Friday, October 28, 2005

Lifestyle Exhibition – more a Mela than a Mall

Does anyone recall, back from the protectionist days of the late 1970s and 1980s, yearly trips to lifestyle exhibitions in Madras, Bangalore (and other cities, I assume)? These were exhibitions where you could buy anything and everything for discount prices – the latest vegetable cutters (which never work once you bring them home), washing machines, fridges, all sorts of cleaning supplies, vacuum cleaners, clothes, decorative stuff, etc. etc. And as a kid, I’d look forward to the annual exhibition, usually held in Palace Grounds, ‘cos I’d get to eat cotton candy, pani puris, and go for a ride on the super-exciting Tora Tora!

Anyway, my parents visited this year’s ICE Exhibition in Bangalore and came back with quite a loot. As my mom fished out one item after another from plastic bags, I expressed approval at some of her purchases, clicked my tongue in irritation at some, and kept quiet when she displayed something I would not have bothered considering. Once everything was put away, there came the inevitable: “you know, there are so many other things that you’d find interesting. There is so much you can buy to take back to the U.S. which you can give away as gifts…cheaper than your outlet mall or even the dollar stores!”

So off I went yesterday with my mom and dad, inspite of the rain, to my first Lifestyle Exhibition in nearly a decade. As I moved about, saying no to shopkeepers who insisted their wares were the best buy under the sun, enquiring about prices here and there, and occasionally entering a stall, I couldn’t help wondering in what ways this exhibition was different from the many malls that have cropped up all over urban India. It wasn’t quite a mela…but it was closer to a mela than a swanky new mall, but again, not quite.

An exhibition is a once-a-year gig (or seasonal perhaps, like a mela? Does anyone know?) – nothing permanent about it, and of course, that is a great USP (unique selling proposition) to have. But that also accords the exhibition a carnival-like status that the mall cannot even dream to approximate. The exhibition, like a mela, is part of a city’s memory. And that memory is re-kindled and reconfigured every year. The trip to the exhibition always involved thinking about what last year’s visit was like, and gleefully anticipating treats and surprises this time around.

The din is another obvious difference. Movie dialogues blasting out of an electronics stall mix with film music (or Indipop in some cases) from a neighboring one, and this is rivaled only by the noise generated by salesmen, gadget demos, and customers. There are no sound-proof doors like in the new malls; in fact, there are no doors at all. The mela and the exhibition understand bazaar culture and don’t think of noise as an irritant to be controlled but rather, as a necessary component of shopping in public, as part of a public.

Then there are the shopkeepers/salesmen/saleswomen. The range of emotions that a salesperson draws on during the course of a transaction is quite amazing. There is some pleading – sir, madam, please, just take on look, just one minute sir/madam, best product, best price sir/madam, and so on. Once you’re in the stall, looking at or handling the product in question, it is all about information, and delivering that information with utmost conviction. Tech specs, price comparisons, range of use, warranty, and so on. The salesperson has about a minute to impress. And now, the bargaining. The salesperson has to size up the customer and then decide whether the bargaining process is worth getting into. If yes, then s/he begins with a firm “no sir/madam, this price you won’t get anywhere…final price.” There is quite a range of scenarios that can unfold at this stage and I will spare y’all the details.

And then the food. There is a food court of sorts, but unlike the mall, here the smells are overpowering. Imagine a rainy afternoon in B’lore, now enter a 20ftx20ft area under a canvas tent. You’re standing in the center and around you are open stalls making and selling – potato bonda, chilli bajji and other deep fried delights, lip-smacking chat, the usual Bangalore tiffin items (masala dosai, chow chow bath), lots of amazing filter coffee courtesy Coffee Day, ice cream, cotton candy, and so on and on. Not your overpriced double chocolate mousse and double-shot latte at a swanky barista where you’re waited on by folks who’re paid to be nice to you. Here you have to be brusque or you’ll be shoved out of line in a matter of seconds (unless you’re an old lady or small kid). You’ve got to speak up: Boss, eradu bonda illi!

Finally, the people. There is no way I’m going to hazard class-based distinctions here, but I am willing to speculate that unlike a mall, a mela or an exhibition bring different zones of the city into contact and thereby, different kinds of people too. Vague? Maybe, but I’ve run out of time and this has turned out longer than a decent blog post warrants. So, I’ll end with a list of things we bought:

  • A cotton bedspread (from Erode, Tamilnadu) with nice floral prints and big elephants. Typical desi print you’d find in any desi home in North America. And yes, I did buy pillowcovers to go with the bedspread.
  • Banians. Don’t cringe, they’re very practical things to wear in humid places. Besides, every ad for banians I’ve seen here involve hot women. But I’ll say this much: I don’t wear Rupa ki baniyan (sorry, bad PJ).
  • Sweet saunf at a Rajasthani stall that had lots of other goodies too.
  • A khadi kurta.
  • A VIP Aristocrat suitcase.
  • 2 cups of coffee – I generally wait 2 weeks before I start stuffing my face with chaat and fried stuff…my body needs the time to get used to being here.
My next post will be a thoughtful piece on the "banian," a piece of clothing that continues to serve millions around the country yet suffers from being labeled uncool by urban yuppies.


  • i remember these exhibitions...

    been to one in pragati maidan...long time agao... when we were kids and the in Jaipur which would happen every winter.. durga and I were talking about it the other day...

    that's where she got her first phiran from.. and i have bought a shawl for my mom and i think also a nice jacket...

    it would be smoky sunny with the mist and we would wander around from tent to tent eating chat.. some biryani...lots of fun.

    But I have never seen a baniyan any exhibition! so waiting to hear more about it

    By Anonymous Mandira, at 10/29/2005 9:52 AM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger H., at 10/31/2005 1:57 AM  

  • You can write a dissertation on how "banians" are cool but you're not going to convince freakin way!

    I might as well wrap my genitals in a banian if I am wearing's that uncool!


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/31/2005 1:59 AM  

  • It's amazing what ritual functions these exhibitions are. Maybe it's because I've been listening to this new Sufjan Stevens album, but it's interesting what role the 1892 Chicago Columbian exhibition, the Kitchen Debates between Khruschevev and Nixon, the colloq the other day from Tim Havens on the ritual function of international television trade shows, and these consumer shows have on what we think of technology, consumer products, and what cognitive/psychological/affective roles they possess.
    Or maybe it's that long lost desire to be in Chicago, passing by the Merchandise Mart on the purple line in the loop and admiring the cool shit in the window.
    Oh, and Aswin, although I'm not sure what the "banian" is, but if millions of female undergraduates are reviving legwarmers and ugg boots, then anything is possible.

    By Anonymous Ben, at 11/01/2005 7:55 PM  

  • Dopey - trust you to say that! You certainly seem to have blanked out the 4 years in Allahabad with a vengeance!

    Ben - I agree...and after reading your comment I now miss Chicago! While the food here has been nothing short of amazing, I now have an inexplicable craving for Chicago deep dish. *sigh*

    By Blogger Aswin, at 11/01/2005 11:41 PM  

  • i also recall, distinctly, the old man feeling me up and also another uncle asking me to do some naughty things in the bajji bonda stall. ah-what sweet memories of blossoming into full blown womanhood i say. -swati

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11/02/2005 11:47 PM  

  • were there any stalls where you can shoot at something like a soap or transistor radio or whatever and if you manage to hit one, they hand it over to you..

    last time I went to India, I went to one such mela and actually managed to shoot down a soap - Lux, I think

    no banians though..hmm


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