T Nagar in Chennai is one of the busiest shopping districts in the country. “It is the largest in South East Asia,” says PA Ravindhiran, who manages the Chennai Silks in T Nagar. T Nagar accounts for 70-80% of the gold sold in Chennai, the most important gold market in South India. The southern region contributes to 45% of the 800-tonne annual national offtake. It is not all just jewellery and textiles. You get literally everything from jumbo flat-panel TVs and other household appliances to handkerchiefs here. For instance, Ratna Stores has five floors of whatever you require to set up home. It started as Ratna Fan House where you could buy any brand and size of fan you want. Customers flock here from all over India. Besides Indians from all over, the other big-time shoppers are from Sri Lanka and South East Asia.
The area continues to be identified with apparel and jewellery. All the huge outlets have grown from one-room showrooms to multi-floor complexes. According to guesstimates, the turnover from this area is at least R20,000 crore a year. The official estimates, from two years ago, put it at a much lower R10,000 crore. Even if one goes by this figure, it is still double that of New Delhi’s Connaught Place, Mumbai’s Linking Road and Bangalore’s Brigade Road, which are supposed to be around R4,000-6,000 crore.
The owners of these giant showrooms in T Nagar keep a very low profile. They are notoriously publicity-shy and coy about their turnover figures. Almost all of them come from small towns, have modest beginnings, having learnt the trade, craft and business on their own and then striking it big. Take the case of Chennai Silks, one of the more prominent T Nagar behemoths. It has textiles, accessories and jewellery spread over seven floors. Footfalls here are staggering—the daily average is nearly 2,000, climbing to as much as 20,000 in the festival season. So much so that the rather large parking is proving to be not enough. There is furious construction activity going on in the parking lot as Chennai Silks is now putting up a multi-level parking.
A Kulandaivel Mudaliar, from a small village near Tiruppur, was a weaver of dhotis. He set up a 100 sq ft showroom in Madurai in 1962 to sell khadi. His eight sons subsequently joined the business. It is interesting to note that the family had entered the