Tribal Route: It’s not just a Store. It’s a Store-Y!

Monday October 17, 2011,

10 min Read

Story Y

Our origin is as a Tribe...and now, a civilization and thousands of years later, comes an outlet for creative expression that puts together the magic of our rich culture, heritage and design evolution as Tribal Route.In conversation with Abhilasha Dafria for, Tribal Route founder Nihar Mehta tells us how selecting and creating hand-crafted merchandise from a wide range of artists and vendors across India has helped him make a beautiful Store-Y!

Tell us a little about you and your background.

Coming from a business family of one of the leading dealers of ball bearings inIndia, I always had the creative genes, guess from my mother’s side of the family, from a very young age. As soon as I completed my school, I enrolled into an interior design school, and by the time I was 19, I had a diploma in Interior design, and started working with an Interior design firm, as well as was doing my own projects, small residential and commercial projects. The big break came in 2008, when I did the office of Iran Airways onMarine Drive, and then soon after did some prestigious jobs for the Indian Navy. After that there was no looking back.

So what exactly is your venture - Tribal Route?

Tribal Route, is what I call, a shop more than just a store, it’s a store-Y, A Handcrafted Store-Y. People have been treading theTribal Routesince November 2006, and it has been a wonderful 5 year journey.

Tribal Route is one of the very few privately held stores in Mumbai andIndia, that only sells products Made inIndia. We create, recreate, design, retail, resell products from close to 300 vendors acrossIndia, and we are always growing and looking for more people to work with. On the shelves you shall find home décor products, studio pottery and art, stationery, wellness products like soaps, oils, incense sticks, home furnishings and furniture, clothing, jewellery, bags and other women’s accessories, and also Indian music cds and documentary DVDs.

Tribal Route

As a store selling products made inIndia, its more than the products, it’s a store-Y, an experience. And the journey is not complete if the entire setting, the ambience, the feel and aura is missing. Tribal Route, the store, is set in a cottage, complete with high sloping roof, a courtyard and ‘tulsi’ plant, and loose mud streets outside that let you experience the real urbanIndia. The cottage itself has a history that goes back to World War 2.How did you come up with this idea?

During my career as an interior designer, I travelled extensively across India, I chanced upon a lot of rural artisans, and discovered that in India, the creativity starts right at the grass root level, where products are created not for decoration, but for everyday use, be it household, clothing and jewellery, or livelihood. This form of, what I call ‘Living Art’ fascinated me, and it made me believe that India had much more to offer to the world, and also to the others in India, who were not as fortunate to travel to remote areas. Also I used to visit the state and national craft ‘emporiums’, exhibitions, and the handicraft shops in urban Mumbai, and other cities, and it reinforced my thought that rural India had much more to offer that what was on the shelves of these shops. Also I thought that these shops strictly catered to the tourists. Who wanted to take back a little of India with them. There was no innovation by way of designs, crafts, finishes, forms over the years. So if a tourist took back a brass elephant from the state craft emporium, in all probability his grandfather would also have bought one during his visit to India, and even his grandson would do the same. So what was required was fresh ideas, at grassroots levels, which would urbanise rural creativity, and a fusion of both the worlds, that would present to the world, that Indian art and craft was much more than what had been presented over the years. And of course, even the craftspeople, who were otherwise getting sort of ‘bored’ with the daily routine of churning out the same designs over the years, had something exciting, challenging and beautiful to wake up to every morning. So that’s why the thought, and idea of doing something in this sector was always at the back of my head, and that’s how Tribal Route was born.


What story does the name Tribal Route have?Our origin is as a Tribe...then a civilization and thousands of years later, we have put together the magic of our rich culture, heritage and design evolution as Tribal Route.

When civilisation began, we were all living in tribes, or communities. The products created had their origins from everyday needs, and the materials used were locally pro-curred materials. At Tribal Route, we create designs that are a fusion of the rural creativity, and urban needs, and we try to use natural materials as far as possible. That’s how the name ‘Tribal Route’.

What were the challenges you faced while starting up? Tell me about your initial hurdles.

I love hurdles. They make the journey interesting, just like a twisting and turning road has a different scenery to offer at each bend, rather than a highway that keeps going monotonously for miles!

One of the initial hurdles was to locate the right property, with the right surroundings that would be the perfect backdrop for products made in India. As I had a vision of what it should be like, it was a task to find such a property in Urban Mumbai, but not impossible.

