Home » Perspectives (November 2021) » Shopping Elsewhere: Retail Revolutions and the Spectacle of Retail in Contemporary India

Shopping Elsewhere: Retail Revolutions and the Spectacle of Retail in Contemporary India

Saikat Maitra

Indian Institute of Management Calcutta

&

Sebastian Schwecke

Max Weber Forum for South Asian Studies

Introduction

Retail, as the last stage of the commercial exchange process that provides the interface between seller and buyer, has been changing in recent decades, especially in metropolitan India, which has attracted significant scholarly attention (Gooptu 2009). What changed perceptions about the retail revolution that has supposedly taken place was the appearance of new instantiations of consumerist spaces from shopping malls, malls and supermarkets, hypermarkets as well as online retail sites. These spaces are often characterised by a nascent corporate culture attuned to the demands of a New India, a frequently reused trope that is becoming increasingly opaque in its meaning. On the logistics side, the contemporary retail revolution in India has involved sophisticated supply chain mechanisms and vast capital in-flows needed to maintain these; yet, the effects of the retail revolution far exceed the utilitarian needs of consumption. Furthermore, the perception of a revolutionary moment has been reinforced by other attributes that have been the focus of much scholarly attention: the growing predominance of branded goods (and fixed-price systems eschewing haggling behaviour); the visual differentiation processes contrasting the glitz of the mall with the convoluted mazes of badly maintained bazaars that in turn have increasingly been rebranded as commercial counter-cultures (Holt 2002); and the comportment and appearance of the retailers themselves, now being trained in customer care and (more or less) neat uniforms, in bodily hygiene and entrepreneurial ‘spirit’. The image of the retail revolution—aside from the aforementioned capital flows and logistics—however, jars with realities of retail that frequently have as little in common with the actual practices of retail than the breezy halls of an exclusive shopping mall with the lives of its customers, let alone the retail workforce employed there.

What is more, the novelty of this recent expression of a New India may be rooted in experiential knowledge for a significant part of the urban social strata, yet it hides long durée historical processes that were depicted using very similar phrases to describe continuous additions to the retail landscapes of the time. Most Indians continue to experience retail in ways that remain far removed from the latest representation of ‘modernity’, a phenomenon suitable for describing both colonial commercial spaces and contemporary ones. In line with colonial frustration and bewilderment with the retail spaces they encountered in India, collectively depicted as the bazaar, the Calcutta municipality in 1874 created a commercial counter-space, intended for use by its western and ’westernised’ elites, the aptly called New Market. Marked by fixed prices, standardised qualities, and an organisational pattern depending on small departmental stores. It facilitated the emergence of novel commercial arenas, a mushrooming of ‘New Markets’, ‘New Bazaars’, and ‘Orderly Bazaars’ across the Indian hinterland. Historically, enclaves set up for department stores failed to supplant the actual bazaars, and in hindsight, after two decades of mall histories, it appears unlikely that either the metropolitan malls or their oftentimes decrepit small-town counterparts will have brought about more than a further diversification of retail patterns.

