Almost as soon as she had landed in India’s capital, Lady Gaga made for Dilli Haat. When Hillary Clinton visited Delhi, she too visited this open-air market.
For Dilli Haat is India’s showroom, a magnet for artists and traders from as far north as Himalaya to the far south of Goa: India united. It is a intensely colourful collage of all things Indian. And for next her visit Lady Gaga says she will be taking more suitcases for her purchases.
Dilli Haat showcases the best of India’s arts and crafts, it is a market for India’s ethnic fashions, a buzzing venue where India cherishes it’s diversity as well as celebrating performances from traditional dancers and musicians.
The open-air market, modelled on a village’s traditional weekly “haat”, primarily pulls in Delhi’s growing middle-class as well as the occasional celeb. With well over 100 shops and stalls Dilli Haat is constantly evolving. The first and sixteenth of every month are change-over days and a fresh contingent of artists, crafts-folk and traders arrive from this vast country of over a billion people.
New ranges of art-work, body oils, carpets, chutneys, decorative chairs, hand-made soaps, jewellery, musical instruments, papier-mâché table-lamps, pashminas, saris, shoes, spices, waistcoats, wooden toys and woven carpets continually arriving makes for a winning formula.
Founded in 1994 the thriving market has been the blueprint for a further two Dilli Haats – though footfall for the six-acre site close to the INA Metro station, on the yellow line, suggests that the original is still the best. Rustic brick-work, with arch-shaped open-fronted shops, drifting into the street-food area and then on past entertainments stage creates an easy-going ambience.
First and foremost Dilli Haat draws in local folk. Early-evening they pay their 20 Rupee admission fee to stroll, shop and eat. Saris and Bollywood Bling make for a colourful promenade. “Foreigners”, who have to pay a 100 Rupees entry, just over £1, are a rarity.
To complain that prices of goods at Dilli Haat are high is to miss many points. Of course, you would pay less in the intense competition of the chaotic bazaar of Chandni Chawk’s 10,000 shops and stalls – the economists’ ultimate perfect market. But browsing at spacious Dilli Haat is a less exhausting, less sweaty experience. Nor will you need a guide to battle through narrow alleys, a guide on commission who will just lead you to his Uncle’s emporium. For many of the traders at Dilli Haat, with just fifteen days of trading, this is an opportunity to take much needed revenue back to their villages.
Many of the people at the stalls are crafts folk rather than gift-of-the-gab salesmen. They’ll be producing another pair of shoes or working on their loom to create the next carpet. So, there’s less pressured selling than at many of Delhi’s other markets.
Haggling is all part of the Indian way of life – with “my last price” often shown on a calculator for emphasis. Some good-natured bartering can reduce prices by around 20%, frequently more for multiple purchases. Remember though that many of the artefacts on sale are labour intensive, a woman may have worked on a pashmina for weeks, a family may have slaved over a carpet for months. It’s worth keeping the credo of “Fair Trade” in mind.
Dilli Haat is a winner on so many levels. Originally it was Mahatma Gandhi, in the 1940s, who had argued for a need to promote village industries. It’s a nice touch that workers of the Indigo Trade are flourishing, as one of Gandhi’s first cases, as a young lawyer, was to battle for the rights of exploited Indigo workers.
Dilli Haat also plays a part in reviving dying arts, providing a showplace for ancient skills such as Mahabharata tribal art. Vivid, simply painted chitra (pictures), often on hand-made paper, tell the story of ancient myths. Whilst villagers from the Himalayas have found that the fibrous nettles growing vigorously around them have, when woven into baskets, provided them with an essential flow of income.
Similar resourcefulness, and astute marketing skills, are demonstrated by stalls selling paper, notepads and pocketbooks, “made using only the finest elephant dung available in India”: the ultimate environmentally-friendly recycling.
Stall space is rented at just 100 Rupees a day nor are there any taxes levied on goods sold. Enterprises for women are encouraged – undoubtedly India has problems with misogyny – as well as charities supporting “slumdog” adolescents.
A walk round Dilli Haat is an Indian gastronomic journey. Best to visit the spice stalls, smelling astoundingly fresh cardamom seeds and turmeric, tasting chutneys – before filling-up at the street food stalls and their star-quality momos: India’s tasty dumplings, often made with chicken or vegetables. Then head for the kulfi stall, India’s ice-cream, to cool the mouth-tingling heat of chilli.
There’s a feel-good-glow to visitors strolling round Dilli Haat, stopping to look at goods creatively displayed on the trees and beneath the colourful bunting. They know that their purchases are preserving traditional India.