Hauz Khas Village: Swing the Chic

The neo-rich designer zone of the Hauz Khas Village in Delhi is swinging with pubs, bars, swanky eating joints and nightlife, but the stink of new money is seeping in

Souzeina Mushtaq Delhi 

It is almost an inverted cliché, this village: large open spaces, little lanes, sticking-to-each-other houses, cows roaming on sticky mud paths, or the shoe smeared in cow dung. And yet, in this eternally swinging zone, where strangers, loners, families and friends descend ‘to elevate’, this village can be a hip place to hang out.

Welcome to the perennially contradictory Hauz Khas Village in South Delhi, surrounded by the sublime shades of medieval archaeology and a maze of ghettoized pucca tenements. Over the years, the huddled, narrow alleys that remind one of the Istanbul of Orhan Pamuk’s time have become a vibrant, kaleidoscopic backspace to around 60 bustling bars, restaurants, cafés, nightclubs; also retreats, reprieves, meeting points, collective think joints, quietly-read-a-book or be-with-yourself zones. Not to forget the jazzy nightlife it offers. The  food, music and alcohol. And the addictive high!

As one enters the village from across Aurobindo Marg, the charm, the contrast and the kitsch take over. Flaunted by ‘beautician’ Shahnaz Hussain’s Shahnaz with love, the Thirty-nine restaurant, Amour, Amici Cafe, and Maati(made by hand),  the village is unfolding into a SoHo of Delhi.

The often big-spending neo-hipsters thronging the place want an ‘open’ space (not always open-to-sky) where they can celebrate and flaunt their seductive addictions to indulge in sporadic, sensuous pleasures, so close and yet so distant from the loneliness and alienation of the big-city landscape. The uncanny crowded streets and bylanes of the village resurrect the incomplete semblances of infamous cities-that-never-sleep and the half-diversity of broken cosmopolitan cultures. Is it the desire to escape the mechanical stagnation of the big city that sucks them into the narrow alleys, inhabited by uninhibited couples, holding hands, free and unfree, making out in the dark?

‘This is the coolest place to hang out. Oh, it has everything to offer: good food, shopping, nightlife for party-mongers. It is a juxtapose of everything, After 8, it is a totally different place’ 

A glance at the past tells us that the ‘urban scene’ started changing in Hauz Khas Village along with other ‘medieval villages’ like Shahpur Jat near Siri Fort, Khirki Village near Saket, Hauz Rani near Chirag Delhi; the process has been on in other semi-urban villages like Kishangarh near the upper end housing society of VasantKunj and BerSarai near JNU. The urban explosion that is supposed to have changed the face of the old, shabby Hauz Khas village into a cultural/touristy hub is considered a 1980s phenomenon. Around the mid-’80s, fashion designer Beena Ramani, along with top-notch women in the mushrooming beauty business like Shahnaz Hussain, Kavita Bhartia and Ritu Beri came to Hauz Khas Village to set up their shops catering to the ‘very rich, and not just the rich’, as the story goes.

The ‘gentrification’ of the old village began with the ‘ethnic chic’ that came along with the fashion fraternity. The small backyard that was a hanging out spot for families on weekend picnics suddenly became a zone of affluence. A kind of tempting beehive of the affluent and chattering classes with nothing much to do really, and plenty of leisure and deep pockets, looking for passing pleasure. Boutiques, jewellery shops, designer joints, upper end restaurants were set up to cater to the elite, mostly foreigners, sundry Bollywood stars and bored Indian wives of the rich and powerful.

“It became a famous market. The ambience was amazing, and it hosted people that were a cut above the rest —- artists, designers and the rich,” says Kusum Jain, among the first women to set up her jewellery shop in the village. She adds, with stunning transparency, “It was an exclusive market for exclusive people.”

The desire to do things ‘differently’ attracted people, and it largely catered to ‘drifting’ foreign audiences. Besides boutiques, ‘some’ writers and artists also thronged the place. This too was a makeshift intellectual and creative crossroads. Even the late Smita Patel, fine and sensitive actress as she was, was spotted buying knick-knacks from an obscure shop.