In the following, we consider how the claims of novelty and the realities of retail within a mall setting serve an ideological and visual function of rebranding Indian urban spaces in line with the visions of consumer capitalist demands, or rather fantasies, far beyond the actual commercial importance of these retail environments. Despite the relative shallowness of retail corporate claims about customer service, entrepreneurial spirits, comportment and appearance as well as the importance of branded goods and brand-name advertising within the shopping mall, these commercial spaces have been iconic images of the retail revolution. The appearance of the mall, instead, goes together with the diversification of consumers’ needs, thus, attracting a very specific clientele that uses the services the malls provide for one particular component of their consumption needs but that feels very much at home beyond it, across the vast retail landscapes of India, when ‘shopping elsewhere’. The article draws on immersive ethnographies conducted in upscale shopping malls in Kolkata and the bazaars in Varanasi. The ethnographies foreground that while the bazaars and the shopping malls are increasingly perceived to be strongly antithetical in their conventional attributes—especially characterised by the binaries of order-disorder—they are often located in the same continuum of retail-related activities. Furthermore, the opposition between the shopping mall and the bazaar is increasingly being exaggerated to signal a powerful discursive framework for middle-class appropriation of urban spaces and identities in metropolitan India. Thus, in spite of their relatively insignificant volume of retail trade (compared to existing bazaars), shopping malls in cities like Kolkata are called upon to become an ideal for emerging notions of the cityscape itself, as ordered, sanitised, secured, and most importantly, relatively free of the prevalent signs of postcolonial poverty, dirt, and disorder that mark the rest of the city outside the confines of the shopping mall environments. In this sense, shopping malls in contemporary India are expected to provide a routinised ‘enchantment’ regarding the pleasures of consumption, leisure, and shopping within strictly regulated and sanitised environments as suggested in the context of American shopping mall experiences by George Ritzer (2010). However, as we suggest in this article, the everyday performance of exclusivity and enchantment of the shopping malls gets repeatedly disrupted by the proximity and ever-looming presence of other modes of retail like the bazaars with their dust, heat, disorder, and chaos. These alternatives (and one might add, still predominant) spaces of consumption and retail like the bazaars, continually attest to the incomplete project of middle-class/elite appropriation of metropolitan India and the standardisation of so-called global lifestyle habits, including of consumption, that shopping malls ideologically bring to Indian cities (Dholakia et al. 2005).

The Mall as Speculative Anticipation

The emergence of the shopping malls in metropolitan Indian cities like Kolkata remains strongly intertwined with changes in the built environments of the cityscapes, especially due to the impact of real estate capital transforming Indian cities in the post-1991 economic liberalisation period. A public-private venture, Bengal Greenfields, for instance, is one of the major players within a rapidly expanding field of real estate development in Kolkata. With the acquiring of vast stretches of land in Rajarhat, a planned satellite township in north-eastern Kolkata, Bengal Greenfields won several lucrative contracts for building large shopping malls and residential complexes there. Talking about the potential of upcoming shopping malls in transforming urban living, the Project Manager of the company, however, pointed out that shopping malls were not a very serious business; they were in fact just another example of the city’s constant need for various kinds of frivolous ‘entertainment’ to keep itself distracted from more pressing issues. He concluded by suggesting ‘First we had the mela and now we have the mall’.

How do we unpack this way of visualising the shopping mall? When the vernacular form of the mela, incorporating both the domesticated elements of a fair and the commercial exuberances of the bazaar, is a well-established urban tradition in most Indian cities, the observation might be taken to mean the continuation of urban forms of diversion and entertainment that the mela signifies. The statement might also refer to the common strains of rapid commercial transactions in both the mela and the mall. Finally, the response might be understood as a comment on the need for constant spectacle impacting the sensibilities of inhabiting the everyday life in the city. Shopping malls in Kolkata and other metropolitan contexts in India, no doubt fulfil this function of a permanent spectacle through their architectural layouts, objects and commodities on display, the usually uniformed and well-attired service staff and large-scale events organised for brand promotion on a regular basis. Certainly, the idea of the spectacle is writ large, where the shopping malls in most metropolitan Indian cities incessantly repeat spectacular forms that postmodernist cities thrive on (Jameson 1991). Yet, to consider the specific situation of shopping malls in contemporary Kolkata, with their commodified ecstasies and domesticated carnivalesque, only as the inscription of capital, is to miss the point altogether. They are also vital nodes for reimagining the city in contemporary India. The coupling of discourses of development and global lifestyle with the faith in economic restructuring programmes have meant that shopping malls along with a whole range of institutions like expensive cafés or gated residential communities are fast becoming vital projections on the urban landscape as to what the new face of urban development will ideally look like, at least in the coming future.

