“Pete is not only the heart of the city; it is also the heart of trade. Avenue Road is the main artery, and the by-lanes are the smaller veins. If pete shuts down, all of Bangalore will come to a standstill,” said Dilip Shah, a secretary with The Avenue Road Commercial Association (TARCA). Historically, pete was organised by Kempegowda I in the 1500s, according to the kind of goods sold here – Tharagupete stocked food grains, Chikkapete sold textile, Nagarthpete was known for its jewellery, Balepet for bangles. Art historian Suresh Jayaram pointed out that with the privatisation of Indian markets and the IT boom, the landscape of pete too began to morph and reflect the country’s economic transformation.
As Bangalore emerged as Asia’s Silicon Valley, pete started moving from being a largely unorganised sector to adopting modern practices of trade. For instance, with banks offering attractive interest rates on loans, money lenders and pawn shops began to decline.
According to Jayaram, pete now caters to market demand. For instance, Silver Jubilee Park Road and Kumbharpet Road now sell sanitaryware and bathroom fittings, in response to the real estate boom. As more offices sprung up in the city, the number of stationery and office supplies shops also shot up – from 15 in the 1990s to 178 today.
Modernity is gradually creeping upon pete, but most shops in Avenue Road continue to be family-run businesses, like that grocery stores here. But that might soon be a thing of the past – a majority of the younger generation aspires for jobs in Bangalore’s many multinational corporations. Srinivas, who runs Rama Traders in Tharagupet, is one such business owner. “My son now owns a cell phone shop, but he does assist in the shop sometimes,” he said.
The rapidly-expanding real estate market is another reason for family-owned businesses to move out of pete. It is more profitable to sell their property at exorbitant rates and move the business to a different part of the city. Often, the busy nature of the area compels entrepreneurs to look at other areas for business. Amit Sharma, owner of NH8, a Rajasthani restaurant, had to move from BVK Iyengar Road to 80ft Road in Indiranagar, simply because he could not attract a walk-in crowd. “We thought we could cater to the north Indian crowd in the area, but people in this area don’t have time for leisure. They would rather eat something quickly for 20 or 30 rupees,” he said.
That aside, industries – such as gold and silver and whole grains – still have a stronghold in the area. R Venugopal, manager of the Jeweller’s Association in Nagarthpet said that retailers of gold and silver have to ultimately make their way to pete. “All the distributors for bullion are only in this area. At one time, even the rates for gold used to be decided here,” he said.
The complexity of business in pete often transcends storefronts and tangible goods. “The shops you see on the main roads are only facades. For each shop you see on the ground floor, there will be larger godowns of two or three floors,” said CV Krishna Murthy, who runs a grocery store on Avenue Road.
Despite malls providing ease of accessibility, many business owners maintain that they do not pose a threat to them. “Retailers and retail chains cannot afford to sell commodities for cheap,” said CR Venkatesh Murthy, proprietor of Bhaskar Paper Mart on Avenue Road. “While our infrastructure is old and requires low maintenance, retail chains have very high overhead costs. We manage to get a three to five percent margin. They [retailers] can never afford that.”
Interestingly, the relationship of pete with retail outfits is not really competitive; rather it’s symbiotic. “We supply materials [such as office supplies and stationery] to malls,” said Shah, who also owns Shah Stationery Mart on Avenue Road. “It works on a credit system of 90 days. They pay us for whatever they manage to sell, and return the unsold goods. They price the goods at higher rates and get to keep the profits.”
Goods and services apart, pete traders have also contributed to the Kannada film industry. Shah’s family used to own Hema Film Exchange. “Many of the merchants and moneylenders on Avenue Road would lend part of their profits to producers who were looking to make films,” said Shah. “I remember our family invested in a film called Apoorva Kanasu in 1976, but it tanked.”
This piece was originally published in Time Out Bengaluru in August 2013.