How a small company in India produces over 2,000 tons of colorful Holi powder each year

  • People celebrate the Hindu holiday of Holi with colorful powder known as gulal.
  • One company in Hathras, India, makes over 6,000 tons of gulal every year.
  • We went inside the factory churning out powder year-round in the gulal capital of the world.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Yellow is one of the most popular colors thrown during Holi. Called gulal, the fine powder is made from a mixture of starch and dyes.

One factory in India, Radha Kishan Color World, produces 2,000 tons of gulal annually. It’s based in the northern city of Hathras, where most of the world’s gulal comes from.

We went inside one of the largest manufacturers to see how it’s preparing for its first Holi during the pandemic. Ratan Bihari Agrawal and his family are behind Radha Kishan Color World, also known as the Cock Brand.

“Our business is 80 years old,” he told Insider. He and his family have run the company for four generations. One of the main products they produce is gulal, churning out more than 600 pounds of the powder a day.

Employees prepare Holi toys before celebrations begin

In Hathras, Holi powder production brings in more than 30 crore rupees, or over $4 million, each year. There are over a dozen gulal-making facilities in the city alone. The Cock Brand itself employs almost 100 people to focus on five main processes: packaging, handmade processing, controlling the command center, storage, and gulal drying in nearby fields. The company makes both handmade and machine-processed gulal to keep up with demand.

Woman helping to process pink gulal powder.

The Cock Brand works with hundreds of colors. Each popular Holi color has at least a dozen hues.

“Imagine life without colors. Imagine life in black and white. It is boring. Colors give you pop,” said Manu Garg, Ratan’s brother. “Every color tells a story. Red stands for love. Blue is for royalty. Pink [is] for caring and yellow is for happiness,” he said.

Starch is mixed with water during handmade processing

The first part of the process always starts with a starch mixture. Corn starch is the base for the color powder. It’s used instead of common bases like talcum because it’s less toxic and much lighter. Then, the mixture goes through a grinder before it’s baked in the sunlight.

While baking is an important step, the city in Uttar Pradesh is prone to rain and even monsoons, which affect when the gulal is dried. In addition, the powder production coincides with the region’s farming season. And both factors play a role in how much gulal can be produced before Holi. Ratan recalls times when orders were affected by rain, sometimes losing 60% to 70% of orders.

This process can take a few hours

To prevent loss, Ratan and Manu invested in a mechanized gulal making process. “Within seconds, it converts pure starch directly into gulal. The machine now works 24 hours a day. We only halt the machine on Sunday for greasing,” he said.

On top of gulal, the company makes over 260 types of gulal-dispensing toys. The Cock Brand sells most of its products straight to businesses, but many gadgets can be found at the Hathras Color Market. Open year-round, it’s one of the largest Holi markets in the world.

Hathras became the gulal hub due to it’s proximity with the Braj region, where Holi celebrations last as long as two weeks. In the city, it’s used often. “For any happy occasion, gulal is used. When a candidate wins an election, they celebrate it with gulal.” Gulal is also a popular prop in Bollywood movies. “Our gulal is used to show celebration, in serials, movies and stories,” Ratan said.

There are hundreds of different gulal powders

The tradition of Holi can be traced back to several Hindu legends about Lord Krishna.

“When Lord Krishna and Radha Rani play Holi with each other, it shows the emotion of love and compassion,” Manu said.

Depending on the region, Holi can be a multiday festival or an afternoon celebration. The first evening is known as Chhoti Holi, or small Holi, and usually involves a symbolic bonfire. The second day is when people of all ages wear white and throw colorful powder at one another.

Last year, Holi fell right before the coronavirus was officially declared a global pandemic. But this year, massive crowds of people are celebrating even as India grapples with another spike.

Aligarh resident Manpreet Singh said said it was important for the people to come outside this year to celebrate Holi.

“People were suffocated in their houses,” Singh said. “Finally, a festival has arrived, and people have exited their homes and are celebrating it.”

Still, cases are rising. India reported over 68,000 new coronavirus infections on March 28 – the highest single day rise so far this year – taking the nationwide tally well over 11 million. So far, about a dozen Indian states and territories have banned Holi celebrations.

Bright red gulal is blended

“COVID has impacted all the industries all over the world. Moreover, our business is a seasonal business,” Manu said.

Sales here declined by almost 10% last year. But the company has hopes for high returns in 2021.

“We hope that this pandemic ends soon and people can enjoy Holi as it is meant to be,” Ratan said.

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