My already delicate nerves always take a battering in India. Alongside its majestic sights and deep spirtituality comes chaos, neglect and of course poverty. Last time I was here was in 2008 and things are changing quickly, so it was in some ways an unexpected relief to witness old Delhi sticking to its artisan traditions.
Being led through the narrow, rabbit warren of back alleys of Chandi Chowk by a confident Delhiite was both fascinating and unnerving. Preeti is a retired college head of the University of Delhi. An endearing mix of authority, gentleness and youthfulness that belies her 70 years, she’s someone you adore instantly and an extra bonus, she loves to shop – Delhi style.
Our trip started at 9am, a comfortable metro ride followed by a bonkers auto journey past Connaught Place, old Delhi gates and the Red Fort meant we arrived just as life was stirring in the old city. After an indulgent spree in beaded patches, trims and adornments for fabrics – every shop’s a specialist outlet for something – we headed off the main strip and into the concrete jungle of piled high apartments and arms-width alleyways.
The tucked away strip-lit shop with a fuzzy telly on in the background was wall to ceiling with boxes and rows of pearls, semi-precious gems and glass beads of every hue of every colour. Where do you start? With the two least decisive people in town (my mum and I), Preety and the men at the counter tried to tempt us with garish gold bracelets and huge bold gems. Finally deciding between them that we wanted “only dull colours”, my mum and I settled on classic pearls, a few hand painted bangles and strings of beads for gifts.
Just opposite was a tiny shop with a knee-level counter – the shop owner and his assistant sitting behind it. Having slipped off our shoes outside, we got ourselves comfortable while they set to work. With a backdrop of the India V Bangladesh cricket game on the large screen and an older guy appearing from somewhere with Sprite for us, the owner (whose daughter’s a fashion designer in Mumbai) brought out from his safe magnificent sets of wedding jewels that he’d handmade. Meanwhile his assistant’s busily creating our beautiful necklaces, bracelets and earrings with our earlier bought beads.
There were two things that I took from my Old Delhi shopping experience. Firstly that behind the grime, chaos and cockroaches of the old city are people working and living their lives with the same values and dreams as anyone. Secondly, that these cities are changing – call it progress if you like – and the true artisans and entrepreneurs are quickly being overshadowed by the corporate and commercial industries visibly making their mark throughout the city.
This is my small celebration of those artisans and my huge thanks to the hospitable jewellers of Chandi Chowk.