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Why Everyone Has Fun At Asha Rao's Party?

The word ‘Sante’ in Kannada means fair, market or bazaar. Asha Rao and her hugely successful Soul Sante have taken Bangalore by the wallet and people can’t wait to spend some time and money on these Sunday events.

Trust a Bangalorean to come up with a concept that combines the modern and the traditional and in the process, create something for everyone to enjoy. That’s exactly what Asha Rao has done. She’s taken a typical flea market and added all sorts of elements that make it a fun day of music and entertainment, while showcasing some of the best designs and products from the Indian arts and craft community.

She’s given Bangaloreans a reason not to sleep in late on a Sunday morning. Soul Sante has managed to make an impact on the city and establish itself as a brand and an event much looked forward to by Bangaloreans.

Originally held in Palace Grounds Soul Sante grabbed the attention of people across all age groups and backgrounds. From partygoers to families looking for a picnic—Sunday Soul Sante had something for everyone. And then the government changed its mind about allowing commercial activity on the Palace Grounds. But this did not deter the organisers; in fact, they turned it to their advantage. They quickly hunted for and located other venues all around the city.

We spoke to the lady behind Soul Sante, long-time Bangalorean, Asha Rao.

“I started doing flea markets in 1997. So it’s a long story and it’s been going on and progressing slowly. I used to organize similar markets in Whitefield. Two big markets a year. I used to have a studio there. One day as I was sitting and looking at the crowd and I was amazed at the fact that thousands of people were coming to a flea market in Whitefield, which was considered a suburb. I started scrutinizing the crowd and I saw that most of these people were my friends coming from across town – from all over the city. It was then that it struck me that instead of them coming all the way to Whitefield, maybe I could have a market in town? The response would be enormous, I felt.  So I toyed with the idea for a while. Everyone thought I was bonkers. ‘A flea market? What do you mean? This is not Goa! We don’t have tourists here.’ Blah blah.  That was the kind of response I got when I shared this idea with others, despite my telling them that I’d already been doing a flea market in Bangalore for so many years.”

So what was it that kept her going? “I sensed a need for it. I’ve been very closely associated with arts and craft for a long time. I felt that with the number of institutes cropping up all over, not only in Bangalore, but also all over the country, there’s no dearth of designers. And everyone is so much in awe of designs from the west, but I personally believe that our Indian arts, craft and designs are comparable with anyone’s in the world. So, with that as my motivation I approached the right people.”

With a glow in her eyes as she recalled her first event at Palace Grounds, Rao continued. “We had an overwhelming response from day one. And you know, if you deliver what you promise, you will always improve, you will grow, get stronger, and you will do better. We never ever cut corners or short-changed anybody on what they were promised. We promised great shopping and great entertainment and that’s exactly what we delivered.”

But it’s not as if there weren’t any challenges. There were plenty, when you consider the sheer size and number of people who participate and visit a Soul Sante. “I’ve always questioned this, from my own experience. How do you keep people engaged at one place for the whole day? Not everyone is going to shop or come to the fashion show or the rock band. You have to make sure there is something for each and every person.  Apart from our food court, which served all kinds of food and catered to all tastes, we offered great shopping, with designers from all over the country. People had their own little chill-out space. I wanted everyone to have their own space including dogs, other pets, your driver, your maid, domestic help, baby in a pram… Children had their own play zone, we had a baby station, where you could nappy change and breast-feed and put the baby to sleep, we had a senior citizen’s section where they could sit and chill. And we threw in some board games. So you know, that’s what we did and it worked beautifully.”

Rao continued, “The first market had only 86 stalls in all (today they have in excess of 200 stalls). The market grew. And just when we were getting set, they (the government) enforced the rule that one couldn’t have commercial activity on the Palace Grounds. We were very disheartened. But thanks to my great group of friends, I was able to get a lovely location and move to Sahakarnagar where I organized two markets, and then I moved to ITPL, and recently I did one at the Manpho Convention Center. So I’ve been spinning around town, pleasing all localities. I think now its set, so that’s it.”

All things said and done, the success of any event is hugely determined by the people and the city it’s held in. And Asha was all praises for Bangalore in this respect, “I’ve lived and visited pretty much all the major cities in India and I feel that the community spirit of Bangalore is very hard to beat, apart from the fact that we have the most fantastic weather. That helps a lot for an outdoor flea market.”

