Towards the end of the last century, East End in London came to be known for its quirks in fashion, art and culture. It was not the over-priced, gentrified fashion district that it is today. Young art school graduates and low profile designers had set up art studios, galleries and boutiques around the suburban borough that East End once was. When not at work, this community of artists met at the local cafes and patisseries, and deliberated the entry of newer artists while preserving their own independence. They employed Bangladeshi immigrants from the neighbouring ‘curry town’ for their skills in tailoring and embroidery, and had a select list of discerning clientele comprising art collectors and fashion editors who revered them for their inconspicuous contribution to the cultural renaissance of London.
Around the same time, a few Indian entrepreneurs discovered Shahpur Jat in South Delhi, a village lying amidst the ruins of the old Sultanate city of Siri; and convinced the village landlords – the Panwar Jats to rent out space for their start-up businesses and art studios. Today, Shahpur Jat has over a hundred stores of Indian and European fashion besides art cafes and décor studios. The fashion stores employ dyers and migrant artisans – all of whom live in the Shahpur Jat village. These designers or artists are not particularly rich, but they are comfortably creating engaging art and employment in the process. If not for the narrow bylanes which remind you repeatedly of its rustic establishment and unplanned multistoreyed buildings that hide the sky at times, Shahpur Jat resembles much of East End before the gentrification started.
The Shahpur Jat Open House is a biannual promotional event happening every spring and autumn since the past two years. This year’s chapter saw the launch of two clothing lines, a tea boutique and a home décor studio, which also has an outlet in Khan Market. Rikki Kher, a British Indian who launched Kardo, a men’s clothing line in the village as part of the Open House on Sunday, describes himself as a witness to historic times of creative growth in three great cities of the world – East End in London in the late 1990s, Brooklyn in New York City in the past decade and Shahpur Jat in Delhi at present.
Incidentally, an increasing number of stores are shifting location from Hauz Khas Village and Khan Market following NDMC crackdowns and high rents. With the entry of such niche stores there is a new, growing impatience to commercialize and anoint Shahpur Jat as the new alternative space for everything trendy, a status usually reserved for Hauz Khas Village.
The artisans and dyers of the village also seem eager to participate in this urgency to commercialize. Rehman, a 45-year-old artisan from West Bengal who works for an Indian women’s clothing line, hopes that an increase in Shahpur Jat’s popularity would mean more work which could fetch him more money to send home. Currently artisans get around Rs 450-500 for a day’s work at Shahpur Jat while it’s arguably more at Hauz Khas Village.
However, a majority of the designers and merchandisers want the village to stay the way it is. For most of them, already enjoying a consistent clientele and sharing a common dislike for window shoppers, an increase in footfall means little or no impact on their business. The cafes might get better business but larger crowds and bigger brands may rob Shahpur Jat of its charm, and the artists of their quiet working space. “It won’t follow the fate of Hauz Khas Village or Khan Market”, said Kher assuringly, “because of the Jats.” The Jat owners in the past 15 years have never sold a single property outside their community, but have only let out spaces on rent. They have also refused all liquor licenses which is why you don’t see any bar or pub in the locality.
The first left inside the Shahpur Jat village leads to Les Parisiennes, an old haveli that houses a café selling French food and couture. Close by is another Parisian design store Olivia Dar, well known for the lead designer’s ‘collars’. A few doors ahead is Chipkali, a store which sells decorative mosquito nets, and a bookstore with a collection of about 10,000 coffee table books from around the world. There is also an experimental jam and marmalade store, and The Potbelly Rooftop Café which dishes out delectable Bihari food. Locating all these shops at Shahpur Jat village is a herculean task in itself. You are sure to be lost if you are not carrying an illustrated map of the village which is easily available at most stores. But you may be lost even if you are carrying one. However, stumbling across these stores can be a fun way to rediscover sleepy Shahpur Jat.
Standing atop the ruins of a 14th-century tomb, Sam Miller, the writer and historian while leading a walk around Shahpur Jat, said “Art lives to survive only when it has a purpose or when it’s in the middle of nowhere.” The Cultural Revolution brewing in the village has a similarity to the archaeology surrounding it – hushed, distant and still detached from the capitalist forces of the city. To an outsider, the labyrinthine layout lends the quaint stores at Shahpur Jat that ‘in the middle of nowhere’ aspect. Even while standing on the highest of rooftops, you cannot quite decrypt the rest of the landscape. But art in the village might just survive the capitalistic surges, largely owing to the patronage it enjoys from a loyal clientele, who don’t mind negotiating the rustic maze to get to their little cove of alternative.