For a while now I’ve noticed how shop signage and advertising, particularly in Tamil Nadu and Kerala is always larger than life. I don’t mean in physical size but in conceptual and suggestive touting. Businesses tend to amplify their worth with shop names and advertising that could be misleading to those naive to Indian ways. For instance, it’s not uncommon to hear the words ‘Majestic Car Service” and see a tiny shop with some used tyres outside. Or ‘Global Computer School” which will be a one room, 3 computer establishment above a butcher shop, up a staircase smelling of piss. Kerala is famous for many shops sporting the claim of “World’s largest collection of Sarees” or “5000 shades blouse matching centre” or Grand Shoppee. I recently came across Hotel Hollywood in Chennai, which one would think would sell western food but no, it has the Holy Trinity in Indian street food of Indian, Tandoori, Chinese.
We have Grand Sweets (which I must say is truly grand if you’ve ever been), King’s Diagnostic Centre, Unique Air Travels, Booming Advertising, Mani’s Mansion, Hotel Royal, Majestic Car Showroom. I recently saw, but sadly have no pictures of: Shoe Museum literally a large table with shoes on it, Prince Pan Centre which is a famous but small shop in Delhi GK1, Master Enterprises which was a tiny basement travel agency and Best Biryani which had two large handis of biryani and one man with a ladel the size of a shovel. I guess we Indians like to exaggerate just a tad. Perhaps it’s our unwarranted over-optimism that propels us to prefer naming our hole-in-the-wall shops, “Used Laptop World” rather than just Used Laptops. I think my favourite is the Insight Cool bar. This must be one inspirational space. And to go with it is Shanti Bhavan – the house of peace, High Class Pure Veg.
If these places were actually the best at what they do – the King of all the other diagnostic centres, I’d say there was no misleading publicity. But then again, what good would a shop be if its sign says, “Average Car Showroom”. Would you go? I think you’d much rather go to “Majestic Car Showroom”.
In India everything is larger and louder than the voices in your head. Generally in Indian life we tend to pump up the volume on everything – the sound of city traffic is enough to want you to give up your hearing altogether, our devotional religious songs from temples and sects like the Aiyappas are blasted on megaphones, sound waves penetrating your very core that. Even the recycling paper collection man, plunders the silence of a residential street with his calls for,”Paypaar. Baax, Bothel” (Paper, Box, Bottle). And of course, there’s our weddings, thousands strong. I was at first quite miffed when some of my English friends did not invite me to their weddings until I realised that each person is one plate of food. Embarrassingly, I even once demanded to attend a wedding without knowing how much it must have cost the couple. I made it worth their while though by wearing a glitzy sari and getting the old grandpas on to the dance floor. In the UK they cater for a hundred people at a wedding and that’s a big one. In India it’s in the thousands. A few hundred extra people make no difference to us.
Our protests are even more extreme, ‘fast unto death.” We are willing to watch a man voluntarily not eat until he is forcibly hospitalised or dies and make a mass spectacle of it when there are hundreds of thousands of people who are in-voluntarily starving to death with no cause whatsoever but stuck in a cycle of poverty. Lets put all of them on a stage and see whether the media gives two precious on-air seconds to their plight.
My quest continues to photograph and document South India’s shop signs proclaiming the Royal, Kings, Prince’s, Unique, grand, of products and services. The next time you travel through your South Indian town, spot the grandest of shop signs and I’d love to hear from ya!