The importance of these places does not lie exclusively in the economic vitality they generate for the city or even in the employment opportunities that they manage to facilitate. Their primary importance lies in their reshaping the sense of urban living itself, and their subjective impact in presenting an aspirational vision of the future. Such a vision has a speculative dimension, organised around a temporal axis that is trying to short-circuit the present in a bid to arrive at the future ahead of its time. If once the vital point of enumerating the postcolonial nation in relation to modernity was to think in terms of its pedagogic interlude, of disciplining of the ‘unruly’ citizen-subject in the ‘waiting room of history’ (Chakrabarty 2000), then, shopping malls are anticipating this path to global consumerist modernity ahead of its time. While drawing on the spectacular forms of entertainment or consumption once promised by the mela, the shopping malls now promise this spectacle more permanently in air-conditioned comfort and perhaps, most importantly, without the impress of ‘undesirable’ bodies like the urban poor.

Take for instance South City Mall in Kolkata, which started its commercial operations in 2008. Currently one of the largest shopping malls in eastern India, it is spread over several thousand square feet of shopping areas, a multiplex cinema, food court, gourmet restaurants, and car parking. The main catchment area of the mall is the rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods of southern Kolkata. Anchored by key retail brands, the mall also houses smaller stores in clothing, jewellery, household goods, electronics, and sports and fitness goods. According to the representatives of the architectural firm which worked on its architectural layout, inspiration for designing the mall as a ship’s prow came from a particular vision of the mall as resembling Kolkata’s future. Just as a ship cuts through turbulent waters, so also would the mall stand for the ability to transcend the various predicaments afflicting the present city life. Far from being the messy bazaar or the mela, the mall in this conceptual design framework stands as a reminder of what the city perhaps will achieve in the imminent future.

The South City Mall, at least from an ideological affirmation of the power of real estate and retail capital in bringing global consumption habits and tastes to a postcolonial city like Kolkata despite its long histories of harrowing poverty and immiseration. What the sloping glass panes of the mall reveal by contrast are the dilapidated forms of habitation surrounding it, low, squat structures, with their fading colours scoured by rain and dark mildew patches. Beyond these widening concentric circles lie the denser slums and the ‘messy’ bazaars of neighbourhoods like Tollygunge and Jadavpur. They bear traces of other histories and textures of the city, not quite consonant with the ordered rhythm of the mall, yet densely juxtaposed to each other (Maitra 2016).

We might see in the emergence of expensive cafés or shopping malls the route back to an earlier colonial paradigm of cosmopolitan consumption located in the departmental stores such as Whiteaway Laidlaw or the once exclusive New Market in the White Town areas in colonial Calcutta. For India, the works of William Mazzarella (2003) attest to the powerful role played by (televisual) media in bringing a sense of proximity to the global cosmopolitan lifestyle and the ethics of normative consumerism to the Indian public within which the notion of the ‘New Indian Middle-class’ gets articulated. Shopping malls, along with gated communities now stand for a regime of simulated spaces, tastes, desires, and sensations within contemporary urban development that seek to replicate idioms of global living.

Significant sections of the city space now act as a continuous mimetic apparatus churning out copies of an ‘else-where’ that are slowly coming into form. Such an apparatus extends from the architectural forms of shopping malls to the political claims of Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, to eventually transform Kolkata into London. In a similar vein, gated communities regularly invoke proximity to living standards found in Singapore or Dubai as a point of attraction in sales brochures and billboards.

In the context of Kolkata’s South City Mall, the experience of consumption depends on the ability of its myriad stores to conjure the shop floor ambience as essentially in touch with ‘world class living’. Yet, recognition of this ‘world classness’ can be a slippery business. What exactly is being recognised here is a thorny issue, for this recognition is often based on the ability to create sensations in consumers that they are in the midst of a (successful) mimetic capturing of the global. The success of the mall critically depends on a successful ‘sight and sound’ logic evoking specific types of sensations in consumers regarding their perception of the mall as ‘properly global’ rather than merely its importance as transactional spaces for retail.