The next task, the biggest was to raise capital. With a new venture at hand, our government and banking system is not exactly very helpful to aide peoples dreams and visions for set up costs. Also as the business was new, vendors would be sceptical and want upfront monies. So raising the initial capital was really a hurdle, but we got a little help from friends and family, and the rest we had to depend on expensive personal loans.

But the biggest, and most interesting was dealing with the traditional craftspeople, to make them understand what we had in mind, and what changes we were expecting from them by way of using their skill sets, but to think out of the box to create something new, something different, which was usable, the finishing was impeccable and would find buyers in urban towns as well as international demand. Once they understood, there was trial and error, but the end result was beautiful!

Since when are you operational? How big is your team? Are you looking at hiring?

We started treading along the route in February 2006, and after 9 months, just like a baby is born, Tribal Route started operations in November 2006. We have 5 people who form the core team. Besides this, we have a lot of free lancers, and of course our family of 300 plus, and growing, creators, manufacturers, crafts people across India.

We are looking at hiring in the near future, but for the moment, we are looking for free lance talent for the various projects we do at the store for creating products, gift merchandise and also designing spaces.

Where are you based and in how many outlets do you sell in all across India?

At present we have only one store in Mumbai, which is the flagship store, but there are few small boutique stores across the globe who buy from us. Of course we are looking at partnering, on a franchise model, and having a store in few selected cities in India, and also internationally.

Store Y

Do you also sell online?We have not ventured into E commerce seriously as yet, as we feel India is all about ‘touch, feel, experience’. But yes, we are looking at developing product lines that we would like to retail on the internet, as that ways, we can reach out to more of our well-wishers and supporters from across the globe who have been asking for online purchase options.

Did you fund-raise to start up? If not, are you looking at getting funded now?

We would be looking at being funded for our future expansions plans we are working on right now, whereby we are looking at Tribal Route as an international brand and property, working with creative people across the globe.

Are there other players in the market doing similar things? Can you name them?

We have seen quiet a few retail stores cropping up in the past 3 to 4 years, but most of them merely retail other brands, so somewhere down the line, most of them end up selling the same products. Whereas at Tribal Route besides stocking certain brands, we also create our own line of products, and keep experimenting with designs, forms, materials and crafts of India. So in a way not many like us in India, but yes there is this store in Pune which I personally love, its called Either Or.

What is your USP? 

USP of Tribal Route is all about experience. Experience called India. Be it the typical Indian cottage backdrop for the products that are made in India, or the tradition of removing your footwear outside, or treating the customer like a personal guest and small things like this that make shopping a warm experience.

Also another USP is that all the prices at Tribal Route end in the number ‘2’ . Nothing to do with numerology, but just for fun!

Can you share with us some interesting trends about the market that you are trying to capture? 

The biggest tread is that people are turning back to their roots, and also getting more evolved and aware, so they are looking at traditional forms, and also products that are hand crafted, natural and eco friendly. People across the globe, and specially in India are understanding the importance and beauty of something that’s hand made, and why an exclusive hand made creation costs more than cheaper mass produced substitutes from China.

What are your greatest challenges and how do you prepare to cope with them?

The biggest challenge, if I may call it that, is the cheap replicas that are mass produced in factories in China. This is in a way taking away from the crafts people, the only thing they have for their livelihood. Taking away from them their love, their passion, their skill sets and ability to create with bare hands. This is not only pertaining to the crafts people in India, but the entire creative community across the globe who are suffering and affected by this. For example, why would you want to buy a synthetic, resin Ganpati made in China, just because it is cheap? Is that what it has boiled down to? The traditional values, the entire thought process and feeling that goes behind gifts, all succumb to the thought of ‘something cheap’?

I try my best to make people understand the difference, but people need to understand, and support this movement as well. I do see people moving towards the change. People trying to change. It’s a slow process. But I am sure it will change soon, and the craftspeople shall not be forced to move to other ‘easier’ professions and give up their traditional craft making skills.

Where and how do you see yourself going ‘bout this? Making it bigger? 

Step by step, slowly, but now after 5 years of establishing Tribal Route as a brand, I think we are ready for the next leap. To create more stores in the selected few cities, nationally and globally, and also to create a brand that represents India in the global market, and which is a complete fusion of international ideas, skill sets, materials and forms.

We would be looking at corporate support for the funding, as well as International craft and tribal associations to partner with us on this, so that we can share with the world the fantastic handcrafted store-Y!

Check out Tribal Route for further details. And, do not forget to share your thoughts by writing to us at [email protected]

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