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Home > News> Big Story > This online store serves up a dollop of Bengali nostalgia

This online store serves up a dollop of Bengali nostalgia

The Bengal Store founder Indrajit Sen aims to revive aspects of Bengali culture that are receding into oblivion, be it arts, crafts or food

Moulded dolls made in Majilpur in the South 24 Parganas district, a generational line of artisanship that is on its last legs,
Moulded dolls made in Majilpur in the South 24 Parganas district, a generational line of artisanship that is on its last legs, (Courtesy The Bengal Store)

Two years ago, when Kolkata-based serial entrepreneur Indrajit Sen launched his online retail venture The Bengal Store, he was driven by just one goal—to create “an emotional connection” with Bengalis living anywhere in the world. “I wanted them to be able to own a slice of Bengal,” the 60-year-old says with a dollop of nostalgia. And his brand’s tag line—“Homecoming matters”—plays up the sentiment.

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It’s a mission statement Sen has embraced with a gusto that goes beyond commercial interest. From food items to arts and craft, especially from traditions that are less known or vanishing, The Bengal Store offers a unique platform to a wide range of products that are embedded in the Bengali DNA. With over 200 million potential clients spread all over the world, the business case may seem like a foregone conclusion, but it’s more challenging than you may imagine.

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On the wings of globalisation, even locally cherished items of Bengali life have now reached distant shores. It’s no longer impossible to buy paanchphoron (the five-spice mix that forms the base of many Bengali dishes) in a London supermarket or good kasundi (a tangy, spicy mustard sauce) in Bengaluru, to say nothing of the tins of rosogolla that K.C. Das has been exporting since the 1930s. But The Bengal Store has found a niche in this crowded marketplace for Bengaliana.

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Also Read: Fish and rice and all that's nice about Bengali food

That’s because Sen is not merely interested in catering to popular taste, or simply perpetuating it. His aim is to revive aspects of Bengali culture that are receding into oblivion—be it awareness about the moulded dolls made in Majilpur in the South 24 Parganas district, a generational line of artisanship that is on its last legs, or the 5,500-odd varieties of heirloom rice grown all over the state. In that sense, The Bengal Store is a shopping destination with a difference: It serves as a knowledge portal, looking back on forgotten histories, traditions and systems of production that have receded from mainstream memory. It is also a natural extension of the projects Sen has taken on in the last three decades.

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Around 12-13 years ago, Sen founded two online portals—Get Bengal, in English, and Bongodorshon, in Bengali—to showcase “positive stories” about the diversity of life and culture across Bengal. “We decided to pick those two out of 10 news items that have good vibes—the remaining eight would be covered by other media anyway,” he says. Soon, he was running what he calls a “content generating company”, armed with his long experience of working in the television, marketing and communications industries.

Terracotta artisans from Bishnupur with their work.
Terracotta artisans from Bishnupur with their work. (Courtesy The Bengal Store)

Two years ago, when Kolkata-based serial entrepreneur Indrajit Sen launched his online retail venture The Bengal Store, he was driven by just one goal—to create “an emotional connection” with Bengalis living anywhere in the world. “I wanted them to be able to own a slice of Bengal,” the 60-year-old says with a dollop of nostalgia. And his brand’s tag line—“Homecoming matters”— plays up the sentiment.

advertisement

advertisement

It’s a mission statement Sen has embraced with a gusto that goes beyond commercial interest. From food items to arts and craft, especially from traditions that are less known or vanishing, The Bengal Store offers a unique platform to a wide range of products that are embedded in the Bengali DNA. With over 200 million potential clients spread all over the world, the business case may seem like a foregone conclusion, but it’s more challenging than you may imagine.

