The Seven Percent — The Faces of India’s New Economy

August 10, 2012 2:04 pm

In December I travelled to India with two of my friends, Michael Depasquale and Annalisa Merelli. Our goal was to wrap our heads around India’s rapidly growing economy. Time and time again I read that India would be the world’s superpower, but I never saw that aspect reflected in photos. Instead, what I saw were beautiful and quite colorful photos of poor people.

The Seven Percent is a series of portraits depicting a rarely seen aspect of Indian society: individuals who are reaping the benefits of the booming economy. We focused on two specific types of people: those whose success spans many generations and those who have made their fortune within one lifetime.

The fifteen portraits that comprise The Seven Percent are represented in three different ways.

Portraiture Style I (me): A simple portrait of the subject in his or her comfort zone; this could be their own house, favorite restaurant, car, or even a favorite store.

Portraiture Style II (Michael Depasquale): An abstract portrait of the subject’s finished dinner plate conveys a truthful, objective image of contemporary life in India. Nourishment is one of the absolute necessities of life on earth; the rituals and etiquette that accompany the act of eating can be used as reference points from which an individual assembles his or her persona.

Portraiture Style III (Annalisa Merelli): A video and written interview complement the photographic images. The writing includes a profile of each person based on actual conversations between writer and subject. These written elements—including quotes and personal facts—add another dimension to the photographic elements.

Below are the images with captions and quotes. But if you’d like read more about the project or see the pictures much bigger please click here.

Gaj Singh is the son of the last nobleman of Alsisa, Rajasthan. Born in Jaipur, he was in the army before launching his hotel business. He now owns three hotels in Rajasthan, two of which are his family residences converted into heritage accommodations. He is married, has two sons and lives in Alsisa Haveli, his hotel in Jaipur. "We had so many people working around us […] but gradually it faded and by the time I was passing out of school in 1976, we didn't have many people working for us, but again, with this present business […] the bygone era has come back."

Originally from the northeastern state of Arunanchal Pradesh, Dibang is a well-known TV journalist and news anchor. He lives in South Delhi. "I think traditionally in India money is supposed to be bad. If you're rich that means you've done something wrong, so even if you're rich you would never say I'm rich, […] you would always underplay it, it's a strange thing that happens here."

Colonel Kuldeep Singh Garcha, a businessman, is a retired national polo player and army officer. Originally from Punjab, he lives with his wife in Jaipur. His son, also a polo player and a businessman, lives in Singapore. "You know there are two things in life, ambition and desire. I let my desires run wild, because whatever I achieved I feel happy about [...]. But if you are ambitious and from 0 to 10 you reach 8, you still have a negativity [because] you haven’t got that 10. So I'm not ambitious, I desire, I desire the stars and if I fall short I'll probably land at the moon."

Ganesh Singh-Jhabua, a member of the former royal family of Indore, is a businessman. He has two daughters, both of whom moved away from their hometown after marriage. He lives in a property just outside the centre of Indore with his wife and their great dane. "It was very difficult for a person with my background to compromise that old royal style which I'd learned when I was a kid [...] to start something new, a business, [something] which my forefathers had never done. […] In my grandfather's times a businessman was not [considered] a moral person - that's what I'd learned all my life and from there to get down and do the same thing [business] was difficult in the beginning. Then I started enjoying the work."

Gunjan Gupta is a furniture designer. Originally from Bombay, she studied in London and now runs an environmentally green design studio and production unit in Gurgaon, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. "I think one of the challenges that I find as a parent in the India of today, which is modernising at such a crazy pace, is this growing up in excess. Our kids are growing up with just too much: too much access, too much aspiration. [...] So in that sense I feel that it's the whole idea of value that’s really important, and as a parent I really worry about that. You can’t compare India at the time when we were growing up and India today, you can't say it's the same country. [...] We were just totally living in isolation [...]. When we used to travel I remember collecting Coke cans [...] because none of that stuff was available here."

Karan Talwar is a businessman from Delhi running one of his family enterprises dealing in automotive parts, the electronic industry and mining. After the completion of his business degree in London he moved back to Delhi where he built an apartment for himself in his family home. "I've already seen salary hikes in the workers' wages, the minimum wage in the state we operate in keeps jumping up. [But the] monthly wage of an Indian worker is so different from an American worker, that gap is so wide that it's going to take a couple of decades to catch up, and [even then] it won't, because the cost of living in the US is increasing too. It's a cycle, because if our cost increases [and] they are buying the same products from us, we pass those increases to them, and their cost of living is going to up as well, so that gap is always going to remain."

