Where east meets west

James Fuller visits the trade fairs and boutiques that offer Indian artefacts and art in the southern Caribbean

Clothing and scarves from India are huge hits at the Indian trade fairs. Photograph by James FullerDecorative bowls, picture frames and candle holders at House of Jaipur. Photograph by Shirley BahadurHouse of Jaipur’s owner Dhisha Moorjani. Photograph by Shirley BahadurHousehold accessories and Indian trinkets at House of Jaipur. Photograph by Shirley BahadurOrnaments at House of Jaipur. Photograph by Shirley BahadurStatues, figurines and gourds at House of Jaipur. Photograph by Shirley Bahadur

Gleaming statues of Vishnu; marble elephants with trunks upturned; racks of sherwanis, saris and kurtas proffered by beaming traders; ornately gilded mirrors; heavily-carved tables, chairs and blinds; brass deyas and burning incense sticks; stalls of tabla, nall and dholak drums; luxuriantly-coloured cushion covers and bedspreads. A thumping Bollywood backbeat, the lingering waft of curry, and thronging crowds.

This could easily be a bustling Mumbai market, but it’s not: it’s the Centre of Excellence, Macoya, Trinidad.

This assault on the senses is just one of the increasing number of Indian trade fairs which hits the southern Caribbean each year. Trinidad alone is home to around seven such annual events.

Pramod Pardasani, of Harison’s Heritage, New Delhi, is typical of the travelling traders, who hail predominantly from Delhi, Mumbai and the Punjab.

“I’ve been doing it for about 12 years, but it’s just a hobby really,” says Pardasani, who is a civil engineer by profession.

It’s a hobby which sees him criss-crossing the globe. This year has seen him spend three months in Switzerland and a month in Trinidad at shows. He also travels to trade fairs within India, sourcing goods for export not only to Trinidad but to Australia, Italy and Switzerland.

Indian trade fairs have become a global phenomenon and need the organisation to match. For the Macoya shows, the shipment of traders’ goods is co-ordinated so that all the items arrive in Trinidad simultaneously.

The burgeoning popularity of East Indian goods means Pardasani may eventually seek other avenues to tap into the demand.

“We want to link up with some more distributors. There are so many exhibitions and trade fairs a year now, there’s just too many to go to. We could make or source the products and then sell them in.”

His stall is an eclectic mix of lamps, throws, ornamental boxes, Buddha heads, clay framed reliefs, jewellery bags and other craftwork. He stands to demonstrate one product which has sold well this year, a “singing” bowl.

“The bowls are a mixture of five metals,” he explains. “When you hit the bowl with this leather-tipped wooden stick, it resonates for a very long time. It’s popular with Buddhists and people who meditate.”

Those are not the most popular objects, though.

“Definitely elephants, people love them. Anything to do with elephants sells well.”

Pardasani believes he has noticed another theme which he is eager to exploit on his next visit.

“Trinidadians are much more religious and marriage-orientated than Indians. In India we are becoming more westernised but it’s not like that here. People have temples in their houses and everyone observes the festivals. It has really impressed me.

“We sell more religious things here and items related to marriage than in India. Next year we will bring goods mostly related to marriage.”

The trade fairs have become popular largely because of the low-priced goods they offer. However, one shop owner in Woodbrook, Port of Spain, issues a note of caution.

“I’m a bit disappointed with the trade fairs,” says Dhisha Moorjani of House of Jaipur. “Shopping at them is OK if people understand that the amount of money spent is reflective of the quality. What you may find, with clothes for example, is that after one wash the garment is ruined. It’s not such a good buy then.

“In the beginning they did hurt my business, but time educates people. My customers keep coming back to me because they have confidence in my products.”

Moorjani, who was a flight attendant with BWIA (predecessor to Caribbean Airlines) for over 20 years, began her business in the living room of her Goodwood Park home in a posh suburb. Four years ago she decided to expand the business, and converted an old Woodbrook house for the purpose.

House of Jaipur has a deliberately relaxing ambiance, with soft Indian music accompanying your stroll over the boutique’s dark wooden floorboards. If browsing amongst the silk kurtas and sheesham-wood furniture still proves too exhausting, then there’s also a tea room offering a range of Indian teas and food.

“My mum trained my chef and the food is fantastic,” enthuses Moorjani. “And, if you like the cushion you’re sitting on or the table you’re being served on, you can buy them as well. I’ve sold the table many times, then had to look around quickly for a replacement.”

Like many thousands of people in the Southern Caribbean, Moorjani has ancestral roots are in India. After the emancipation of African slaves in 1834, indentured workers were brought from India to replace them on the sugar plantations.

“My father is from Jaipur, and I still have a lot of family there. I buy a lot of stock in Jaipur. You just can’t fault the jewellery and textile designers there.”

She visits India twice a year to source stock, to get inspiration and to touch base with her clothes designer.

“The fashion industry is really based in Bombay [Mumbai], where the Bollywood influence is so strong. The designers are incredible and the prices are competitive. My handicrafts come from Delhi and some decorative items are imported from China.

“The Indian traders have them made in China, so you can’t escape that. Generally, if it’s handmade it’s made in India; if it’s machine-made, it’s made in China.”

A shipment can take three months to reach Trinidad, and Moorjani has to order her Christmas goods in February. It is the transport costs, both within India and outside, which largely govern her prices.

“It’s a labour of love, sourcing all these beautiful items and getting them shipped over. The ship comes from Bombay, but I bring goods from all over India: they are only consolidated in Bombay. I have to bear [the cost of] any breakages during shipment. There is no exchange and return, what you get is what you keep. They are the costs.”

East Indian goods are just as big business in nearby Guyana, where a similar colonial history has left a large Indian population.

Sharma Maraj’s ancestors came to Guyana from Uttar Pradesh in the 19th century, and his father established the Georgetown jewellers L Seepersaud Maraj & Sons 72 years ago. The store, “under the clock” in Stabroek Market, is one of the oldest family-run jewellers in the country.

Guyana is also experiencing the trade-fair phenomenon but Maraj says his business has not been affected, as traders bring mostly clothing and furniture.

“We sell a lot of gold and diamond jewellery,” says Maraj. “A lot of traditional jewellery for Hindu weddings: items like tiliree (neckwear), tarki jhumka (earrings) and matching filigree bracelets.”

Though the jewellery styles are typically East Indian, the customers are not. “We have customers from all over the world: North Americans, Caribbeans, tourists, and Guyanese of all ethnicities. It’s a broad cross-section.”Guyana is rich in gold and diamond deposits and the store’s jewellery is handmade from local raw materials. The recent high price of gold, though, has meant some slightly tougher times for L Seepersaud Maraj & Sons—not that you would know it.

“Overall we have been very lucky, we have some wonderful customers,” adds Maraj cheerfully. “The business has been very good to us and we are very proud of it.”

The Maraj store’s longevity and the enduring popularity of the travelling Indian shows are evidence that the trade in East Indian goods is here to stay. Dhisha Moorjani agrees.

“I must admit, when I started I thought it was a fad,” she says, “but it has become part of a way of life for people as they look to the East in yoga and spiritualism. Holistic living, that’s what the East represents.”