MUMBAI: There’s a smoky eyed mannequin giving smouldering looks to customers who pass by the Big Bazaar shop window at the new Orchid City Center mall in the Mumbai Central borough where most of the residents are Muslims.
All one can see are her eyes because she is covered in a crystal encrusted, lacy, black burka. Inside the store,several variants of the “you can wear it in any colour as-long as its black” burkas compete for the customer’s attention.
There are ones with gold and silver sequins. There are also ones with crystal or black beads. The store has been stocking burkas for just around a month, but there are days when it sells more of them than salwar kameezes, the fitted-trouser-and-tunic combination that is the staple wear of the Indian woman.
“This is part of our ongoing effort to address the needs of specific catchment areas of stores,” says Rajan Malhotra, head of the Big Bazaar retail chain, which is owned by Pantaloon Retail.
The store has sold 160 burkas since it started stocking them, and other Big Bazaar stores in Hyderabad and Rajkot have been encouraged by the success of the experiment and now stock the product. There is no official estimate of the market for burkas. India has a population of 150 million Muslims. Much of the demand for burkas is met by small neighbourhood stores and tailors, and some Muslim women even make their own.
The Big Bazaar chain first tried selling burkas at its store in Hyderabad five years ago, but stopped when there was no demand for the product. It was later learned that the women in the city preferred burkas of a different style. The burkas stocked by the Mumbai store sport black or coloured embroidery and lace, and are priced between Rs 450 and Rs 2,000. Even that, it would appear, isn’t contemporary enough; the store claims it has received requests from shoppers for burkas in printed fabric, and lightweight ones.
“People do not pay as much attention to buying clothes as they do to burkas,” says Shaikh Sumaiya, a 17-year-old college student who is attired in a black burka and a tiger-stripe scarf. “That’s all you see, right?” She adds that burkas sporting lace and diamante are in.
The decision of Big Bazaar to stock burkas may have less to do with the garment itself than attracting customers to the store and selling them other things. Bombay Central didn’t have any comparable stores when the Big Bazaar store opened for business in October 2006. The store was, and remains, a big attraction, with weekly traffic of 60,000 customers, 90% of them Muslims in the initial weeks, although that proportion has since fallen to around 60%. Company executives claim that the glass, chrome and escalators overwhelmed most shoppers who, as a result, didn’t shop and called salespeople ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’.
To the company, the burka seemed like the ideal thing to stock if it wanted to send out a message to shoppers that it sold the kind of things they would buy. The store also started selling large plates, of up to 3ft in diameter, which Muslims eat out of during marriages and festivals. Shaheen Mirza, a 40-year-old shopper, says that while she is thrilled that the store stocks burkas, she is unlikely to buy any. Like her, Jabeen Shaikh, a college student, hasn’t bought any burkas, but has indulged herself in the crockery section. Mirza herself is browsing through the children’s section. “I knew that if they have to sell in this area, they have to sell what we want,” she says.