Critical for the exuberant ‘feel’ of the shopping mall space are the labouring bodies: the young men and women who are expected to blend in with the music, the multicoloured display aisles, the luxuriant display of commodities, or the mood lighting of the place. The performance of the workers is decisive in evoking this feel, by interacting with customers, smiling, laughing, showing an eagerness to help, and guide the customers through the array of objects, subtly influencing their desires to buy and to enjoy the process of browsing through the space of the mall. Yet, such performances can stutter and fail, disrupting the smooth performance of the shopping mall as a global space of consumption as well.

Employment Training Programmes (ETPs) in upscale shopping malls are specifically geared to impart the requisite set of social dispositions, and abilities in the workers so that they can provide the ‘global’ experience of shopping to potential customers (Maitra et al. 2018). There is a whole plethora of surveillance techniques, of enforcing the set of communications practices and enacting the idealised personae that ETPs teach to transform the retail labour force in Indian shopping malls into a cosmopolitan global service labour force. Apart from floor managers checking whether the ground staff are properly greeting the customers or maintaining the requisite three-feet distance, there are more formalised (and dreaded) mystery audits. Higher officials visit the shop floor impersonating prospective customers to assign points to Customer Service Agents. The results of these mystery audits are, however, often profoundly disappointing. On a mystery audit visit that Saikat Maitra did for one of the largest retail outlets in South City Mall, it was found that four of the five salespersons appraised forgot to greet. Another three did not even once smile during the interaction, while all five of the workers were found to be lacking in positive body language; they either slouched or did not appear to be excited at the prospect of a sale. The resulting dossiers were sent off with the advice to the Human Resource department to refer these workers for further rounds of training (Maitra 2016). What this ethnographic vignette suggests is that despite the attempts at creating make-believe spaces of globalised retail culture, shopping malls struggle to keep at bay the social dispositions and forms of interactions that characterise the messy life of the quotidian urban life outside, including the disorder of other spaces of consumption like the bazaars.

Dreamwork, Dust, and Escapist Potential and the Business of Hinterland Retail

Locating the latest retail revolution in India in the realm of a New India’s aspirational goals as providing the physical embodiment onto which elitist speculation and anticipation, or ‘dreamwork’ in a phrase employed by Arjun Appadurai (2015: 481) in a different context, can be foisted allows us to move beyond the tiny enclaves actually enveloped by this ‘revolution’ beyond logistics and capital flows that can be found as much in a mall as in a bazaar or mandi. Saikat Maitra’s work on the malls in Kolkata highlights the limits faced by mall managers in reproducing these dreams in the real world where the workforces employed in the malls are perceived by their managers as substandard, hardly capable of rote learning the basics of brand reputations. Boutique-style clothes shops clandestinely serve as hubs for prostitution and even the most exclusive retail spaces prefer a cheap and disposable labour force with very little possibilities of socioeconomic mobility. Moving beyond the metropolis, malls in India have by and large failed to replicate even the appearance of a revolutionary trajectory. The IP Mall in the north Indian city of Banaras (Varanasi), for instance, is in the posh neighbourhood of Bhelupur1, yet a major part of its shop floor remains desolate. Once a visitor turns away from its central hall, it opens to dust-filled, badly lit and ventilated corners. Nevertheless, the mall attracts a fair-sized crowd, especially young families and teenage couples. In the case of the latter, it is not only for the chance of an outing at the ground-floor fast-food restaurants but also because the mall’s dusty and dark nooks and corners provide a semblance of privacy, rare to come by in a north Indian mufassil town. The architectural distinction of the mall within the cityscape may not have reproduced the ‘consumption as freedom’ images associated with Singapore or Dubai, but it does provide a measure of escapist potential. The few surviving shops of the mall, other than fast food ventures, do not sell anything that its visitors could not get elsewhere, and shopworkers employed here frequently give the appearance of being surprised that anyone would actually enter their shops.

