Bright lights, high spirits

Bright lights, high spirits

The Hindu festival of Deepavali is just around the corner, but some stall vendors at the annual Deepavali Festival Village in Little India are reporting thinner crowds this year.

When Life!Weekend visited the 10,000 sq ft bazaar on Sunday evening, the eve of a public holiday, it was not packed with shoppers like in past years. The fair, which opened on Sept 12, has 43 stalls and will run till Oct 21.

Nonetheless, stalls are going all out to woo customers with colourful offerings such as lampshades, sparklers and even room dividers with Kama Sutra motifs.

Deepavali, or the Festival of Lights, falls on Oct 22 this year. It is also known as Diwali primarily to North Indians. The majority of the South Indian population here use the term Deepavali, which translates as a "row of lights". The lights symbolise the triumph of good over evil.

Mr Sandran Raju, manager of beauty parlour and accessories stall Selvi's Creation, says he has seen a 30 per cent drop in sales and attributes it to last December's riot in Little India and how "people still have a phobia of coming back".

A riot erupted on Dec 8 after a fatal accident involving an Indian national and a private bus ferrying foreign workers along Race Course Road.

Businesses in the area have since reported that their sales have suffered, due partly to government restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol in public places.

Mr Raju has set up shop at the bazaar for the past three years. This year, his stall is in Hastings Road, one of two streets the bazaar is located at.

He says the other street, Campbell Lane, is "already known as a shopping paradise to regulars". Usually populated by vehicles, Hastings Road is now closed to traffic.

Adds the 52-year-old: "Last year, the shop was packed at this time and the first lot of cookies I ordered for the bazaar was sold out by now. This year, half of the first lot of cookies is still on the shelves."

His stall also sells costume jewellery and offers henna painting.

Sharing Mr Raju's sentiments is Mr Ganes Kannasamy, 40, co-owner of handicraft and gift stall J&G Exclusive Enterprise. The bazaar is "much quieter" this time, he says, and business has dropped by a third.

He adds that competition from Deepavali bazaars in other places could have contributed to the slowdown.

Recently, there was the Singapore International Indian Shopping Festival 2014 and the IWA Festive Bazaar.

Mr Ganes and his 41-year-old wife, Ms Pushpa Jothi, have been participating in the Little India bazaar since it started 14 years ago, even though they migrated to Melbourne nine years ago.

He says: "We return every Deepavali to celebrate with friends and family. You just don't get the festive fever in Melbourne."

Of the more than 40 items at their stall, ready- made rangolis (floor decorations) and intricately designed door hangings called torans are their bestsellers this year.

The couple sourced for the items about two months before the bazaar opened, travelling to various regions in India, such as Delhi and Jaipur.

Despite the seemingly lower turnout so far, Mr Rajakumar Chandra, chairman of the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association which manages the bazaar, is not worried.

He says that many Hindus tend to visit the bazaar after the firewalking festival, Theemithi, which is on Sunday, as they are now fasting and prefer to abstain from shopping. It is also examination period for many students, he adds.

He says: "Normally, the last 10 days of the bazaar are when the crowd picks up."

He expects the fair to draw 2.5 million visitors this year, up from about 2.3 million last year.

Mr Rajpal Singh, 26, manager of women's clothing store Raz Fashions, shares Mr Chandra's optimism that business will be good this year.

His stall stands out with a colourful array of casual Indian kurti tops and flowing anarkali gowns.

He says: "We travel to Delhi and Bombay twice a month to find out what the latest fashion trends are. As such, we offer exclusive apparel that is high in quality too."

Besides shopping, visitors can rediscover or learn about traditional Indian arts and culture at the Heritage and Craft Exhibition in Hastings Road.

This year, two traditionally skilled potters and a parrot astrologer have been flown in from India to demonstrate their craft. Visitors can try their hand at pottery making or get their fortune told by a parakeet.

Says Mr Chandra, 56: "There used to be a few parrot astrologers in Little India. They have all but vanished, so we thought it would be good for the younger generations and tourists to learn about this age-old craft."

A new highlight this year is the Traditional and Creative Indian Cuisine booth in Hastings Road, where visitors can sample South Indian dishes that cannot be found in Little India.

Indian chefs from Chennai demonstrate how snacks such as kuzhi paniyaram (small cakes made from a batter of black lentils and rice) are made.

For a cool respite from the heat, visitors can try Jigirthandha, a popular summer beverage unique to South India that comprises almond gum, rose syrup and ice cream.

A 2m-tall statue of Mahalakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, stands at the Hastings Road entrance to the bazaar.

Selfie enthusiasts can snap a photo with the statue and participate in a social media contest that could win them a 10g gold bar.

For regular visitors such as Ms Santhiya Sntrsakir, 20, and her family, the Little India bazaar is a one- stop shopping destination for their festive needs.

The student, who was there with her one-year- old daughter, her mother and her aunt on Sunday, says she has been going to the fair since she was a little girl.

"It is a tradition to visit the bazaar every year as a family and I hope to do the same with my daughter too," she says.

This article was first published on Oct 10, 2014.
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