Saturday, July 15, 2017

How to build an ethical design business?

- by Deepa Krishnan

I went to Kala Ghoda yesterday to meet a young man named Yazad. He is from LA, but is here in Mumbai now. The Parsi entrepreneurial streak is calling to Yazad, and he is plotting his own design label. He wants to launch a brand of ethical, sustainable clothing for millennials. 

Just before meeting Yazad, I went to the new Translate store at Kala Ghoda, and I couldn't help thinking what a great learning ground this store is. Yazad could learn lots of things from this brand.
True to its name, Translate has taken the traditional technique of ikat, as woven in the village of Pochampally near Hyderabad, and translated that into something contemporary, innovative and stylish. Urban women can wear these clothes easily, confidently, in lots of different leisure contexts. Some of the shift dresses can be worn to work as well. Translate has taken care with design and finish; the quality is easily visible. The sizing and cuts are designed for real women, not impossibly skinny models.

Clearly, Translate knows their audience, and has managed to find a price point at which the business is able to thrive. And they have found a clear design identity niche as well: ikat for sophisticated urban tastes. After their initial days in Hyderabad, they have now expanded into Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad. 

Any successful design and clothing business, especially one that works with traditional crafts, needs a lot of different ingredients to work well. First, there is product creation itself. This kind of product cannot be done with just top-down design inputs from a designer. It is often is a collaborative process, with the realities of the craft interacting with the sensibilities of the designer.

The designer brings their understanding of the customer and market into the game. The craftsperson brings  their own understanding of fabric, colour, and technique. In the case of ikat, for example, they bring a very sophisticated understanding of dyeing of warp and weft into patterns. Locating the business close to the craft source is a good way to ensure there is ongoing collaboration between the designer and the craftsperson. 

But product creation is just the beginning of the story. I was telling Yazad last night that too many designers spend all their energy worrying about the product design. In the process, they forget to focus on the other things that make a sustainable commercial success.

It's hard for one person to have all the abilities to make everything work. But if you look at successful designers, you'll see that they all have sharp commercial acumen as well. They've managed to figure out how to finance their business. They've figured out pricing and margins. They've often started out with very low overhead costs, and only later taken on big fixed expenses. They've learnt the fine art of storytelling around their work, creating the necessary buzz (even when their marketing budgets were close to zero). These are fundamental entrepreneurial skills, which someone like Yazad has to cultivate if he is serious about getting into the design business. 

The other big part of the story is ethics. Yazad wants to run an ethical business. In the design world, this means paying fair wages, giving credit where it is due, and not copying designs. It means following a fair pricing policy. It means upholding the laws of the land. It's really tough for anyone except an insider to figure out whether a business is being run on ethical lines. I'm sure for every ethical design house that exists, there many more pretenders.

Running an ethical business can be very difficult, simply because it often means your costs will be higher than those of competitors with fewer scruples. How does one survive in a situation like that? It may mean you need to accept lower margins for yourself. It may mean raising prices - but then customers must be convinced that your products offer them value for the premium that they pay you. What are you giving them, that someone else isn't? Designers must answer that question with brutal clarity if they want to succeed.

In the process, you must also define who you want as your customer. And who you don't.  Here's the thing: You cannot build an ethical business that will cater to *everyone*. Do not agonize over the ones who go away. Learn some equanimity. 

My personal belief is that an ethical business can be built only when you don't really place money above all else. You need to be able to accept financial losses when ethics cost you money and customers. Sometimes really big setbacks will come and knock you off your feet. You have to pick yourself up and find the path again. If your value proposition is right, you will find that sweet spot, where customers and money will all come your way. But when push comes to shove, you have to be able to say, "This much is enough for me. More than this is greed. If I do this greedy thing, it will compromise what my brand stands for." 

I hope Yazad will find his path to ethical success. I hope he will find this sweet spot. 

Yazad is the nephew of my friend Gulserene. Last night we had dinner at Chetna at Kala Ghoda. Here are a couple of photos. By now I guess at least *some* of you want to see who this Yazad is. That's him in the maroon shirt. OK, OK, burgundy if you prefer :-) My friend Gulserene is the one with the arms folded on the table. We were chatting into the night, long after our plates were cleared.  
At last night's dinner, I had the privilege of listening to Dr. Sunil Pandya of KEM, who has been at the forefront of medical ethics in India. Dr. Pandya's wife Shubha - sitting just across from me - is also a doctor (her area is leprosy); and she has a PhD in history as well. Next to Yazad is Dr. Lopa Patel, again from KEM, whose research work on cancer has generated much controversy. She has stood firm by her beliefs. What an amazing set of people, each making a difference to the world in their own way. Gulserene made a documentary on KEM, called "Getting Better" - and she is the thread that tied us all together. More about her documentary in some other post, perhaps!

