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Swingin' in the south

The image of the moustachetwirling, pot-bellied man from the South who tilts perilously at the nearest nine yards of fabric he can espy is slowly but surely fading away. Say hello to the trendy, brandconscious southern male who’s raring to go on a bender.

T.V. Mahalingam        Print Edition: December 30, 2007

Visiting Chennai after a decade makes one wonder about the things that have changed in the city and the things that haven’t. On the surface, not much has changed except the dozen flyovers that have popped up all over the city or the new statues of recently-deceased politicians pointing an unwavering finger, directing the city’s snarling traffic.

Here is a quick dhobi list of things that have been in ‘freeze frame’ mode in the city.

The Hindu is still the largest-read newspaper in the city. Narasu’s coffee and Leo coffee are still among the city’s favourite early morning brews.

Saravana Bhavan is still doing roaring business. A green card is still the best bet to resurrect matrimonial prospects. Burly cops continue to comb their bushy moustaches in public. Pious looking autorickshaw drivers continue to haggle mercilessly on obscene fares, even as they politely address you as ‘saar’.

Chaitanya Rao, Fashion Designer
Chaitanya Rao, 31
Fashion Designer
“People today are a lot bolder with career choices. Young guys come to me wanting to be designers. In fact, anybody who can stitch a blouse thinks he can be a designer”

But probe a little deeper—actually just chill out in any of the malls, bars, restaurants—and you will find that the city has changed. A decade ago, going out in the city was synonymous with a trip to the Marina beach (which is lined with the mausoleums of dead political bigwigs) or a soporific visit to a Carnatic music concert or the latest movie at a theatre. But all that has changed. Across the city’s landmarks, from Parry’s to Broadway (yes, they are in Chennai too), from Kelambakkam to Kodambakkam, the city’s youth are swinging to a different beat. And the Chennai man—at least the younger one—is changing. And like with most changes, some like it and some don’t like it.

Forty-two-year-old Jeffrey Vardon has been running the The Hot Shoe Dance Company for nearly 11 years—making it among the oldest ‘western dance’ schools in Chennai. Jeff, as he is known to his protégés, likes what the new Chennai man is becoming. “Earlier, they (Chennai men) were all MCPs.  They would sit down and ask their wives to get their Narasus coffee, get the vetthalai (betel leaves) and … the obedient wife would get it. Now the Chennai man is far more relaxed. He is more willing to listen to his wife,” says Vardon, who also points out that a couple of years ago, more women than men were enrolling for the dance classes. But now, the men are outnumbering the women.

But these changes are not up everyone’s alley. Naveen Kumar, 26, runs ones of Chennai’s most talked about tattoo and body-piercing joints called Irezumi (Japanese word meaning mark on skin). Over the past year-and-a-half since Irezumi set up shop, more than a thousand Chennai-ites have come in and got themselves some body art. Surprisingly, only 30 per cent of Kumar’s customers are men. The bulk of his customers are women—working women and housewives. “If you ask me, I think the Chennai woman has changed more than the man. She has become far bolder. Today, most guys come with their girlfriends or wives. The women are loud and choose the tattoo for the man. Where have all the Chennai men gone? The Chennai man is very submissive today, the woman is very dominant,” says Kumar who is a qualified industrial engineer from the US. He adds that today the Chennai man wears feminine colours like pink and sports embroidered, semi-transparent shirts. “Maybe it’s watching all those lame Hindi movies that is doing this to them. If you walk into one of the posh discotheques in Chennai today, the women are more likely to come and ask you for a dance while their men sit and watch in the corner of the room. When I came back to the city, I was thinking: whoa, am I in the same city?” adds Kumar.

Even as Kumar says this, a couple from Hyderabad walks in; the man quietly thumbs through Irezumi’s catalogue, while the woman chooses a tattoo, rather loudly, for her man.

Yet, there’s little doubt that the Chennai man is changing—slowly but surely. He’s brand-obsessed (Chennai is the urban centre with the highest brand consciousness, according to the survey), has turned metrosexual with a vengeance, in the process discovering his gentler side. Is this for real? And if it is, is this a Chennai-specific phenomenon or is the whole of the south changing?

For starters, equating what’s happening in Chennai with the rest of southern India is like calling everybody who lives south of the Vindhyas a Madrasi. It’s a generalisation that’s born out of the lack of geographical and cultural awareness. Nevertheless, there are similarities between these cities. The three large southern capitals—Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore —are undergoing an economic boom, one driven by the proliferation of information technology.

Southern soufflé
71% of men in Chennai are brand conscious ; the highest in the country. A distant second—Delhi (52%)
69% of men in Chennai are highly materialistic— the highest in the country
64.4% of southern men ‘go out and have fun’ after working hours—the highest proportion of men across all four zones
54.8% of southern men are ‘highly exploring consumers’—the second highest in the country. Only the North with 70.4% is ahead
43.6% of southern men are price conscious—the lowest in the country. Chennai (37%), Bangalore (40%), Hyderabad (43%) have the least proportion of price conscious men in the country
41% the percentage of materialistic men in the South. That’s the highest proportion of materialistic men in any zone of the country
These cities have among the most educated and media-exposed populations in the country. As a result, brandconsciousness and consumption are booming in the South. “If you look at any of the other zones in the country, there are hardly one or two large economically-vibrant cities. In the East, there is just Kolkata, in the West, you have Mumbai and perhaps Ahmedabad, in the North, there is Delhi. But in the South, there are three economically-strong cities. That makes the South a very key market for most personal care and consumer products,” says Ramesh Viswanathan, Executive Director, CavinKare, which is a leader in several personal care segments like shampoos and fairness creams in southern India.

