The owner and brains behind a highly successful retail chain would
surely be some corporate shark, with a no nonsense attitude - the kind
of guy who is inclined toward power dressing.
Hmm ... not necessarily. Meet Harinder Singh, the man who invented the "Pure Punjabi" T-shirt.
If you don't own one of his t-shirts, you must have seen them around.
What sets them apart are their catchy captions: Mein Gabru Des Punjab Da, Sadke Jaavan, Vekhi Ja Pher Cheri Na, Proud by Birth - Sikh by Choice ... and many more. They're kind of hard to miss.
His stores - all in India and Punjab: New Delhi, Chandigarh, Karnal and Jalandhar - also qualify as a memorable shopping experience. The merchandise, the display and ambience - all combine to exude the flavour of a culture, centuries old and celebrated world over.
But more than the store, it's the brand name that takes the cake in uniqueness. A number that's hard to forget: '1469'.
For those who weren't paying attention in class, that's the year Guru Nanak was born.
But getting back to Harinder Singh ... don't be surprised to find him in chappals, shorts, a T-shirt (‘Pure Punjabi‘, of course) with a backpack slung over his shoulder. A total bohemian by nature and appearance, he's about as un-corporate and un-sharky as you can get.
Q: Was your inspiration for the store your hometown in some rural part of Punjab?
Harinder: No. I am quintessentially a metropolitan but I have a passion for Punjab. It's such a rich and proud culture after all.
Besides this store, personally, I have tried to uphold true "punjabiyat" in my family. We pride ourselves in being able to speak fluent Punjabi even when none of us has ever lived in Punjab.
Q: What made you conceptualize a brand around Punjab?
Harinder: Well, I've been itching to do something different and then a small incident took place that greatly changed my perspectives. I was in Florence, Italy, with my family, when some children misidentified me because of my white puggh. I realized that if I truly felt for my homeland, I had to ensure that my endeavours help create the correct identity of my community.
Q: Okay, but why T-shirts?
Harinder: There are a couple of reasons. First of all, my family is in the garment business; mainly for export. Then I have 18 years experience in Uni Style Image. So professionally speaking, making and selling T-shirts was nothing new for me.
Secondly, you have got to understand the T-shirt. It is not just a garment; it's a medium of communication and a very effective one. Suppose you put an ad in a newspaper or on television. It will cost a lot of money and run for just a brief time. When you put a message on a T-shirt, the buyer funds the message and the message is out there in the public eye for as long as the T-shirt is wearable. The 'Pure Punjabi' T-shirt is an amalgamation of cultural creativity and retail understanding.
Q: When did you launch them?
Harinder: First I experimented using surplus T-shirts from our business. My first shop opened in Defence Colony, New Delhi, in April 2005. I called it 'Traditional Value' but I soon realized that the name was no good. It was too commercial and detracted from the aesthetics of the concept.
Somehow, ‘1469' struck me. That is the year Guru Nanak was born. It's a unique numerical that signifies the start of something new, so that made it ideal for a completely new venture. Plus, as a brand name, it generates curiosity and sticks in people's minds. So many people who come into my shops ask about it.
Q: Many of your T-shirts not only carry messages in Punjabi, the message is written in Gurmukhi, a script that few people outside Punjab or other than Sikhs can read. Why have you done this?
Harinder: If you know Punjabi, then you know that it is a language with depth and power; and its script is beautiful. Our T-shirts sell all over the world. Imagine you are wearing a Pure Punjabi T-shirt where the language is not known. People will be curious and you will have something to tell them. The messages center around art, character, humour and religion. It's a real high seeing our T-shirts in places like Spain and Portugal.
Q: So your T-shirts were an instant success?
Harinder: Yes! Our first few batches in Punjabi were done in earthy colors and they got a massive response in Delhi. Those in the diaspora picked them up in bulk. We have recently got recognition for our efforts too. The Washington DC - based Sikh Council on Religion and Education commended us as a successful attempt to preserve the heritage of Punjab.
Q: So who all are behind 1469?
Harinder: My wife, Kirandeep is my biggest support, but we also have a creative team in place.
Q: Where do you get the ideas for your T-shirt messages?
Harinder: Everywhere! Anywhere! It's not like we're some copywriters at our workstations. In fact, we seldom get work done sitting down. Whenever an idea strikes, we don't waste time in conceptualizing it. Like, once I rented a Bullet motor-cycle and drove from Okhla to South-Ex. Zipping in and out between bigger vehicles was so liberating; I felt like a tiger. No sooner did this thought occur to me than I parked the bike and wrote it down. The T-shirt version shows a Bullet motor-bike and the tag-line ‘Khulle Sher‘ - [The Free Lion]. That has been one of our best-sellers.
Q: After T-shirts what?
Harinder: Actually, from the beginning. ‘1469' has been a concept store selling a whole range of handicrafts. For example. no where will you find a wider range of phulkari embroidery than in our stores. We sell juttian, little figurines of women embroidering phulkari or men dancing bhangra. We source from all over Punjab - and not just East Punjab either. Some of our merchandise is imported from West Punjab.
We want to go beyond ordinary handicrafts, because the culture of Punjab cannot be defined by just those items seen in state emporiums. Punjab is much too big for that. We are up for stocking anything that reminds people ... a bust of Bhagat Singh, framed calligraphy of mukh vaaks from the Guru Granth Sahib, original paintings of the Golden Temple, antique locks, keys, gramophones, utensils, swords. If a thing is uncommon, we definitely want it.
Q: But in your shop, we see stuff from other parts of India too ...
Harinder: Yes. We stock pottery from Auroville, Pondicherry, silver jewelry from Jaipur and ethnic embroidered bags from Gujrat. You could say we're trying to blend Punjab in these items in our own little way. For instance, the tea set from Auroville, has "cha" written in Punjabi alphabets.
WAMA women in Gujrat are making bags with embroideries of "Khanda" and "Ik Oankar". We also have the marketing rights to sell Australian raagi Dya Singh's CD's.
Q: So Punjab is your passion in life?
Harinder: One of my passions. I'm also passionate about the environment and sustaining development. Every single item we stock is handmade. No plastic products in any form. From the garment factory, we send cloth scraps to Kangra villages where women weave them into fabric for other products. This way the women earn a living and the scrap that usually would be dumped is recycled.
After all, it's not really just about doing good business. It's about adopting a lifestyle. Natural and simple! Our ancestors did it and I think we should too.
All I do is live by Sikhism's most central teaching, Kirat Karo, Naam Japo aur Vandh Chakho!