Khan’s New Clothes

Khan’s New Clothes

Logo loving elite, upper lipped Delhi memsahibs, foreigners in handlooms, Ikat rich seminarians, cakeries, bakeries and the bazaar politics of Khan Market

The snobbery central of New Delhi, a peacock garden for those who strut with their logos on leash, an arrival terminal for high-end brands and a departure port for those who find the arithmetic between hype and reality befuddling—Khan Market, folks, is trending.

PM Narendra Modi gave us reason for this hyper rant when he remarked, during his election pitches that “Modi’s image has not been created by the Khan Market gang or Lutyens’ Delhi but by 45 years of tapasya.” With that flamboyant sentence, he excluded “entitled dynasts” and their favourite spaces as politician and crafts expert Jaya Jaitly pointed out in a recent article in The Indian Express.


Photo: Shrishty Mishra

The Big Chill Creamery at Khan Market.

A few satirical as well as sobering pieces have been written on Khan Market in the last month. Most came salted with nostalgia. Jaitly writes about how she and her friends would cycle to Khan Market in the 1960s for local ice-creams and golgappas. She would rue when Levi’s took over Bengal Sweets. Delhi historian Narayani Gupta writes about Khan Market’s journey (also in The Indian Express) as “Refugee market to elitist Outpost”.

In his weekly column Indraprastha, Open magazine columnist Virendra Kapoor dwelt on Khan Market too. He pointed towards the “deprecatory reference to the well-heeled in Lutyens’ Delhi”. “It speaks of the wide socio-economic gulf that separates elites, who have enriched themselves gaming the system, from the millions of unwashed Indians who barely manage to eke out a living,” wrote Kapoor.

Yes and yes. Other insightful opinions have gone around. Insights either from entitled dynasts who find themselves in the citadel of Lutyens’ Delhi but refute its superiority. Or those who pontificate strictly outside this privileged periphery from a point of reason. A Khan Market tug of war is playing out there. Not between the popularity of Good Earth versus Fabindia or Nicobar versus Anokhi or Forest Essentials versus Kama Ayurveda or Dayal Opticians versus Bonton Opticians or Bahrisons versus Full Circle or Vero Moda versus Levi’s, or China Fare versus Mamagoto. Not between artisanal coffee and green tea. Or paid parking and the free public toilet. But between those loyal to the old addas (many of which have lapsed) and those conflicted about the new idea of Khan, both the market and its political references.

I am among the conflicted.


Photo: Shrishty Mishra

Fashion, food and other retail options at Khan Market.

But I have something to say about the increasing ‘perceived value’ of Khan Market as opposed to its real value to understand the commercial psychology and neurology of Delhi markets. Named after Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan, the leader of the North West Frontier Province and the elder brother of Frontier Gandhi—Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Khan market wears aspects of Delhi just as sections of Delhi wear it.

The “refugee market” tag even seen through the fog of history is a delightful one. Having grown up in a small town built for Sindhi refugees, I can’t begin to tell you the difference between one market and another. As of today, in 2019, Khan market’s burgeoning value as a brand beyond and above that of Lodhi Market, Meherchand Market, Khanna Market and other markets of Central Delhi is a tell-tale.

Not all big brands have the actual power they display when you strip them down. Yet their resonance, their meaning rises high. Khan Market is that kind of unique case study in brand building. An evolutionary journey that has led to commercial heft. The most sought-after bazaar space for premium, mass or luxury lifestyle and food brands in Delhi, it commands the maximum rent value in India at ₹1,350 per square feet, according to the 2019 appraisal of commercial spaces by American real estate services company Cushman & Wakefield. It is not only the most expensive commercial street in India but among the most steeply priced in the world. This puts it somewhere (behind) in the league of the intimidatingly swanky Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills in Los Angeles which houses the most expensive store in the world—The House of Bijan where you need a reservation to shop in.


Photo: Shrishty Mishra

The Good Earth store at Khan Market.

As someone who has never lived near Khan Market nor can ever afford to, who has never held an India International Centre membership that makes Khan Market a hop, skip and jump away, who does not associate Khan Market with Khushwant Singh, I still find the applique texture of Khan Market its high point. The charming co-existence of Cooptex with Ensemble, a branch of India’s first fashion store, the elegantly curated Good Earth with the Latitude Café on its head in a lane of stores that indulge the fat-sweet, well-looked after and famous stray dogs of Khan Market, the Bahrisons book store that is more contemporary reassurance than residue from Post Partition India—is the place to sell ideas from.

If it is the headquarters of brand-fueled vanity fare (and insanely priced asparagus), it is also the place to light a bonfire of vanities. The place to drink to and with friends. To buy a pair of Bangkok slippers or a floral clip. Find a gift for the spouse or the lover. Also, the place to buy the next lipstick, kaftan, handbag, lingerie, high heel. The high street of cultural posturing while you imagine a certain light headedness. The place to stumble into a visually challenged vendor selling cloth dusters. The place where a supposedly snobbish palazzo togged “aunty” heady after a noisy kitty party pauses to buy fruits for a street kid.

There must be some study to prove why particular brands sell more from Khan Market than from their other retail outlets in malls or other markets in Delhi. Till that is done, three cheers for the infectious thrill of browsing aimlessly. All the time looking out for a fashion trend walking down a lane, a pair of luxury sunglasses with mother of pearl frames, a handbag that you saw in a fashion magazine and oh la, la, the fashion magazine itself trying hard not to go out of fashion.

Gangs of Khan Market? Yes, Mr Prime Minister. Thank you for the branding.

Banner: Anokhi and Ritu Kumar stores at Khan Market.–2687