With a population now bursting at just over 1.2 billion people, the competition for jobs and just about anything else is fierce in India. There aren’t enough jobs for every one who wants one nor are there enough schools and universities for every one who desires an education. It is simply a question of supply and demand. The demand is there; the supply is inadequate. What is that expression? Necessity is the father of invention, or something like that. India certainly exemplifies that, especially when it comes to earning a living.
Coming from a long line of entrepreneurs myself, my admiration and respect for this group of hard-working souls is boundless. What this small series has in common is that each entrepreneur photographed here has little more than the item(s) they are selling. To my mind, this is the essence of the retail business in its purest state, unaided and unadorned. You want it, I have it. Please buy it. Here is the price. Take it. Finish.
In the photograph above, the man seated reading the paper is selling small packets of a tobacco laced stimulant known as gutka or pan masala which is extraordinarily popular. He sits in the doorway of an unoccupied building with just his wooden box for display and a canvas tote bag with his back-up inventory. How much simpler can it get? He comes nearly every day; I look out for him with interest. I doubt that he earns very much though he certainly doesn’t look worried about it.
The subject in this photograph, the Duster Vendor, has no display equipment or visible back-up inventory. He carries his dusters wherever he goes. He has chosen an outdoor market to drum up some sales. I suspect that his primary audience are the formal shops that border the edge of the market. He sells a very specialized duster, used for distant and high up places like dusting the top of a ceiling fan or a high shelf because the duster has such a very long handle. A shopkeeper might just find this tool handy.
This smiling Sikh merchant has nothing more than his supply of steel kara bracelets and a white cloth for display. He seems pleased that I want to take his photograph. You may notice that behind him is yet another vendor, the sugar cane vendor. At every turn entrepreneurs engage in small-scale business out on the street.
While exploring the flower market in Madurai, I came across this gorgeous display of roses. This vendor actually purchased her goods at the very market where she is selling them! She was gracious and allowed me to take a few photographs and even offered to put some roses in my hair for free. I didn’t have any hair pins so another woman took a pin out of her hair and helped to arrange the flowers for me.
This Muslim cloth merchant still falls into this category but is burdened by the weight of such a bulky and heavy item, cloth. But he comes to his selling spot with nothing more than a plastic tarp that he spreads on the ground where he neatly piles his selection of fabrics. He also has a mark that indicates a meter and can measure the cloth that way but mostly he uses a particular arm length for his measuring system.
Last but certainly not least is the book seller. He, too, has a heavy product that he packs into cartons and spreads on a plastic cloth right on the pavement. I have often shopped these stalls and chatted with the vendors. They truly epitomize the clever, wily entrepreneur. More often than not, they are not serious readers. They know what sells, what the public wants and carry all the popular titles but most of them have never read any of the books that they sell. I’ve tried discussing some of the books with them and they openly admit this.
For me, one of the many delights of spending time in India are all the wonderful books available in English everywhere at reasonable rates when compared to the west.
These imaginative and creative entrepreneurs can easily be overlooked as they are so omnipresent and an essential part of the landscape but like so many things that strike you at first, like the cows, they eventually fade into the background and you stop noticing them.
Ironically, their survival is under threat by India’s very own progress. With their rudimentary methods of merchandising, marketing and selling, these people represent the essential entrepreneur of India; I call them the street-preneurs.