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Ethnic India in Delhi

Named after a historical figure, Baba Kharak Singh Marg connects Connaught Place to Delhi’s main post office. It's landmarked by Bangla Sahib Gurdwara at one end and Hanuman Mandir up ahead, which earlier used to be teeming with persistent mehendiwalis and slick astrologers, reports Shalini Singh.

delhi Updated: Sep 19, 2009 02:24 IST
Shalini Singh

Named after a historical Sikh figure, Baba Kharak Singh Marg – a road that connects Connaught Place to Delhi’s main
where is it?
State Emporia Complex

Baba Kharak Singh Marg, Connaught Place

Timings: 10am - 7pm, Mon-Sat

Good time to visit since there are discounts everywhere
post office – is an interesting road. It’s landmarked by the iconic Bangla Sahib Gurudwara at one end and as you move ahead, by the famous Hanuman mandir on the right, which at one time used to be peppered with glittering bangle-shops, persistent mehendiwalis and slick astrologers. But this side is now in a state of disarray, given the ubiquitous Metro construction.

On the other side, however, lies a row of official state stores – the many ‘Indias’ – called the State Emporia Complex. A shopping experience that turns out unlike any other. No intrusive security checks that make you feel like a shoplifter or loud displays of merchandise to grab your attention. Items come wrapped not in shiny paper but cultural contexts if you request. But the best part is that this is all ‘designer’ stuff. Not the kinds with fancy labels, but the kind where every piece is handcrafted by an artisan from a village/town of that state. And it could take him/her anywhere from a week to weave one Chanderi sari to a year to knot a single silk carpet.

The journey begins up north – Kashmir. Noisy table fans whir around to greet you. Luxurious silk carpets, precious/semi precious jewellery and walnut woodwork are the highlights here. The owner, a 28-year-old native, tells me all about carpet knotting ("it takes at least one year for two men to knot one carpet") and the Kashmiri identity ("Kashmiris never compromise on food or luxury"). The store stocks Bihi Murabba – a traditional apple pickle and ‘instant’ Wazwan (traditional multi-course meal "served in every Hindu and Muslim marriage"), "to which only two cups of water need to be added and it’s ready". But it’s out of stock currently.

I move west – Gujarat. No salespeople in ill-fitted suits speaking an alien language accosting you at the entrance. An employee who’s been working here for the last 15 years is happy to take me through the wares. There are mandirs in all sizes made of brass and copper and traditional Sankheda (lacquer-work) furniture. You can rummage through baskets of toran (decorative door hangings) and mobile cases, dandiya sticks, Kutch/mirror work cushions and wall hangings. I pounce on my favourites – jholas in cotton and silk (Rs 100 onwards) and Bandhini folders (Rs 78) – and come out feeling pleased.

Next stop: Madhya Pradesh. Bastar handicrafts on the ground floor, Chanderi and Maheshwari saris and suits on the first. “They are woven in home-based handlooms and it takes 6-7 days to bring out one piece,” the salesperson tells me. Traditional trousseau shopping anyone?

Kerala is next door. A gigantic elephant in rosewood with an ornate headgear looms large. It’s priced at Rs 3.5 lakh. I’m fascinated. A native salesgirl shows me a Nettoor jewellery box – in rosewood and brass – “it depicts the rich propensity of Kerala”, she says. There are Kathakali masks, sandalwood curios and some very neat bags and mats made from banana fibre, a little steep – Rs 600 onwards. It’s made from the resin and takes a month to make one, I’m told.

I find an intricate office set made from Neemwood and some exquisite freshwater rice pearls in Andhra Pradesh while a handmade photo-frame in marble and natural stones from Uttar Pradesh (Rs 1375) makes for a good wedding gift. Orissa offers serene sculptures in sandstone, tea sets in granite and silk thread paintings. There are huge mirror-work garden umbrellas – good for languid winter brunches and can be teamed up with cane and bamboo furniture from Tripura next door.

Rajasthan is ‘arty haven’ – rows of traditional silver jewellery, Bandhini skirts, Jaipuri quilts, bangles, mirror-work boxes and coasters. This definitely needs more time as I trail into Assam. There are some beautiful tribal masks made from real hair (Rs 135/pair) but the best part is the variety of tea. “Indians buy CTC, foreigners go for the leafy variety,” a bespectacled man at the tea counter tells me. Lustily sniffing my way through white tea, granular tea, strong leaf and single leaf, first flush, second flush, full leaf, tippy full leaf… I find myself craving every scribe’s favourite brew. Time to take a break. Luckily, the two-decade old Coffee Home happens to be next door. Scouring the menu, I’m disappointed to find no freshly made beverages – machines are everywhere. I settle for a filter coffee among a sea of chattering fogies, observing the early evening sunlight throwing patterns on the large grimy windows.

Break over, time to move on.

I lose myself temporarily in the basement of Bihar, among the Madhubani and Mithila paintings. No background music to break the reverie while looking into the elaborate eyes of a village woman framed in a 3 by 4...

Delhi, interestingly, offers a buffet course of all the states. Marble from UP, silver from Rajasthan, clothes from MP…West Bengal is my last stop and as I come out I ask a man if there’s another entrance to the Maharashtra emporium. “It’s under construction, will open after a month,” he replies, moving away to reveal a small board. He’s an astrologer. We sit down to talk. “In the coming times, you will travel to many foreign lands,” he says looking at my palm.

I’ll be happy to start with my country, I smile at him. After all, the journey has just begun.