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Mumbai's largest Baghdadi synagogue

- by Deepa Krishnan

In the late 1700's and early 1800's, Jews from Iraq began arriving in Calcutta and Mumbai.

It was not the first time Arabic speaking Jews had made their presence felt in India. The Great Mughal Akbar had a Jew in his court, and so did some subsequent Mughal emperors. Surat was one of the major ports of the Mughal empire, and Jewish merchants were well-established there, trading with the British East India Company.

As Mumbai prospered in the 1800's, Jews from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen began arriving in Mumbai in significant numbers. A lot of them came from Iraq, and so they were called Baghdadi Jews.

There was already another Jewish community in Mumbai, the Bene-Israel (Children of Israel). Believed to be one of the "ten lost tribes" of Israel, they had been in India for many centuries. The Bene-Israel were quite different from the Baghdadis - they spoke Marathi, and looked more Indian than Middle-Eastern. After many centuries in Maharashtra, Bene-Israeli cuisine had become localised, while the Baghdadi Jews followed their own cuisine. The prayer rituals of the Bene-Israel were also different from those of the Baghdadis. The two communities therefore, maintained a cultural distance, and did not intermarry.

In the initial years, the Baghdadis were few in number, and they prayed at the synagogues of the Bene Israeli community.  But as their numbers grew, they began to want their own synagogue in Mumbai.

Two factors made this dream a possibility. The first was the arrival of the wealthy Sassoon family of Baghdadi Jews in 1832. The second was the opening of the opium trade in the 1840's which allowed the Sassoons to amass huge fortunes. As their wealth multiplied to astronomical levels, the Sassoon family naturally became the de facto leaders of the Baghdadi community. Building a Baghdadi synagogue was an obvious logical demonstration of that leadership. The patriarch David Sassoon was a practising Jew, who observed the shabbath throughout his life.

In 1857, while the country erupted in flames of revolt against the East India Company, David Sassoon moved ahead with plans for the first Baghdadi synagogue in India. The Sassoon family owned land in Byculla. A plot was identified and architectural design commenced. The design selected for the synagogue was Western-inspired architecture, rather than Middle-Eastern or Indian. Perhaps it was because the Sassoons were quite well-aligned with the British. While David Sassoon did not speak a word of English, his three sons did, and they wore both traditional and Western clothes.
Construction progressed quickly. In 1861, the synagogue was consecrated, and named Magen David, Shield of David. It was the largest synagogue in Asia at the time. A few years later, the Sassoons built the Ohel David in Pune, which I think is even larger, although I cannot tell for sure.

Here's an old photo of Magen David synagogue. In the 1900's as the Baghdadi congregation grew, extensions were added on both sides, which are missing in the old photo. But you can see the extensions in this illustration below, which I got from the Sassoon Trust website.

I have visited Magen David on and off in the past 10 years. It used to be cream/white in colour, as the illustration shows.

Somewhere in 2008, it was painted an attractive blue and white colour. Blue is the identifying colour of Judaism, just as the saffron colour identifies Hinduism. In the Torah, the Israelites were told to dye a thread on their tassels with tekhelet, a blue ink from a sea creature, perhaps a type of cuttlefish. The Israeli flag is also blue-and-white (actually tekhelet is supposed to be a dark almost violet-blue).

When you stand in front of the synagogue, the most obvious architectural aspect that strikes you is the flat-roofed porch supported by four columns. The entablature contains the name of the synagogue in English, and there is a tablet showing the ten commandments in Hebrew.

If you step back a little from the synagogue, you can appreciate the central stepped tower. The tower is inspired by a similar one in Trafalgar Square, London. The one in London is called St. Martin in the Fields, you can see it here. There's a clock on the tower that was brought from London. It was an era when everyone did not have the money to own a pocket-watch; so public buildings had clocks to help the populace figure out the time.