For example, 43 per cent of talc sales come from the South, 30 per cent of all shampoo sales and 23 per cent of all sales of hair dyes and hair colour come from the South. “Bangalore alone accounts for 4 per cent of the national hair dyes and hair colour sales. But the population of Bangalore is less than 0.5 per cent of the total country’s population. Similarly, roughly 35 per cent of all deodorant sales happen from the South. That’s just incredible,” says Viswanathan. In a bid to tap this market, CavinKare has started a salon business in the South with over 20 salons in Chennai and 15 in Bangalore. “We get as many men as women in our salons,” says Viswanathan.

In fact, Chennai seems to be going through a salon boom. Across the city, old-fashioned beauty parlours are giving way to ‘unisex salons’ and ‘style studios’. At a swank mall on Chennai’s Nungambakkam road, Vikram Mohan, 29, runs the Bounce Style Lounge. Here a basic haircut for men costs Rs 350. Mohan started Bounce way back in 2003 and business has been good ever since.

Southern comfort

In a recent study of upwardly mobile males in the metros, Hansa Research found that the southern man is living it up and how:
  • Southern men travelled more than men from any other zone in the country. 79% of all southern men said they travelled at least once during the last one year. 54% of southern men travelled for personal work in the last one year—the highest in the country.

  •  Upwardly mobile males in Hyderabad (29%), Madurai (24%) and Kochi (26%) owned a four-wheeler—among the highest proportion in the country.

  •  87% of males (who owned a four-wheeler) in South, engaged a driver to chauffer them around.

  •  38% of southern males visited shopping malls and shopping centres during a weekday—the highest in the country.

  • 19% of all southern men (who had visited a pub or a bar on a weekday) continued to visit one daily—the highest in the country again.

  • Southern men seem to love their movies. 39% of all southern men visited a multiplex /theatre on weekdays once a month.

  • But it’s not just movies and booze for southern men. On weekdays, a whopping 69% of them visited a library or a book stall, at least once a week.

  • 89% of southern males surveyed owned a cell phone. Bangalore (91%), Chennai (94%), Hyderabad (89%), Kochi (97%) were the cities which had the maximum proportion of males with cell phones across the country.
  •  24% of southern males said they would change a handset when a new model came to the market.
All the above mentioned data for upwardly mobile males
Source: Hansa Research

Today, Bounce has started another salon in Bangalore and Mohan wants to make it a national brand. “In Chennai, the men want to blend in, while in Bangalore, people want to stand out.

Overall, the Chennai man is ready for change, which is a good thing. Earlier, if you did not have a moustache, you were not a man ... all that is changing now,” muses Mohan with a smile.

But if the southern man is educated, has a lot of disposable income and wants to be hip, why aren’t the Gucci’s and the Bvlgari’s of the world rushing down South instead of setting up exclusive retail outlets in Mumbai and Delhi?

The answer is deceptively simple —the southern man may be acutely brand-conscious but he still is very ‘value for money’ oriented. It also has to do with his cultural underpinnings.

“The South today accounts for just 23 per cent of the country’s 1.6 million luxury households. It’s not possible for a Bvlgari or a Gucci to sustain a fullfledged store in the southern cities at this point. Even internationally, luxury stores are present in the main cities. You are unlikely to find luxury stores in Manchester but will find them all in London,” says Saloni Nangia, Associate Vice President at consultancy firm Technopak. Nangia, however, believes that the scenario might be different five years from now.

Others like Chennai-based designer Chaitanya Rao believe that it’s the South’s—specifically Chennai’s —cultural moorings that make it a poor market for ostentatious products. “Chennai has a great mix of the traditional and the modern. If you go to smaller towns where people are very prosperous, you will still find them wearing a silk veshti and white shirt but a very expensive watch,” says Rao who is hailed as among the top upcoming designers in the country. “People in Chennai are not willing to spend as much money on clothes as compared to let’s say people in Bangalore or Mumbai. But then again, there is not too much peer pressure here to look like a Bollywood star all the time,” adds Rao, who has been born and brought up in Chennai.

It’s not just fickle fashion or the increasing uptake of talcum powder that’s changing. People are bolder and are open to making bolder career choices. Till not too long ago, a career was synonymous with a CAT score or a BITS Pilani cutoff score. Not so much any more.

Take Vardon (quoted earlier). Born in an Anglo-Indian family where ‘you learn to dance before you walk’, Vardon’s career choice as dance and fitness instructor was not the easiest one to make in Chennai. “My dad was an engineer with L&T. His take was that there’s nothing like a nine-to-five job. For a male to enter what’s considered a female’s job in Chennai wasn’t difficult but it was trying at times,” says Vardon.

But with changing times, these choices have become easier. Like Rao says: “People today are a lot bolder with career choices. A lot of young guys come to meet me wanting to be designers. In fact, anybody who can stitch a blouse thinks he can be a designer.”

Do these winds of change mean that the southern man is all ready to give up his payasam for a slice of pizza?

Highly unlikely. Like CavinKare’s Viswanathan says, “The Chennai we know today is very different from the Madras of old days. It’s a lot less xenophobic and is more embracing of outsiders … the South has changed but not very drastically.”

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