India is becoming smart so fast that the romantic, dusty, chaotic little emporia that used to be its speciality are disappearing at an alarming rate. Cherish them while you can, for they are the beating heart of India. Once, these small family-owned stalls and workshops were the only places to shop, and their great charm is that they seem never to have heard of management consultants and the rules that govern Western retailing – things such as stock control, circulation paths and window displays. Today in the big cities they’re being edged out by towers of glass and steel and smart malls where Indian shoppers can get their fill of Prada, Louis Vuitton and other slick and shiny brands.
Fortunately, the India of old hasn’t entirely vanished. It’s still there, waiting to be discovered, and Rajasthan has more than its fair share. Go to the town of Jaipur and head for Saurashtra Impex. It is wonderfully unsmart. It’s on a dusty road on the outskirts of the town, but to its doors head all those in the know. Armani, Lady Bamford and other canny “eyes” are said to have walked through its portals.
There is no proper pavement, no intimidating salesgirl better dressed than oneself, no fancy window dressing. Instead, there’s chaos. Wonderful Indian chaos. To begin with, one isn’t quite sure which is the right entrance, for there are two, each of equal stature (the answer is, it matters not). Then, where to start? Reason and order are not what “old” India is about. There are piles of heaven-knows-what in every corner, all over the floor.
Outside the shop hang patchwork bedspreads and beaded jackets, silken skirts and tribal garments. In the windows are dust-ridden jewels. First-time visitors fall too quickly upon the inexpensive cotton blouses (plain white and very charming at Rs1,100 – about £15), brightly coloured fabric totes (about £6) and cushion covers (from about £12).
But take your time; the real treasures lie hidden. Get chatting to the owner, Kishor Maheshwari, and his assistants, and ask to see the authentic old tribal pieces (skirts, tops, wall hangings), the beautiful quilted bedspreads on the upper floors made from myriad antique fabrics – it goes without saying that no two are alike and, at about £65 a time, they make wonderful throws for sofas or covers for beds. Check out the fine cut-work from Lucknow (I once bought 10 bedspreads at £10 a time and turned them into curtains – the curtain-maker thought I was mad, but I loved them).
There is a lot more: beaded and embroidered fabrics, saris, pashminas – but, again, the best are hidden, so ask for them. This is the place to find the special textiles that will give life and colour to any room and remind you forever of what it is that makes India so special.