Here a photo of the interior:
This is the view from the first floor, which is the women's area. The synagogue has separate seating for men and women, as required by halakha (Jewish religious laws). While gender separation has been a part of orthodox Judaism, there have been many reform movements trying to change the requirements. Particularly in Jerusalem, it's interesting to see how the orthodox control over the sacred Wailing Wall of Jerusalem is being contested by the "Women of the Wall"  They have been fighting for equal right to access and pray at this holy site.

Photo credits: Top and bottom photo from Garry Joseph, who did our Jewish Heritage tour

Friday, May 05, 2017

Waiting for Rajnikanth

- by Deepa Krishnan

Today I am waiting for a guy named Rajnikanth to come home. No woman ever waited for a man so much :) He was supposed to come yesterday but did not. I have been trying to entice him to my house for 2 years now.

Who is Rajnikanth? He is a 5ft tall adivasi man who is going to paint a traditional Warli mural on my wall. He lives 4hrs away from Mumbai, in a small hamlet. Each time I visit the village, I ask him "ghari yeta ka?". Will you come home? Each time he looks down and smiles and says nothing. He has a smile that lights up his face.

What he will earn from one city visit is more than his annual income. I have explained that. But the adivasi mind is a strange thing. It works in its own way. Everything cannot be bought by money. He is willing to do carpentry work in nearby town but not come to Mumbai. But finally he seems to be relenting...after multiple visits and relationship building and egging on by the headmaster of the school.

Yesterday he went to the town bus stop but did not board the bus :) Here I was waiting all day long like a jilted lover. Late at night when asked why, he said he didn't have money for the bus. A little white lie :)

Today again I am hoping that at 8:30 am he will board the bus. 

Friday, March 31, 2017

Black Pav Bhaji: Thankful Tastebuds (and Skeptical Stomach)

- by Aishwarya Pramod

Yesterday, I tried black pav bhaji at Maruti Pav Bhaji in Vile Parle. It was recommended by my friend Pooja, a long time Parle resident. I trust her judgment on food. (We have bonded over college canteen sev puris and Gurukripa samosas. My mother has been awestruck by Pooja's capacity to eat). On top of that, a Google search told me that Maruti is now featured on a few lists of Mumbai's best places to eat pav bhaji. So when the mood for pav bhaji struck, I decided to try out this joint with another friend.

We arrived a little early; the stall only opens at 7:30 PM
It's a roadside stall called Maruti. I don't know why his pav bhaji is black. Some people on the interet attribute it to black pepper while others talk of "secret black spices".

Its colour is different from the regular red pav bhaji
We asked for some extra butter in the bhaji
The pav bhaji itself was delicious. It was indeed a little different from what is usually served as pav bhaji. But a special mention goes out to the masala pav (below). It was a real bomb. It was overflowing with spice and flavour. My stomach is not yet sure how it's going to respond to this level of chilli but I already know I'm not going to have any regrets.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Kanatha vadam: My family's guilty indulgence

-by Aishwarya Pramod and Janaki Krishnan

Like all Palakkad Iyers, I love kanatha vadam. But whenever I think of it, it's always with a twinge of guilt. Not because kanatha vadam is unhealthy. Rather, it is because the dish takes a humongous effort to make, but almost no time to finish off. All that work for only a moment of deliciousness? So self-indulgent. :P

Non-Palakkad-Iyers might ask, what are kanatha vadams? At the risk of sounding clinical, they are steamed rice flat-cakes that are sundried to make papads :). During the papad-making process, a few of them are set aside for immediate eating (without drying).

My grandmother has loved kanatha vadam since she was a young girl. She penned down the recipe and her memories associated with it. Here is what she wrote.
Writing down the recipe

Kanatha Vadam by Janaki Krishnan

I learnt to make kanatha vadam at a schoolgoing age. Kanatha vadam means "thick vadam". It's made on a set of leaf-shaped metal trays. It's also called elai vadam, meaning "leaf vadam".

The "leaves" for making kanatha vadam
Vadam-making was a group affair. Children were given simple jobs to do like peeling off cooked vadams from the leaves. There were 8 of us who helped our mother make large batches of vadam-papads. We would set aside a few vadams for immediate eating, and keep the remaining ones in the sun to dry. While peeling off the cooked vadams, a few small pieces would inevitably remain on the leaves. We loved snacking on those even as we were supposed to be setting the vadams aside.

