Luxury of the traditional few vs. the modern in India

Lalgarh Palace suite of the new luxury train, Royal Rajasthan on Wheels
Daylife/Reuters Pictures

Mukesh Ambani is recession-proof.

He is among the richest men in India and worth billions. His interests span mobile telephony, supermarkets and oil refining. He is building a skyscraper of a mansion, with 27 stories stretched to the height of 54, in Mumbai. He has the private plane for quiet reading time, the helicopter for the tight weave of Mumbai traffic, the Zimbabwean wildlife getaways for family bonding…

How about a custom-stitched Brioni suit? Actually, Mr. Ambani prefers a white short-sleeved shirt and dark pants, like Indian bureaucrats wear. Fine Bordeaux wines? He prefers coconut water. Gucci loafers? He prefers those rounded black shoes worn by the $300-a-month salarymen on the train. Fancy restaurants? He prefers street snacks; the first time he dined at Nobu in New York, he suggested to a companion afterward that they go ‘‘eat’’ now.

Mr. Ambani is the furthest thing from the average Indian, and rather far ahead of the rest of the Indian elite. But he distills an Indian personality trait that may be the great dilemma for Western luxury brands here.

Those brands have built flagship stores in India and have begun to sell. But sales have seldom lived up to expectations, and it may be because India’s affluent classes are bipolar on matters of luxury: with a little of the renouncing, homespun ascetic in them, and a little of the mansion-building maharajah. Luxury brands are locked in the awkward middle, peddling things that are, strangely, both too luxe for India and not luxe enough.

Each polarity has its history.

The maharajah streak derives from the country’s earlier, feudal age. When looking at what the world is now trying to sell India, it is worth remembering that luxury is not a new concept here.

The other polarity is Gandhi’s. Modern India has strayed from his vision, but a shadow of his abstemiousness still lingers, even in elite imaginations: certain kinds of consumption remain easier for Indians to swallow than others. Hard assets and things that protect the family go down more smoothly than what feels frivolous. Many who own private jets still avoid eating too often in posh restaurants; many who build cavernous mansions still fail to see the value in handcrafted lambskin moccasins.

RTFA. One of those luxuriant long articles the IHT does as well as any of the best British newspapers. My favorite for a read and reflection in front of my moviola-size iMac, WCPE offering classical music through the Klipsch speakers tucked just aft of the 24″ screen.

Someday I will step up to that last notch of comfort in my study and get an office chair that would suit Mr. Ambani’s own. My distinction lies between working-class frugality and the opulence of the nouveau riche for whom I designed bits and pieces of their homes. So, I get it.

But, it’s all so different from the world where I grew up and into. A world as important as that other ancient empire a bit further East. Both growing from the poverty that matched our Dark Ages – yet had beauty and culture that ran circles around Western provenance – at the time. India changes through more qualities per decade than we seem to manage in a century.

2 thoughts on “Luxury of the traditional few vs. the modern in India

  1. Eleanor Flagler Hardy says:

    I don’t understand the connection between your story: “Luxury of the traditional few vs. the modern in India” and the photo displayed: “Lalgarh Palace suite of the new luxury train, Royal Rajasthan on Wheels.” Is this the kind of luxury venue Mr. Ambani would NOT patronize? Otherwise, a very interesting story!

  2. Eideard says:

    Sorry to lack clarity. That’s why I often include links to photos – at least, those from Daylife.

    This is a shiny new train – but, couched exclusively in traditional maharajah-style luxury. I’d bet he’d go for it in a New York minute.

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