Talking about the void such events are able to fill, she added, “I’m a Bangalorean and I remember there used to be so many events which involved communities getting together, sharing, caring, loving… and then suddenly the city became so industrialised and there was an influx of a lot of people, lot of new energy-- some of it good, some of it bad, people were unhappy and disheartened by the way Bangalore was shaping up, then we got used to it. I’m a mother of three sons, young adults and I’ve been noticing on weekends how the 11.30 deadline has affected the people in Bangalore. They go out; they just have about enough time to have a drink and its time to close. Then they run around helter- skelter looking for an after-party. Parents sometimes worry about that too you know-- these after parties can sometimes get really late and the children always come back in the morning. So that led me to think of something to do where I could bring everybody out for a full day of fun, and send them home by 11.30 so nobody wants an after party. And I succeeded in doing that. I was able to bring so much of Bangalore out for a lovely day of fun.”

Heart and passion, although imperative, is not all it takes to put together an event of such a magnitude. One needs to have the economics in place. There are set up costs, advertising, marketing and a number of things one needs to consider. We asked Asha about the business and economic aspect of Soul Sante. “I will say one thing and I mean it from the bottom of my heart. I have reached where I am today because of excellent work by my team and my sponsors. Today I have many offers from other sponsors but I have a soft-corner for Bangalore brands.”

“We didn’t look at economics at all,” she continues, “we checked the numbers and worked out basic things like, ‘this is what we will charge for a stall’, and ‘this is how much we will use.’ We had done a little homework as we were dealing with known vendors (tent suppliers, electricians, generator company, etc) and we knew the economics of it from past experience, so we were able to put everything together systematically. But to tell you very honestly, we have never ever been in the red. And this I attribute to all the hard work we put in -- me and my team working day and night. In the sun, wind, rain, we just kept bearing all of that out there at Palace Grounds, when we began, and we worked hard.

Talking about providing the right platform for the Indian arts and culture community, she states, “I am not an artist or dancer, or a craftsperson of any kind, but I do feel that a very important part of art is the appreciation which I always refer to as the ‘wow’ factor. Because when you see something amazing you get that burst of positive energy. That’s enough to encourage the creators or the producers to carry on. To appreciate, to say, ‘it’s fantastic,’ what a feeling that is you know? I love cooking, that’s probably the only creative thing I can do, so when I cook and get appreciation from my children, it’s the best feeling. And all that work that went in the kitchen does not matter.”

Talking more about her team that helped her bring her vision to life, she smiles. “My eldest son, Harish is an MBA from IIM Kolkata. He’s one of those straight, systems persons, which I am not. He updates everyone via mails and handles the numbers. He brings structure and organization. My second son Karan, who is trained in the UK as a filmmaker, helps me with the creative part, the administration, the entertainment, stage-work and all that. And my younger son, Vishal has actually been there, helping me by my side since 1997. He was 11 years old then. He’s fantastic. He’s a natural at this job. I feel I’ve been extremely lucky. There’s this young lady called Sanam Malhotra, who’s my friend and part of my team from day one. She’s really my right hand in the market. I could close my eyes and entrust anything to her. She’s fantastic as a merchandiser and in carrying out whatever she’s entrusted to do, she plans far better than me; I’m more of a doer not a great planner. Another very important member of my team is Saad Khan. He’s the founder of Centerstage. His contribution is immense and there is no one else I would rather have on the stage emceeing the event. So all that put together is my team.”

We asked her about the next step and her expansion plans, “I want to take it all over the country but I don’t know how feasible that’ll be. To do that, I need sponsorships. Now Bombay is a whole different ball game. Not as easy as it is here. Pune, Delhi, Hyderabad and Chennai are the cities I would love to explore. How I’m going to do it? I don’t know. In fact, we just had a meeting and we were discussing just that. We do about six markets a year, so what we could maybe do is organise 4 markets here (Bangalore) and 2 in other cities every year. That’s my plan because I think the people exhibiting are so fantastic. They need to be shown all over. That’s what I call really and truly making a platform for these creative people. If I have the wherewithal to take them, then I must take the initiative.”

Lastly, we wanted to know what was that one thing that was not right about Sunday Soul Sante, something she would do differently. “Well, something that I really wish could be corrected is the amount of littering that happens. I feel it is the responsibility of the people who come to make sure that the place remains clean but sadly, that does not happen. Despite there being garbage bins around, the crowd just does not seem to care. This really disappoints me. We plan to put up posts on our Facebook page about this issue to make sure people are more aware about littering.”