Fine Wine, Broken Bottle

Suki Cheema

They love our spunk and talent but are exasperated with the way we do business. They are in awe of our heritage but dismayed at our lackadaisical approach. They find us warm and crass in equal proportion. Almost every Westerner I have met who does business in India, feels this country is a paradox when it comes to work ethic.

Suki Cheema, the London-based designer of the eponymous home linen brand, sources his materials from three destinations in the world: Scotland (“excellent production values, total professionalism with deadlines, unbeatable consistency”), Italy (“top-notch style and superb quality but too many national holidays – work hard, play hard!”) and India, where he is equally amazed by our craftsmanship and traditional know-how, and by our complete lack of appreciation for deadlines and consistency. “I finalise one kind of fabric colour and come back to India to find yards and yards of another shade. Staggering talent, poor execution,” rues the 30-something textile designer and printmaker who has worked with Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren and Diane von Furstenberg in the past.

And yet, he and others who do business in India would admit that Indian workers are quick to learn too. A European jewellery designer who often buys diamonds from Gujarat says Indian kaarigars are enthusiastic about picking up the nuances of what international audiences are looking for, and are able to modify work patterns to adapt to the demand in relatively short periods of time. The head of a luxury e-travel portal based in the US – who had been initially attracted to Indian content providers for their cheap rates – despaired of ever being able to get the right quality on deadline. However, he soon found very professional service in unexpected Indian alleys. These are the exceptions, however; not the norm.

As India becomes the workshop of the world when it comes to luxury goods and services, we find ourselves grappling with the need to make ourselves globally relevant and competent. Our strengths lie in our immense entrepreneurial spirit, heritage crafts, and an art lineage that can be traced back to the oldest dynasties in the world. Luxury is written in our DNA, so to speak. But we are found sorely lacking when it comes to modern business methods and behaviours. Our top B-schools may churn out managerial talent every month but those qualities are mostly exported and do not find their way down the social and financial ladder. At the grass-root level – where the worker bees live – laid-back chaos still prevails and ‘chalta hai’ attitudes dominate, tinged by a predisposition for corruption and a lack of respect for other people’s time.

To become a global powerhouse, while we work full-steam on showcasing our talents, we also need to urgently work on our flaws. It is not difficult – we, after all, have the raw materials required for truly splendorous work. But even the most painstaking piece of art will lose all value if it arrives in tatters at its destination, that too several days late. We have the substance; let’s work on the packaging.

First published in the March 2013 issue of Atelier magazine

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