04 Sep 2020 19:54 IST

How Giri Traders helped Hindu festivals get a digital makeover

Source: Facebook (Giri Trading Agency)

The retail chain has an impressive track record of turning a spiritual affair into a grand celebration

Two important Hindu religious functions — the Varalakshmi pooja for women and the Avani Avittam annual sacred thread ceremony for men had to be performed without the presence of priests to guide and instruct, due to the strict lockdown rules imposed by Covid. But most Hindus managed, as all the items necessary for both functions, including instructions and mantras, were available at Giri Trading Agency. The outlets of India’s first organised, religious retail chain, was allowed to remain open and function, as they were seen as part of essential services.

Passion pursuit

Giri Trading Agency was begun in 1951 at Mumbai (then Bombay), by a Tamil Brahmin named V K Swarna Gireeshwaran or Giri from Tirupunithura in Kerala. Reportedly an extremely religious and devout man, he worked for an international paper company at Mumbai and would often participate in religious events and ceremonies. His ‘eureka’ moment came when he was invited to attend the ‘Upanayanam,’sacred thread ceremony of his friend’s son. Wishing to gift the young boy something significant, he decided to buy a book containing the mantras and instructions for the ‘Sandhyavandanam’ ritual the boy would have to practice every day after the ceremony. But he soon discovered that the book was not available in Mumbai.

Undaunted, he travelled to Kerala, bought the book in question and returned to gift it to the boy. He had made his decision by then: it was the perfect example of a man discovering his calling even as he fulfilled a need — to sell religious books that were not easily available to the common man in Mumbai at that time.

He had already made several photocopies of the book, and it is said that initially he used a pushcart to sell them. By 1954, he had quit his job, vacated the official quarters allotted to him and with ₹300 as capital, opened a small 200-300 sq. ft. shop devoted exclusively to the sale of religious books at Matunga, Mumbai.

 

 

 

 

It must have been an extremely difficult and bold decision, as he had ten other mouths to feed — his wife and 9 children. But his wife, equally religious, was supportive right from the beginning. His children were involved in the management of the shop, helping their father after school hours by attending to the customers and running errands.

The shop grew in popularity and pooja items, handicrafts, temple jewellery, recordings of devotional songs, curios and books in various Indian languages were added to its repertoire.

Scaling up

But the founder was confident that the larger market was in Madras, now Chennai. And in 1971, he opened a small shop ‘Giri Stores’ near the famous Kabaleeswarar temple in Mylapore. After some years, leaving the Bombay shop to his children, he shifted base to Chennai with his wife and younger kids. To make his shop stand out, he added the full ensemble that Sabarimala pilgrims would need and complete sets of pooja items for all South Indian festivals, thus making his shop virtually a one-stop destination for all requirements.

1986 saw the establishment of an audio recording studio ‘Surang,’ with one of his sons Ranganathan, a good singer, recording religious songs and mantras on cassettes for sale.

The Mumbai shop was also simultaneously on a steady growth track and got an offer to buy a nearby Irani restaurant for ₹25 lakh in 1989. With a bank loan, this was accomplished, and suddenly, the ‘shop-selling-religious-books’ had become a major ‘religious’ retail store with a recognisable brand name.

The company was incorporated in 1990 as Giri Trading Agency and the very next year, the Chennai store was able to acquire 2500 sq. ft. of extra space in the same building it was located in and expanded its portfolio of products significantly.

Steady growth

Today, Giri Trading Agency is a name recognised across many parts of India, with religious groups, publishers of religious books and periodicals, music companies, craftsmen, sculptors, engravers, painters and other artisans associated with it. It is seen as the go-to place for all purchases related to worship, functions, festivals, astrology and pilgrimage, as well as, spiritual, cultural and philosophical enlightenment.

Giri Trading Agency has 18 retail showrooms across India, an office in Texas, USA, and a dealership in Australia. It has its own in-house publication division and printing press and brings out a religious magazine called ‘Kamakoti.’ The studio Surang is also doing well, with reportedly about 35 per cent of South Indian TV advertisements being made there.

 

 

 

 

The company claims to have pioneered the ‘Kolupadi’ or ready-to-assemble and easy-to-dismantle rack of steps for the display of dolls during the Navaratri celebrations in South India. Sales of this product are said to account for almost five per cent of the total sales.

Keeping up with the times

The digital revolution created its own problems for the company, as sales of its audio cassettes fell dramatically. But it rallied and came up with several novel initiatives. One of them is what is said to be India’s first music kiosk — ADD KIOSK or Anytime Digital Downloads Kiosk. This is an app where consumers can choose varied tracks from different music companies and download them to create their own CDs or transfer them to USB drives, mobiles or iPods — for a fee, of course. And considering that Giri Trading Agency has over a staggering five lakh songs in its portfolio, the consumer definitely has a wide choice.

The staff manning the counters — whatever be the branch — have won kudos from all for their extremely helpful and cheerful approach. In fact, the company has won the 2019 ‘Best Tourist Friendly Shopping Centre in Tamil Nadu’ award from Tamil Nadu Tourism.

Environment friendly

The ‘Lakshmi Giri Charitable Trust’ named after the wife of the founder not just supports Veda Patashalas but also offers young, gifted musicians a platform to showcase their talent. Its unit Giri Fine Arts has launched its own Lakshmi Giri Convention Hall on North Mada Street, Mylapore, Chennai.

The Trust has also launched a YouTube channel. To be featured on this, artists from anywhere in the world can send in their dance and music videos. They will be shortlisted and telecasted on ‘Tide,’ The Indian Dance Experience, and ‘Time,’ The Indian Music Experience channels, respectively.

 

 

 

 

Recently, Giri Trading Agency has taken the initiative of going green, with its kolu dolls being made of eco-friendly materials.

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