientele is that it’s located right opposite Melody Makers, a recording studio frequented by celebrities during filmmaking. “They’d visit during breaks or order as per their convenience. But everyone preferred our tea,” he says proudly.
Brewing the ‘nectar of immortality’
Interestingly, the Nartekar family never belonged to Pune and did not always carry this last name. The family instead has their roots about 950 km away, in Rajasthan. They only entered the tea business for survival, but are today the reason why the word ‘Amruttulya’ is synonymous with tea, as well as for its evolution into a renowned brand over the years.
Chandrashekhar says that his great-grandfather Pannalal Nartekar (Thakur) belonged to Narta village of Jalore district, and moved with his family of four children and a wife in the 1880s.
He migrated for better work prospects and saw an opportunity in making thandai. “Pune was then famous for its wrestling training centres, locally called akhadas. The wrestlers here consumed thandai, which is a mixture of dry fruits and a tinge of bhang (cannabis) for energy. It improved their performance,” Chandrashekhar says.
So Pannalal set up shop at Rameshwar Chowk in 1896, where he began serving thandai, and business soared. Simultaneously, he began a tea business because, “Thandai and tea compliment each other,” Chandrashekhar says.
However, in 1924, the British banned the use of cannabis, and Pannalal stopped selling thandai. He instead focussed his business on only tea, and purchased a 300 square feet space for Rs 300 at Sonya Maruti Chowk, where the shop stands today.
On 27 July 1924, on the auspicious day of Ashadi Ekadashi, the business was christened as Aadya Amruttulya. Aadya means ‘first’ or ‘pratham’ in Sanskrit, and the latter indicates ‘equivalent to amrut’ or the ‘nectar of immortality’. “The tea refreshed the minds and souls of people, as if giving them a new life after a tiring day,” Chandrashekhar says. Thus Pune received its first ‘amruttulya’.
He adds that the tea was made from a unique tea powder they sourced from Kerala and Assam, and was prepared in sweetened milk from a local dairy. The mix was then boiled to the desired thickness in a brass vessel.
But it was a special homemade tea masala that added a different taste altogether. “This masala was a mix of cardamom, cinnamon and other spices. It was a homemade powder that the family used every day, and Pannalal brought it into the business. Instead of a conventional tea filter, he used a white cotton cloth to filter the tea. The people loved it,” he adds.
Pannalal brewed tea in front of the customers – he would sit on a mattress with the cash counter, a handwritten menu, and a small temple within a hand’s reach. He put up an aluminium frame structure to guard the set-up, while the customers drank their tea on benches cramped together. The tea was made fresh in batches throughout the day, and this practice continues to date.
Chandrashekhar says the shop continues to use the 97-year-old recipe and the skills have been handed down the generations. “We make the tea masala at home in weekly batches for its freshness. The taste has remained the same over the years,” he says.
Only two of Pannalal’s sons, Bhavanishankar and Vishwanath, continued the business while the other two, Hansraj and Durgashankar, followed priesthood.
Eventually, only Vishwanath pursued the tea business. Vishwanath’s son Khubchand followed suit, and at present, Chandrashekhar and his brother Vijay are the only members in the family continuing the legacy.
Aadya Amruttulya serves a variety of teas, namely black, sada, and fakkad tea, made from boiled milk and special tea priced between Rs 15 and 25. The shop also sells coffee, special coffee, black coffee and other snack items.
“We received abundant love and support from the citizens of Pune. The business thrived and in its glory days, had a staff of 22, serving tea to the never-ending crowds. We blended with the locals the way sugar dissolves in milk. My grandfather adopted the last name Nartekar after the name of our village,” Chandrashekhar says.
Encapsulating the allure of the store, Anupam Barve, a resident of Narayan Peth, says, “I remember my father making a quick stop at the tea stop whenever we left home early for travel. He also frequently stopped for a cup after a tiring day at work before coming home.”
Anupam says that he preferred the tea shop because smoking was not allowed here, because this was the ideal place to socialise.
An abundance of love for almost a century
The name became so popular that others in the tea business started adopting it as well. “There were over 700 such ‘amruttulyas’ mushrooming in the city, which has slowly faded to about 50-odd at present. Today, tea chains like Yewale Amruttulya, Saiba Amruttulya and others in the city continue the tradition,” Chandrashekhar says, adding, “We have no competition against anyone, and we have confidence in our quality and service. We need not fear any of them. Instead, we feel proud that the name our family coined has become associated with tea, making it immortal.”
But Chandrashekhar says that running a tea business is not as simple as brewing a mix in a vessel. In 2000, they also opened branches in Timber Market, Rameshwar Chowk, Kasarwadi and Yerwada, but failed due to economic reasons.
Elaborating on other challenges, he says, “We all start around 4.30 am to prepare for the day. The business demands long working hours as it closes at 10 pm. There are no holidays. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the dynamics now. From 3,000 cups a day, the numbers have dropped to 500,” he notes.
Chandrashekhar also says the love of tea has faded to an extent. “A few customers desire quality tea, while the majority is less bothered with what they are consuming in the name of beverages sold at low price. The increasing number of chai wallahs are reducing the profits, as the market is shared by many. It is a challenge for everyone in the business,” he says.
The family plans to adopt a franchise model and are in talks to launch 150 branches across Maharashtra. “We are working out a business arrangement where we can reach out to wider customers,” he says.
But for now, Chandrashekhar is content with the achievements and how far the business has come. “We will soon complete 100 years. Running a tea business for decades is not an easy task. For us, it means more than business. It is about continuing the family legacy and keeping the heritage alive,” he adds.
Edited by Divya Sethu