Descend into the basement of a worn concrete building in Bangalore’s Krishna Rajendra Market and find a hullabaloo of hawkers selling flowers by the kilo and garlands by the meter. It’s warm and dim in the gray halls of one of Asia’s largest flower markets, but it doesn’t feel underlit — it’s as if the bright blooms of marigolds, roses, and jasmine piled high in their open burlap sacks provide light. Vendors holler from their two-by-five meter lots and shoppers stop to reply, bargaining and clotting the fragrant footpath. It’s shoulder to shoulder, and one often feels a hand on the back that signifies, like the honks in the traffic above, not move out of my way but I am here.
I am led by Saravana Muniswamy, 33, a flower merchant at KR Market or, as dubbed by local Bangaloreans who travel to the market for fruits and vegetables in addition to flowers, City Market. I follow the trailing end of Muniswamy’s orange scarf as he shows me around, says hello, shakes the hand of other vendors, and points out members of his family. His mother waves, framed by her flowers, as does his cousin and her fiancé. His younger brother sells hair pieces and fidget spinners by the entrance. He refers to one woman, a distant relation, as his mummy and another older woman as his grand-mummy. His boss, he says, is his godmother.
Muniswamy and his older brother Sharesh run Shubhkamna, a flower vending and decorating business. He starts each day at 4 a.m., when he gathers his product from the wholesale flower depot. The flowers are loaded onto trucks and delivered to KR Market where they are then split to sell by the bud or by the garland. By 6 a.m., the market is in full swing. Upstairs, ten employees thread flowers together, with a kilo of flowers taking about half an hour to string into a garland. The rose and marigold garlands are brought to the 10-by-10 meter space Muniswamy rents by the week, splashed with water for preservation, and coiled on a large round wicker basket. Garlands are sold, depending on the season, at 50 to 200 rupees per meter and are readily replaced when sold out. The market dies down around 10 p.m. every day, seven days a week. There is no holiday.
Shubhkamna is a family business. Muniswamy’s father and grandfather both worked with flowers. “I learned other things, but I have more interest in flowers,” Muniswamy said. “With the flower business, I earn. I have a car, a home, a motorbike. And I’m helping the 10 people under me.”
With its potential for profits, the floriculture industry in India is on the rise, especially in the state of Karnataka and in Bangalore, the largest supplier and exporter of fresh cut flowers in India according to the Flower Auction Center, where farmers turn to floriculture for a steadier source of income. New greenhouse technologies give farmers more control over the climate and, therefore, the harvest. According to the Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation, 30,900 hectares of Karnataka land is cultivated for flowers, producing 220,000 tons of flowers per year. Chrysanthemum, tuberose, aster, jasmine, marigold, and rose among them. According to Vijay Kulkarni, the general manager of the Bangalore International Flower Auction Board, in the two weeks before Valentine’s Day, Bangalore growers export about five million roses.
Production, however, depends upon the weather. Most farms remain outdoors and rely heavily on rain water. Less water and higher temperatures affect the size and preservation of the flower bulb and, as a result, the price of production rises.
Nonetheless there is opportunity in the flower business. In a recent interview with The Weekend Leader, a local publication on entrepreneurship, Bollapally Srikanth recounted his experience rising in the flower industry. Srikanth dropped out of high school to work at a flower farm and support his family, saving enough money to open his own flower shop in Bangalore at 18. A growing client list and extensive experience in the business spurred Srikanth to start his own floriculture company, Vensai Floritech.
As Bangalore grows, nearly doubling in size over the past decade, businesses and the local government must confront the crumbling infrastructure of older buildings and heritage sites like KR Market. Built in 1928 though renovated in the 1990s, the current building is a hunk of concrete. Its floor, pillars, and ceiling resemble a shopping mall parking lot save for the art deco skylights clustered in rows and columns on the roof. Congested and unorganized, there are no marked zones for goods coming in or waste coming out. The upper floors of the building are sparsely used and the top floor deserted. The surrounding area is gridlocked by hawkers and jammed with traffic.
In February 2014 the architecture firm currently working on the renovation of the city’s commercial Church Street, Venkataramanan Associates, proposed an urban renewal of Bangalore’s “pete” area, a traditional market district just north of the Bangalore Fort that encompasses KR Market and its immediate surroundings.
“We don’t want to demolish it, but have an adaptive reuse of the building with an urban redesign for hawkers, commuters, and people who visit the market,” said Saagar Tulshan, an architect at Venkataramanan, “We want to give people a stake in the building.” The firm, inspired by street artist Shilo Shiv Suleman’s untarnished mural inside KR Market, wants to create a self-preserving building through a proposed media lab on the top floor.
Even with the building’s current flaws, the flowers at KR Market still draw a hefty crowd of locals and visitors. Every October the halls of KR Market are flooded with bustling people preparing for the Annama festival, a celebration of flowers.
“There is no standing,” said Muniswamy on Annama. “Only going.”