  • 1 glass puzhungal arisi. This is parboiled unpolished rice. It is slightly reddish because a bit of the husk remains on the grain. We use this rice to make idli too
  • 1 glass polished rice
  • Salt, chilli powder, hing (asafoetida) powder
  • Metal leaves to cook the vadams. Right from my mother's time we have been using metal leaves, though traditionally, leaves are used. These leaves are available in the market or with flower sellers.
Soak the parboiled rice overnight. Soak the polished rice the next day for about half an hour. Mix all the rice together, drain the water. Grind into a paste in a mixie/grinder. Add about half a cup of water while grinding, little by little.

Once the paste is ready, add more water to it till it becomes the consistency of dosai batter. This will make it easy to spread on the leaf. Add a spoonful of sesame seeds (optional).

The rice paste with sesame seeds
Ready the metal leaves, by dabbing them with a cloth dipped in a mix of water and a little oil. Spread the batter evenly in circular shapes. Steam-cook it for two minutes.

Spreading the paste on the leaves
Steam for 2 minutes
Remove the leaves from the steam-cooker and let them cool for a couple of minutes. Spread a little oil of your choice on the vadams, and gently peel them off the leaves. Trying to remove the vadams before they cool down will make them stick to the leaves. They are now ready to eat!

Ready to eat
Some of the vadams can also be dried in the sun and later deep-fried.

I still love kanatha vadam. I prefer eating them directly rather than drying and deep-frying. The steamed ones have very little oil and I can easily eat half a dozen.


Aishwarya back again :)
Like my grandma, my mom has also been a long time fan of kanatha vadam. I myself wasn't a big fan, until I was suddenly converted a few years ago. I'm back home after finishing my MBA. It turns out that Amma has developed a slight addiction and asks Shyamala (her cook) to make these vadams every fortnight or so.

Here she is answering mails, taking phone calls and watching Star Trek all at the same time. I bring a plate of sample vadams to my her, and she tastes one. "Needs more salt in the batter. Also, not sour enough. Maybe add buttermilk." She feeds me a couple and eats the remaining two. "OK so are there more vadams?" she asks furtively. I grin at the guilty look on her face and go to fetch another plate.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Fair markets for farmers?

- by Aishwarya Pramod

We've all heard stories about exploitative middlemen in Indian agriculture. They're charged with shortchanging farmers, and causing high food prices for end consumers.

I wanted to figure out how agricultural produce makes its way to our local bazaars. Who is in charge of ensuring that the farmer gets a fair deal?

The answer, at least in the 50's and the 60's, came in the form of Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs). Agriculture is a state subject, and several states set up their own APMC Acts to regulate the sale of agricultural produce.

At APMC market yards, licensed agents connect farmers to wholesalers and other buyers. Prices are decided based on auctions, instead of giving the middleman the ability to set the price. APMCs also mandate the use of fair weighing machines, as well as fair payment for loading/unloading labour.

Today there are ~2500 principal APMC markets and ~4800 sub-market yards in the country.

Vashi APMC Market
However, as it turned out, the APMCs weren't as good as envisaged. For starters, the APMCs impose multiple high fees on all actors that operate in them, distorting prices. Farmers often ultimately bear the costs of these levies. The intermediary agents can form cartels. Prices can be manipulated, because the markets function quite opaquely. The market is regulated by the APMC committee, who are elected from the agents operating in the APMC, leading to a conflict of interest.

To encourage states to reform their APMCs, the central Ministry of Agriculture formulated a Model APMC Act in 2003. It requested state governments to amend their laws to bring them in line with this model law.

Some of the suggested reforms in the APMC Model Act include:
1) No more government monopoly on setting up APMCs. Anyone can apply to set up a market
2) Farmers are not compelled to sell in the APMC but can go to any market, outside the APMC, or take up contract farming
3) The Act attempts to better regulate contract farming to give farmers more options
4) The Act also streamlines fees and levies.

Several states are now in the process of amending their acts, though progress is slow. In 2016, Maharashtra for example, exempted farmers from having to sell fruits and vegetables at APMCs, despite opposition from APMC traders.

Some states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Haryana have experimented with 'rythu bazaars' or 'apni mandis', where farmers sell their products directly to consumers. But not all farmers have the capability to bring their products to urban markets. So the middleman provides a necessary and useful service to them, and the direct-to-consumer model has very limited applicability.