Originally from Singur, Karanvir Singh Sibia, "Sunny" to his friends, lives in Chandigarh with his wife, son and daughter in law. He started his first stud farm in the 1980s on his family’s land in Jind and recently opened a second in Roper. Eight years ago, after his son came back from Australia, where he studied and lived for seven years, he started with him a real estate development company operating in Chandgarh and surrounding areas. "One would like to see more industry growth because we are seeing a lot of our younger generations migrating to other countries, so if there are better job opportunities back home I'm sure they would rather stay back and try and avail of some of the benefits that would come about."

Bombay born Kavita Sanghi, wife of late industrialist and businessman Satish Sanghi, lives in Indore in a house designed by Eckart Muthesius, which originally served as the servant quarter for the maharaja's palace. She runs a textile business and, together with her son who owns a home next-door, they own nine male pedigree dogs. "It was me who started with the textile business since my children had grown up and [...] I had all the time to myself, so I told him [my husband] I want to start this. He didn't like it in the beginning because most women of India’s upper class at that time weren't open to work, [but] I said 'but I don't like sitting with ladies all day and just talking about household affairs, I'd like to start designing.'[...] So then he agreed to it and supported me right through."

Daughter of an astrophysicist, Nikku Guron is an interior designer from Chandigarh. She runs her own studio, is married and has a daughter. "For example when we were kids it's not like we had a/c in all the rooms, now [...] these kids are not used to it, they can't even dream of a room without an a/c. When you become more comfortable you just thank god […] I think we're really privileged that god has been so kind, [...] because we’ve seen those days and the way things have changed."

Percy Billimoria is one of India's most successful corporate lawyers. Originally from Bombay, he has been living in Delhi for over twenty years. He lives in a farmhouse in South Delhi. "I grew up in an India which suffered from a miscarried socialism. I am a free market proponent, […] I believe that the market sorts itself out; it's not to say that there's nothing wrong with the way free markets work, it's not a perfect model, but ultimately market forces are the best solution to the problems that market forces themselves create."

Rajat Sodhi is an architect. Born in Delhi has studied and worked for several architecture firms the UK and Europe for ten years before returning to India to start his own independent practice. He lives in South Delhi with his sister, an art curator. "The service class who does work for the upper class, it's only a matter of time till they realize how badly they are being exploited and how badly they are being economically manipulated. [...] This is a structure that is somehow geared towards breaking down in one way or the other, that may be in form of a social revolution or of something more violent, or it could be something that kind of gradually changes."

Rohan Jetley is a businessman. Born in Delhi, he's lived with his family in Bombay and Singapore before moving back to the capital city. After graduating in Hawaii and working for Marill Lynch he moved back to India and manages T.G.I.F. India, one of the family businesses. "Before, unless you were educated and unless you came from a certain background and you had certain contacts, there were very little chances to make it. Today, because of the corporate structure that exists it's all merit-based, so if you work hard enough and you're a diligent and intelligent person you inevitably make it to where you want to go."

Sheel Chandra, together with his late twin brother, started the one of the biggest pashmina, wool and carpet businesses in the country. He was born in Shimla (Himachal Pradesh) and lives in South Delhi. He's married and has four children. His brother, who married his wife’s twin sister, has three. "The distribution of money is not good in India. Still, one third of the people in India live on one dollar a day, maybe more than one third. Some people have so much money that 5% of the people are the richest people in the world, 10% are very very rich, 20% are still very rich. We would be one of those 20%, I think."

Sukhwant Singh is a steel industrialist. He owns a plant on the outskirts of Indore and manages two Tata Steel factories, in Baroda and Sri Lanka. Once leading a much bigger industry, he had to reduce the size of his business due to an infrastructure-generated crisis, but is now again in a growing phase. "The disparity is so visible, it's so obvious. How does it look if I'm driving a Mercedes and another guy doesn't even have a bicycle?"

Tegvir Singh Sibia, "Gogi," son of ex-minister of state Gurbaksh Singh Sibia, is an agriculturist and owner of a mechanised farm. Twice president of the Chandigarh golf club, he lives with his son and daughter and, with is brother “Sunny” is on the board of directors of two educational institution in his native Singur. "We were pioneers in whatever we did, in agriculture especially, we started the first seed business in India and we were very happy with that [...] We drove ourselves to do it [machine-based agriculture] and it was a time of change and if we didn't change primitive farming was not going to pay, so we had to change, there was no question.”


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