As in the case of South City Mall, automobile access in the vicinity has added to the appeal of IP Mall which, in turn, is linked to long-term developments in urban geographies, with more affluent families having shifted increasingly to the outskirts of the city, and out of the congested and densely settled old quarters. Banking on rising real estate prices, the fact that a major share of its shop floor remains desolate is offset by another dimension of speculative anticipation. At the same time, accessibility by car or, more likely, scooter has equally contributed to countervailing tendencies: the neighbourhood of Assi, for long a sleepy backwater and a sanctuary for a quintessentially local style of living, has in recent years emerged as a rival hub of night-time activity. Originally drawing a predominantly student crowd from the nearby university, it has by now started to attract a much more variegated set of customers in a setting much more reminiscent of the bazaar, replete with locally famous tea and paan stores as well as small food carts selling noodles, momos, and soft drinks.

At the same time, there is very little that distinguishes the city’s main bazaar even from metropolitan shopping malls in terms of the availability of standardised, branded goods. Rather, the product range in the bazaar is far greater, including both its ‘traditional’ merchandise and more recent additions to it, in accordance with the overall diversification of consumption patterns in India. In total, commerce in the bazaar, even disregarding its wholesale component, continues to outshine the city’s ‘modern’ commercial arenas. While young Banarsis may flock to the two main malls in town, they are very much aware of where in the bazaar they can get the best deals for better products that are geared towards their actual demand. Having observed the emergence of branded goods in the bazaar of Banaras since the 1990s, Andy Rotman (2020) has demonstrated the misapprehensions among many of its retailers when first encountering brand name capitalism as demands for ‘modernity’ in retail. Yet, his work is equally showing the extent to which the bazaar has adapted to this ‘novel’ form of commerce, with small shops having started to create their own ‘brands’. This latter process, however, is considerably less surprising than the binary between ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’—or the mall and the bazaar—is indicating. Historically, the western-origin practice of brand name advertising gained significant traction in India only when it was taken up by bazaar outlets (Haynes 2020), with corporate entities like Godrej that emerged from the bazaar using this route to establish themselves as the antipode of ‘traditional’ commerce.

What the bazaar lost is its role in leisure-related activities, apart from high-quality sweets and ‘street food’: starting in the 1960s, when prostitution was largely driven out, the area was increasingly ‘sanitised’ in terms of what the municipality considered as vice. By the late 1990s, most of its small-scale cinemas screening primarily ‘B’ grade movies that catered to all-male audiences had been supplanted by new, typically mall-based multiplexes catering to ‘family entertainment’. Its few bars, leaving aside a tiny number of less conspicuous drinking dens, had moved to the city’s newer neighbourhoods, especially to escape public opprobrium over serving alcohol within the confines of the ritually important area of Kashikshetra. It may be seen as a historical irony, yet the hinterland bazaars of northern India have by now lost most of their original connections to the notion of the mela, while the malls have taken up at least some of the latter’s characteristics.

With the exception of a few standalone high-quality department stores for particular branded goods, it is the city’s main bazaar and various ‘markets’ that provide goods actually in demand, and a surprising range of branded goods. Without the need to sell a fantasy image of the city’s future in addition to their products, they sell their goods in a matter-of-fact way rather than in fashions that exact training in appearance and comportment. In cutting out the speculative anticipation of the mall, the range of goods actually sold serves as another example of highlighting contrasts within the Indian retail landscape: just as the architectural design of Kolkata’s South City Mall highlights the squalor of its surroundings, by contrast, the bazaar’s range of goods may include typical ‘mall products’, yet the vast majority of the demand is for more mundane goods. To revert to the statement by the Project Manager of Bengal Greenfields, it is the site of very serious business, unrelated to the reimaginations of the city, and the capital flows involved in real estate speculation. The bazaar is not engaged in the retail of dreamwork but in the sale of what sells. If it had been involved in the former, the precise shape of its dreamwork would likely have turned out differently, too, but the key mechanics underlying its speculative anticipation may have operated in similar ways.

