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Tees, watches, rings: Ambedkar is the new fashion rage online

Cashing in on the demand for products featuring Ambedkar are not just e-commerce giants, Amazon and Flipkart, but a bunch of new online stores such as bahujanstore.com, bahujanunnatistore.com.

india Updated: Apr 19, 2018 16:41 IST
Manoj Sharma
Manoj Sharma
New Delhi, Hindustan Times
Bhim Rao Ambedkar,Ambedkar merchandise,Ambedkar Jayanti
Vishnu, founder and CEO, Bahujan Unnati Store, sells Bhimrao Ambedkar merchandise online. (Raj K Raj/HT Photo)

Yogendra Singh wears his love for Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar on his sleeve — literally.

He can often be seen sporting designer bracelets and T-shirts with images of Ambedkar. “My wardrobe has many cool Ambedkar T-shirts and I wear them to office, cinema and parties. For me it is both a fashion and a political statement,” says Singh, who lives in Durgapuri in east Delhi.

Ambedkar was Independent India’s first law minister and the principal architect of the Constitution.

He is fast becoming a pop culture icon whose face, as they once said about Che Guevara, can launch a thousand T-shirts. His image features not just on tees, but on a range of accessories — rings, earrings, wristwatches, bracelets, lockets — all of which are selling like hot cakes, thanks to a new generation of assertive Dalits who like to flaunt their identity.

Cashing in on the demand for products featuring Ambedkar are not just e-commerce giants, Amazon and Flipkart, but a bunch of new online stores such as bahujanstore.com, bahujanunnatistore.com, and jaibhimonlinestore.com. Manoj Kumar, who founded bahujanstore.com, says that his is the world’s ‘first online Bahujan store’.

Bahujan, literally means the majority of people, and loosely refers to the several Dalit or Scheduled Caste communities. He says the idea to open the store struck him when he went to the market looking for some decorative items featuring Ambedkar.

Anuj Kumar, a shopkeeper, sells Bhimrao Ambedkar merchandise in Shahdara. (Raj K Raj/HT Photo)

“I could not find any and realised there was a business opportunity, besides a chance to spread ideas and ideals of Ambedkar through an exclusive Bahujan store,” says Kumar, who quit his job as an IT manager to start his venture in 2015. “We get orders from all over the country — from Rajasthan to Madhya Pradesh, to Kerala. Designer T-shirts with Ambedkar messages are the best selling items,” adds Kumar.

The chic T-shirts come in many colours — blue, black, grey, yellow, red —and with myriad messages such as ‘Life should be great rather than long’, ‘We are because he was’ and ‘Liberty Equality, Fraternity’.

The founders of similar stores say business is growing at 30% to 40% a year. Vishnu, founder and CEO, Bahujan Unnati Store, (its catchphrase is: ‘for Bahujan community by Bahujan community’), says March and April are the busiest months, with the Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations. His house in Hardev Puri in east Delhi serves as a warehouse-cum-fulfillment centre.

There are huge bundles of T-shirts and cartons full of Ambedkarite merchandise that have just arrived from the manufacturers. It is afternoon and he and his team are busy preparing orders for dispatch.

His online store, he says, currently has about 250 products on offer. He plans to widen the range to 1000 products in the next couple of months. The growing number of organisations that claim to be inspired by Ambedkar and his ideas — about 1 lakh, according to Vishnu’s estimate — are fuelling the demand.

“Half of them are new and run by youngsters for whom Ambedkar is also a style icon,” says Vishnu.

The business is brisk offline too. Anuj Kumar Gautam, 38, who runs the city’s only exclusive Dalit bookstore, which now also sells Ambedkarite merchandise, says he has sold about one lakh T-shirts in the past one month.

“Even women buy rings, earrings and saris with Ambedkar pictures,” says Gautam, sitting in his air-conditioned shop in east Delhi. The shop’s iron shelves are laden with a range of books and accessories — car dashboard hangers, night lights and doorbells with pictures of Ambedkar.

He is finding it hard to keep the conversation going with us as his phone rings every few minutes.

“I just cannot meet the demand. The orders are coming from places such as Lucknow, Balia, Ahmedabad,” says Gautam.

He also receives a lot of orders on WhatsApp, where he is a part of about 250 Dalit groups such as All India Bhim Follower, Bhartiya Mool Nivasi Sangh, All India Ambedkar Front, Caravan, etc.

So, why is Ambedkar suddenly in fashion? Vivek Kumar, professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, says that Ambedkar is now a global icon and a source of inspiration for millions across the world.

“There are Ambedkar statues and busts in universities such as Colombia, Simon Fraser, York and LSE. They organise Ambedkar memorial lectures. He is a symbol of equality, liberty, fraternity and social justice all over the world,” says Kumar.

“And unlike in the past, when people took a reductionist approach to understand him, now even the progressives among the upper caste have realised that Ambedkar stood for universal values. A lot of them appreciate him for his role in nation building,” the professor said.

Youngsters who sport Ambedkar tees say people are comfortable with the sight of a person wearing an Ambedkar T-shirt.

“I often wear them and have not faced any contemptuous looks or hostility,” says Shreshth Jainth, 16, a student, who lives in east Delhi. “Sometimes, people just ask me what I know about Ambedkar and his ideas, which is fine with me,” he says.

Young Dalits feel it is only fitting that Ambedkar, known for his sharp three-piece suits, is becoming a style icon because “he believed in dressing well”. Talking about Ambedkar’s sartorial choices, Kumar says, “While Ambedkar has come to be associated with suits, the fact is he had a diverse sartorial taste. And, the blue came to be associated with him because he often said the sky is the limit for the oppressed classes.”

Ashok Das, 34, editor, Dalit Dastak, a magazine that focuses on issues of deprived sections, says wearing Ambedkar T-shirt reflects a new Dalit attitude. “It is like, I will ride a Royal Enfield, will wear what I want, and look good. Unlike their father’s generation, the youngsters are more confident and comfortable in their own skin.”

Das has ordered an Ambedkar T-shirt for the leader’s birth anniversary on Saturday.

First Published: Apr 14, 2018 08:08 IST