This was also compulsive and at once Page 3 stuff: of colour supplements, paid fame, heightened voyeurism. It attracted its share of unabashed exhibitionists, shallow fat cats, fantasy-sellers and part-time publicity-seekers. Also, the stuffed and hollow ones. Kitty parties and the like became ritualistic.

The sense of being exclusive, privileged and elite also came from the fact that those days there was a boom in the NGO sector. Many shops started selling ethnic/craft products, and the buyers would often buy with the esoteric notion that they were ‘supporting a cause’; much of this ‘shopping’ came under the umbrella of ‘social work’.

After liberalization in the 1990s, the commercial tangent of the Hauz Khas Village spun tangibly. This slowly became a deadly cocktail amidst the remains of feudalism and neo-capitalism in a semi-urban geography. It reflected the aspirations of a rising upwardly mobile class and a middle class longing for insatiable upward mobility. As the market economy developed, the ‘aspirational character’ of ethnic elitism also changed.

“Besides, a new kind of rich had emerged which did not identify with the Hauz Khas Village-type elitism but with the commercial angle of shopping malls. They seemed no longer interested in ‘social service products’. With lots of money to spend, they wanted to be seen and noticed,” says Dr Nilanjan Sarkar, administrator, King’s India Institute, King’s College, London, who spent some time documenting this new ‘social history’. Sprawling, air-conditioned, antiseptic malls became the latest hotspots to ‘pass time’ and ‘consume’ with loads of cash to blow. Logically, the xyz of Hauz Khas too marked a metaphorical shift, though, as yet, there is no room for malls.

The big-spending neo-hipsters thronging the place want an ‘open’ space where they can flaunt their seductive addictions to indulge in sporadic pleasures, distant from the alienation of the big-city landscape 

Dutch entrepreneur Lalita De Goederen, owner of Bagel’s Café at the Village, understands the not-so -subtle shift. And yet she loves the feel and spirit of the place. “When I started my café in January 2011, there were only three other eateries. Now, two years later, there are over 50 places to have a bite or have dinner; from fancy restaurants, divided over more floors, to tucked-away small places with a few seats only,” she says.

In recent times, the village is attracting an entirely different class. Many ailments of the metropolis and urban chaos have already arrived. In a city packed with cars, parking has become a big issue here too. As more people come in, with deeper pockets and the addiction to consume and spend, new haunts and eating joints have spread their wings. Also, there is more security, insecurity, and regimentation.

Many people complained about a rising crime graph in what used to be a safe place. In the narrow alleys, where music bands, films and cultural shows keep everyone busy at night, there are security issues being mapped.

The elite visiting the village is no longer defined by the ethnic chic non-conformism. Now, the adrenaline and appetite are driven by new money

The houses in the dark, congested, narrow alleys are archaic and have become ‘unsafe’, owing to the coming up of more and more eating places. Locals allege that people are running “illegal businesses”, with no fire security systems in place, paying lakhs for dingy rooms. The tenants, so as to cater to the overwhelming rush of “customers”, are “illegally” constructing linear structures while only the ground floor is apparently allowed. An obnoxious number of tall buildings has mushroomed in this new backlane commercial zone. This has also led to pollution, problems of garbage disposal and sewage blockage.

People admit to the “threats” but there is more than meets the eye. Shatabdi, a journalist from Kolkata, donning a blue kiffayah, is here for the first time. “This is the coolest place to hang out,” she says. And how does she define “cool”? “Oh, it has everything to offer: good food, shopping, nightlife for party-mongers. It is a juxtapose of everything,” she exclaims. “After 8, it is a totally  different place,” she adds, pointing to the “half-naked girls,” as she calls them.

The ‘certain kind of elite’ visiting here is no longer defined by the ethnic chic non-conformism or the bindaas social consciousness of its early origins. Now, the adrenaline and appetite are driven by new money. The gaonhas becomea site to flaunt wealth and indulge in popular joints like Gun Powder, Cashmere, Raas, and partying in bars like Fork you and Imperfect. “We cannot call it a decline but there is definitely a change in patronage and status,” says an old-timer.

As I leave, it’s late and dark. The crowd is swinging. The music is loud. The party has just begun. It’s boom time in the ‘village’.  

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2013