hen I went to Dilli Haat a few months ago, I bought an imperious bronze monkey and a delicate gold silk stole. The time after that, I had an inordinately flattering portrait of myself drawn in charcoal pencil, and purchased patchwork cushion covers. And the next time, I bought tomato seeds and a gaudy bejewelled hairpiece, and saw a turbaned 10-year-old on 10-foot stilts.
You never know what to expect when you take a trip to Dilli Haat. There's absolutely no point making a shopping list or an itinerary in advance. What's more, since each craftsperson has a two-week stint selling his wares there, something which catches your eye on one trip may well disappear by the time you return, so gratification must be immediate. That, along with cleverly positioning the food a long walk past the wares, is one of the many sales tricks that makes Dilli Haat the widely admired and replicated retail model it is today. J
aya Jaitly, Dastkari Haat Samiti founder, came up with the idea way back in the early '80s; inspired by the weekly markets she saw in villages, where farmers, fisherfolk, and tribals came together to trade goods. "It's a great social equaliser. It's culturally easy for craftspeople to adapt to, and far better than the options—selling on pavements, or outside swanky emporia, where they feel out of place."
From its humble beginnings as the "lid" of a stormwater drain 13 years ago, this collaboration between the NDMC, Ministry of Textiles and Delhi Tourism now rakes in an average of Rs 3 crore every fortnight. Thanks to its stupendous success, the 10th and 11th Five Year Plans allocated larger grants for the Urban Bazaar Scheme, and it's inspired spinoffs in Jaipur, Bhopal, Bhubhaneshwar, Mysore and Colombo. Also on the anvil: Haats for Pakistan, South Africa, Nepal and even Tihar Jail.
Dilli Haat has also become a media darling: whether it's talk of Prince Charles' ongoing infatuation with its pashmina shawls and organic food, or the lyrical paeans of food reviewers to the Dalma in the Orissa food stall, the fragrant yakhni and kahwa in the Kashmir food stall, and the Rajasthan stall's unbeatable chaat-and-chuski combination.
One of the restaurants that offer state-specific specialities
Among the 10,000 people it lures through its gates daily are families, cooing couples, as well as its most passionate (and passionately welcomed) devotees—expats and tourists. It's not all fruitless either: The Haat drums up Rs 2.5 crore worth of business every month. And though craftspersons have to pay a Rs 400 rent per day, they're clearly more than making up for it: they clamour for return visits, devise ways of sneaking past the once-in-six-months rule, and say there's no better place to sell their wares. Then there are additional advantages, besides the great sales. The convivial, pluralistic atmosphere means that a lady selling handloom sarees from Andhra Pradesh can chat up the folk from West Bengal selling kantha sarees in the neighbouring stall and get new ideas to diversify her own craft. Furthermore, artisans get to interact directly with buyers, without middlemen whittling away chunks of their earnings.
So it's unsurprising that mall-owners want a piece of Dilli Haat too. "One developer came to ask how he could convert a whole floor in a mall to a Dilli Haat," says Jaitly. "It's great to see the Haat enter the urban lexicon, and that people are recognising the retail possibilities of the non-standardised, non-branded, visually different products that the crafts sector has to offer." And the sunny, picturesquely red-brick Haat, where they're sold, certainly makes you rethink setting foot ever again in Gurgaon's glassy mausoleums, with their dull, overpriced wares.