MORE FROM THIS SECTION

view all

On the wings of globalisation, even locally cherished items of Bengali life have now reached distant shores. It’s no longer impossible to buy paanchphoron (the five-spice mix that forms the base of many Bengali dishes) in a London supermarket or good kasundi (a tangy, spicy mustard sauce) in Bengaluru, to say nothing of the tins of rosogolla that K.C. Das has been exporting since the 1930s. But The Bengal Store has found a niche in this crowded marketplace for Bengaliana.

advertisement

advertisement

Also Read: Fish and rice and all that's nice about Bengali food

That’s because Sen is not merely interested in catering to popular taste, or simply perpetuating it. His aim is to revive aspects of Bengali culture that are receding into oblivion—be it awareness about the moulded dolls made in Majilpur in the South 24 Parganas district, a generational line of artisanship that is on its last legs, or the 5,500-odd varieties of heirloom rice grown all over the state. In that sense, The Bengal Store is a shopping destination with a difference: It serves as a knowledge portal, looking back on forgotten histories, traditions and systems of production that have receded from mainstream memory. It is also a natural extension of the projects Sen has taken on in the last three decades.

advertisement

advertisement

Around 12-13 years ago, Sen founded two online portals—Get Bengal, in English, and Bongodorshon, in Bengali—to showcase “positive stories” about the diversity of life and culture across Bengal. “We decided to pick those two out of 10 news items that have good vibes—the remaining eight would be covered by other media anyway,” he says. Soon, he was running what he calls a “content generating company”, armed with his long experience of working in the television, marketing and communications industries.

“I have been collaborating with people since the beginning of my career,” Sen says, referring to some of the feathers in his cap—which include being part of the team that brought shows like Bodyline, Yes Minister, Supermen Of Soccer and Sidelights-Italia ’90 to Indian television. A maverick in the best sense of the word, he went on to work on leading sports shows, one co-hosted by the Bengali footballer P.K. Banerjee, telecast the first-ever live coverage of the Bengal assembly elections in 1996, founded a record label that produced more than 300 albums, and collaborated with sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar to publish a work about his life. This spirit of collaboration is also palpable in the curation of The Bengal Store, which reaches out to farmers and artisans across the state to focus attention on their work.

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Sourcing is one part of what Sen and his team do. The more difficult bit is to ensure quality control. “These days gobindobhog rice (a variety of fragrant rice beloved of Bengalis) is pretty much available throughout the year instead of the season when it’s supposed to be cultivated,” says Sen.

No surprise then that the market is infiltrated with stuff spiked with chemicals and preservatives, even additives to enhance the smell of the rice. In contrast, the gobindobhog rice that The Bengal Store sells (alongside other varieties of pesticide-free red, black and white rice) is more expensive than the market rates, available for a limited duration each year, and is stringently tested for quality by the food technology department of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. The latter also tests the honey sourced from the Sundarbans, another best-selling product on the platform.

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Currently, The Bengal Store is selling to 23 states, with rising demand for food items; Indian law prevents it from exporting these. While Bengalis in the diaspora may still be pining for aam kasundi (kasundi with green mango), aam gur (mango-jaggery) wood apple pickle and Bahurupi rice, they have plenty to choose from the arts and crafts sections. Apart from the Majilpur dolls, there is iconic terracotta work from Bishnupur, shellac dolls from East Midnapur, and woodcut print posters of goddess Kali from the 19th century—each uniquely a part of Bengali history. The contemporary artists feature young and emerging names, beyond luminaries like Jogen Chowdhury or Ganesh Pyne.

While the pandemic proved prescient for the online business model for The Bengal Store, Sen intends to open a brick-and-mortar signature store in Kolkata. There are plans to introduce a gaming app, focusing on Bengal-centric children’s games like chu-kit-kit (a version of kabaddi) and danguli (also known as gilli danda in north India), all of which invoke strong memories for a generation of Bengalis. Who wouldn’t want to hold a slice of heartwarming nostalgia on their phone as a break from the pandemic of bad news?

Also Read: The many 'shuktos' of Bengal

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    28.09.2021 | 07:00 AM IST

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