culture curry

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culture curry

Post  Anand on Sat Aug 16, 2008 3:41 pm

By Sanjay Sachdeva
Senior vice president, Advance India Projects

On a recent flight from Mumbai I was sitting next to the head of HP, who was travelling to India as an observer of the Indian retail scenario. When she asked me what business I was in, I told her that my company was developing speciality malls in India. Her comment, “Aren't you losing your unique Indian culture while mass-producing these huge, western-style malls?” set me thinking. And I thought to myself, is that what we are doing to our culture-rich nation?

We are a nation ready to be mauled or shall I say malled, but are we diluting our culture in this retail curry that is cooking?

India Shining loves glitz – that is no secret. Give us soaring buildings with gleaming glass fa็ades, and we think modernity and progress have come to stay. But is the India itch to think global good for the local?

According to Robert Adam, one of the leading UK architects, the answer is NO. These malls and buildings are an example of how India is blindly aping the West.
The best of international brands in fashion are hitting our malls; the finest of international pubs, bars and fast food brands – among the most recognised names globally – are the familiar fa็ades covering most of the malls coming up in our country.
In the middle of all this, though, we are Indians at heart. Are we really into adapting our entire lifestyles around an alien culture, or are we choosing to ditch our basics – our culture that is so rich in traditions and hospitality, and so deeply ingrained in our psyche?
Typically, a new Indian developer begins a mall project and starts gunning for the biggest international brands, trying to get them to a city they have not studied, without understanding what it is that the consumer in the tier II or III town really wants!
Yes, the Indian youth have aspirations and do want to buy the latest fashion brands, but hey, aren't we missing something here? Like our cuisines, our rich ethnic products, local regional shops, our fabrics and textiles, and style of shopping?
The Incredible India campaign seeks to attract tourists toward segments such as spiritual, yoga, medical and ayurvedic tourism. There is a huge number of Indian spa treatments, yoga and ethnicity in various local regions where new malls are being developed. Yet, these regions do not have exposure to the retail development happening in the country. Many of us have ignored local cultures and overlooked the possibility of making these components of a mall that is being positioned as an international shopping destination!
Buildings with glass walls – as in most of our malls – have major overheating problems in Northern Europe. In India they are nothing short of disasters. Such buildings demand heavy air conditioning. There are enough electricity problems in India and we are importing something that just does not suit our country.
People in India, according to Adam, will just not be able to relate to modernist architecture.

Retaining important elements of our heritage architecture will at least help maintain our strengths in terms of Indian culture and traditions. The Oberois have proven it several times over through their Vilas hotel properties, which blend traditional Indian architecture and modern-day comforts of temperature-controlled ambiences and other luxuries, and yet retain an Indian style of functionality and rationality.


There have been many local companies and arts, crafts and fashion brands that have not yet acquired national status, and are nowhere on the advertising radar of the national TV network. Nevertheless, they are doing a wonderful job of retaining Indian ethnic fabrics, spices, aromas, oils, furniture, textile fashions, leather, jewellery and other heritage talents. These are areas that are being left out of the new malls, as most developers are looking to bring in western brands and big names in the industry to take up these prime – and expensive – spaces. All local flavours are literally stopped at the door.

Let us look at promoting local cultures. If one is making a mall in Bhopal, there is so much happening in Madhya Pradesh which is a part of the city's life. Observe what the people of Udaipur or Meerut or Lucknow do in their day-to-day lives, where they shop, what they eat, how they entertain themselves, what music they listen to, what they like to buy, what they buy in the Johari bazaars, who their traditional hotspot shopkeepers are, or where their cultural nuances and roots lie. Take cues from all of that and get a part of their lifestyles to the mall, rather than imposing a new, virtually alien western lifestyle on them.
How many of the numerous shopping mall ads that appear in national newspapers carry the logos of any of the local brands or dhaba s that are so representative of each and every city of Punjab, for instance? The Punjab dhaba s are where a lot of the rich and famous eat. Yet, we simply ignore this fact of life and prominently promote logos of major western brands of foods. Sure, we ought to adapt what is best in the world to our lifestyles. That said, a blend of the best of India and the best of the West will make our malls much more endearing and catchments-friendly, and therefore, many more sales conversions will happen.
With over 600 malls coming up and retail space set to exceed 50 million square feet – an average size of 1,000 square feet per brand – India will soon have over 50,000 shops.
However, with only 300 national-level brands available at the moment, what do you think most of these malls will look like? There will be an identical mix of tenants in most of these properties and the very same brands will be available in each of these malls, simply because of the oversupply that is bound to happen.
So, either 700 more brands should be created in the next two years – which is not very likely – or we should adapt to the Indian model and promote smaller Indian retailers, which have become local brands in their own right.
Over 60 per cent of visitors to a mall go there to watch a movie and eat. Only 30 per cent walk in to shop. Still, hardly any of the local street foods of India – so much a part of our non-mall life – is to be seen anywhere in these swank properties. Bhrawan da Dhaaba in Amritsar, for example, is a huge and powerful local brand attracting over 5,000 diners everyday, but it will not feature in any mall owner's list of targeted occupiers. Why? Because it is not an international or even a national restaurant brand!
What is happening is that when we want to see a movie or when we want to eat at McDonald's, we go to a mall; but when we want a taste of Pindi food or local chaat, buy mithai, buy fabrics for salwar kameez, have to visit an ayurvedic massage centre, buy bangles or wedding saafa s, we go to Lajpat Nagar or Sarojini Nagar!
Deep down, culture is difficult to destroy. The Chinese tried to do it to the Tibetan culture, but it still lives and thrives. However, as global communication increases and the world gets flatter, certain aspects of our culture and traditions do become vulnerable and fragile. I believe that mall developers like us need to play a part in preventing that from happening.
Sanjay Sachdeva is senior vice president at Advance India Projects Ltd, the developers and creators of The Celebration Malls – India's first attempt to marry ethnic cultures and architecture with western conveniences and shopping environments – in Amritsar, Udaipur and Ambala. Sachdeva has over 22 years of experience in the consumer goods and retail industries, and holds an MBA degree from the Faculty of Management Studies.


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