With the wedding season set to begin in less than a month, and Diwali just around the corner, the cramped shops of Kinari Bazaar in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk area are doing brisk business. From sequined laces to colourful garlands to blingy boxes, customers flock to the market to buy them all. But one item is missing from the display this year — the pricey noton ki mala (garlands of money).
Also Read | A brief history of money
A customary part of the groom’s trousseau in several communities in north India, the money garlands this year have been tucked away in the back out of “fear”, say the shopkeepers. “Ever since demonetisation, there have been rumours of raids and checks in the market. No one wants to draw unnecessary attention to their shops. In fact, only two-three shops in the market now have readymade money garlands. The rest make it on receiving cash and orders from the customers,” says Mahender Gupta, 61, of ‘Roop Kala’ store that sells all kinds of decorative items, including the money garlands. He has been running the store for the past 40 years.
Also Read | A Hole in the Pocket
The demand has not “really reduced”. “It’s tradition and people will follow it. Before Independence, grooms from Scheduled Caste communities wore these malas; their mamas (uncles) were supposed to bring it for them. It gave them a sense of pride. Later, these garlands became customary at Punjabi weddings and, soon, they became a common sight at Muslim weddings as well. Now a groom’s attire is not complete without these garlands,” says Gupta, while negotiating prices for diyas with a group of women. “We have not displayed the garlands, but let the wedding season begin and we will be flooded with orders,” he says with a smile.
Also Read | The Stuff of Life
A few shops away, at ‘Prem Collection’, a handful of Rs 20 money garlands find space between embellished wall hangings and ‘Shubh Deepawali’ stickers. The owner, dressed in a white-kurta pajama, red vermillion tika on his forehead, recalls the days when the shop owners made the garlands themselves. “In the ’80s, and even later, the garlands were usually made with Rs 10 notes. We first stapled them and then stuck them on ornate strings,” says the owner who does not wish to be identified. “Now we give it to our karigars (artisans). They charge Rs 100 for a day’s work. The price of the garland is the same as the worth of the notes used, usually about 500. We charge Rs 100-200 over that. The margins are less, but it is a popular product and we get our returns,” he says.
The 57-year-old also remembers the time in 2010, when photographs of BSP chief Mayawati being presented with a “multi-crore” currency garland in Lucknow were beamed across television screens. “At that time, too, money garlands disappeared from Kinari Bazaar. There was immense fear in the market. There were several checks by government officials as well,” he says, sitting cross-legged behind a pile of glittering envelopes.
“In the ’90s and early 2000s, it was the best form of bribe. Businessmen bought these garlands for honest officers as pay-offs in lieu of getting contracts cleared. Birthday party mein bachchon ko pehna dete the. Bechara officer mana bhi nahi kar pata tha (They made the children wear them on birthday parties. The poor officer couldn’t refuse),” says the owner of Prem Collection whose family has been in the business since the 1970s.
For Pranjal Sood of ‘Krishna Decorations’, it is the orders for the ‘dollar malas’ that he eagerly waits for. “For most NRI weddings, the groom wears garlands made of American dollars. The margins are higher for these orders as the customers usually consider the payment as shagun (auspicious gift). We make anything between Rs 1,000 and Rs 5,000 for a garland on such orders,” says the 40-year-old. “Earlier, we made a lot of garlands of the old Rs 1,000 notes. It was a bestseller at the shop. We made garlands worth as high as Rs 1 lakh. But demonetisation shut that business. Now it’s mostly Rs 20 notes. There is no cash in the market anyway. No one comes to us with wads of cash. It’s all banned now,” says Sood, who apart from the money garlands, also sells ‘tricolour’ and Diwali garlands.
For the owners of Divya Palace, one of the biggest stores in Kinari Bazaar, it is the “ban on stapling the new Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 notes” that has pushed money garlands out of sight. “These garlands are not stitched. The notes have to be stapled together. But that is not allowed anymore. It takes a lot of effort to make these garlands. Why do we waste our money on them if there are no returns? We are better off selling sequined laces and envelopes,” says one of the owners, who does not want to be named.
Also Read | Greed is (Now) Good
For Sood, however, the threat to the business has not come from demonetisation but from the “entry of Chinese products”. “They have completely taken over the decoration market. The money garland is one of the few things unique to us. I won’t be surprised if they come up with garlands made of plastic notes,” says the shopkeeper, as he steps out of his store to get lunch.