The central government is also working on connecting multiple APMC markets across the country using a single electronic platform called the electronic National Agriculture Market (e-NAM). The e-NAM is still taking baby steps. I wonder how the agricultural markets will evolve in future. More options for farmers and more transparency in general seem like the way to go :)

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Morning routine in my parents house

This is the kitchen of my parents' home. Their day begins with two glasses of warm water, to which Amma adds a spoon of honey and some lemon.
Appa finds a knife and plates, and sits down at the dining table to slice elchi bananas. It takes a while. They will eat the bananas later, with cinnamon powder and sugar. The milk is set to boil. The filter is filled with coffee powder; and boiling water is poured into it. The fabulous smell of Mysore coffee fills the air. Once the decoction and milk are ready, the first cup of coffee is had. It takes them an hour to complete their first round of morning activities.

Recently my mother took a fall in the bathroom. It was not a major fall. But my sister, my cousin Girish and I have been taking turns to sleepover at their house for a few days, until things normalise. That's how I am here, watching these morning rituals. As I observe them moving around, I realise the mortality and fragility of the human body.  Someday, I will also get to this slow-moving stage. Will my husband be there with me, dancing this slow dance?

Last evening, an elderly neighbour heard about her fall, and came to visit my mother. "Deepa," she said, in that advisory tone that even complete strangers use freely in India "You must now look after your parents carefully." Almost instantly, I replied, "Maami, it is my good fortune that I can serve them". I realised as soon as I said it that I was parroting a cliché. But sometimes it is the clichés that seem to most closely reflect our thoughts. I am indeed blessed, that I can spend time with my parents at this stage of their life. 

My parents are still able to do many things on their own. For things that they cannot manage, my sister and I have been pitching in for the past couple of years. Our army of maids and drivers has been very handy. But in the process, the big thing I have learned is that when it comes to caring for elders, money alone is not enough. You cannot throw a nurse on the job and expect it to work well. Planning, coordination and a sort of loving expertise is required.

Many things seem small; but they are important to the person you are caring for. For example, the feeding of the crows in my mother's house is a tiny ritual, but it's important to her. It follows a fixed pattern. Rice and curd are mixed together into thayir saadam. The crows come at 10 am. Nothing else will they eat, except that thayir saadam. We have tried upma, sevai, dal-rice... uh-uh, sorry! Only thayir saadam is accepted with grace. So this is a ritual now, and it must be planned the previous day. We must ensure rice is cooked every day, and that some curd-rice is set aside for the next morning. At 10 am sharp, it has to be placed on the compound wall. If my mother is unwell, then someone else must do this little thing, because the crows cannot be forgotten.

There are a hundred small things like this, each one tiny, but each one a fragment of my parents' routine, a part of the way they want to live their life. It is what makes them who they are. It brings normalcy and comfort to them, to see these things done. I hope my sister and I can do it for as long as required.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

My academic research projects

- By Deepa Krishnan

These days I am enjoying my forays into academic research. 

Economic Times
The first research project  I did was on the impact of demonetization on families living in slums. It got significant coverage in the Economic Times, trending as Top News on their website. It was also in the Top 10 daily list among the articles on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN). For a rookie researcher, this is very encouraging!

The second research project (group photo below) is about the economic rationale for giving legal title to slum families. In this photo, you can see our field researchers are being trained in how to collect data. They are college students, who live in low-income/slum neighbourhoods; so they have access to the types of families we want to interviw.
Students who live in different wards of Mumbai
These research projects are part of my  "Earn while you Learn" scheme for students. Data collection doesn't interfere with college lectures, and is the ideal flexi-time income opportunity. 

I hope to complete data collection by January; and then hopefully we will produce some sort of draft academic paper by April.

Why have I suddenly embarked on this type of work? 

I think it's because every ten years or so, I feel the need to reinvent myself. I want to learn new skills, add new capabilities to my repertoire. From my mother, I have inherited the restless yearning for new frontiers. We are nomads, she and I, we like the new and the unexplored. 

Also, research appeals to the curious child in me. It is important for me to see the world through a child's open frank lens. Without that, I would atrophy and die, like a tree that has rotted. At SPJIMR, where I teach, I attended a workshop on doing research. When they asked participants about why each person there should do research, I answered "for the sheer thrill of it". I think we should only do things that excite us. The chase for the truth, for that kernel of insight and revelation, is at the heart of all research. 

But I'm not interested in abstract research. "Knowledge for knowledge's sake" doesn't really excite me. I would like to do research that can influence policy. Watch this space :)
Staff from Abhyudaya explaining how to fill the form
After the work, the eating :) Our local shop made hot samosas for us