South City Mall in Kolkata was built on formerly industrial urban space, part of a drawn-out gentrification process that went hand in hand with the city’s deindustrialisation. Its construction marked a rupture with the past, signifying to the more affluent strata of Kolkata’s society a shift towards an economy less openly associated with industrial labour and strife where the retail/real estate boom in and around the fringes of the city often takes place today on the abandoned sites of its once-thriving industrial bases. In contrast, the main bazaar in Banaras, centring on Chowk and the adjoining neighbourhoods, has remained at the heart of commercial life in the city, even if it has lost many of its attributes as a centre for leisure and entertainment. Given the density both of its population and its commercial networks, the main bazaar in Chowk may not have been considered suitable for ‘redevelopment’ in accordance with the speculative anticipations of a New India to include a mall, yet recently a major section of its old seventeenth-century set-up was rigorously demolished to make way for a substantial expansion of the Kashi Vishwanath temple, planned to be replete with the trappings of ‘modernity’ that have come to be associated with temples like Akshardham in Delhi. The demolition was propagated, among others, as a novel addition to the city’s pilgrimage business by allowing more pilgrims to visit, and particularly attracting a more affluent, ‘modern’ clientele. While it is not planned to resemble a ship’s prow, the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor’s architecture will certainly serve as a similar contrast to its surrounding neighbourhoods, an emblem of speculative anticipation vastly at odds with the lived realities of its surroundings, and possibly serving to mark these different speculative anticipations as much more fulfilling than either a ritual or commercial demand. Maybe a different form of mela will return to the bazaar, suitable for the imagination of yet another New India.

Conclusion

Focusing on the retail revolution, this article opens up the complex intersections within circuits of global flows of commodities, capital and images extending from the seeming disorderliness of the bazaar to the sanitised aesthetics of the shopping malls. Rather than assuming any specific breaks between the past and the present, we seek to place both the trajectories of continuities as well as disjunctions in thinking about the emergent retail spaces within the new regimes of consumption in India.

Instead of being a revolutionary moment, we are witnessing a process of diversification in the retail landscape, consisting of additions to the latter that fulfil specific needs and roles in accordance with the increasing complexity of consumer demands in India. One of these added needs and demands relates to questions of distinction, not only in terms of distinction goods but extending into the realms of identity and belonging, of aspiration and anticipation. The image of a revolutionary moment emerges as a crucial component for this segment of the retail landscape, blending the consumption of goods and the consumption of a lifestyle. This lifestyle, however, simultaneously consists of the social realities faced by its ‘consumers’ and of anticipations of a very different reality, the improbability of which merely adds to its attraction. The speculative anticipation that characterises metropolitan malls is specifically created for this purpose and needs to be for its success, yet even the partial failure to fully capture the revolutionary potential of the mall for retail facilitates the operation of anticipation as the driving force behind this segment of commerce. When the production of this anticipation fails, its customers, after all, can always obtain a similar range of goods by shopping elsewhere.2


NOTES

1 There is a second IP Mall located in the Sigra neighbourhood that has been moderately successful as a commercial outlet, especially in comparison, though many of the characteristics described below are visible there as well.

2 Saikat Maitra would like to thank the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta for the research grant (No. RP: MA: AESESWCUK/3780/2018-19) enabling research for this article.


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About the Contributors

Saikat Maitra is a cultural anthropologist who has carried out extensive ethnographic fieldwork on youth service labour in organised retail spaces, which includes over 15 months of participant observation research employed as a service worker in an upscale shopping mall in Kolkata. His recent publications focus on the interface between work-regimes, skill training, and education. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. Email: saikatm@iimcal.ac.in.

Sebastian Schwecke is Director of Max Weber Forum for South Asian Studies, Delhi. His recent work has been strongly informed by studying the bazaar of Banaras. Recent publications include Rethinking Markets in Modern India: Embedded Exchange and Contested Jurisdiction (Cambridge University Press, 2020; co-edited with Ajay Gandhi, Barbara Harriss-White, and Douglas E. Haynes), and the forthcoming monograph Debt, Trust, and Reputation: Extra-legal Finance in Northern India (Cambridge University Press). Email: schwecke@mwsindia.org.

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