Shivaji Dasgupta
Guest Article

How nostalgia is no longer authentic

Our guest author explores the need for a Heritage Brand Consortium to put a price on authenticity in the face of a culture of counterfeits.

According to Miriam Webster, the word of the year for 2023 is ‘authentic’. As an emotion and an experience much in demand in the world of crippling deep fakes and other such assaults on genuineness. Strangely though, classic nostalgia brands are simply not doing enough to further this necessary cause.

To elaborate mildly, authenticity in products or services should clearly be the unquestioned mandate of nostalgia or legacy brands, as they are often known. True mostly clearly for food and beverage experiences and extendable clearly to most sensorial domains, whether tourism, fashion or popular culture. But the task is often better performed by newbies who are committed to blending originality with tradition, in a scalable and engaging manner.

The well-regarded Flury’s in Calcutta is a fine, albeit infamous example. Those in the know confess, in a sotto voice, that the stuff is no longer good enough and what’s worse, plagued by opportunistic overpricing.

While many smaller and newer entities manage the realness gig more smartly, without getting deserving credit. Mostly due to an aura concocted by clever marketing and wishful associations, numbing the judgement of the seemingly discerning.

This pattern is true for many stalwarts, failing to construct a suitable bridge between the present and past. Tunday Kababi in Lucknow has been surpassed by worthy descendants not from the bloodlines, Shiraz and Royal in Calcutta often perform sub-optimal biryani gigs, LMB in Jaipur and Balaram Mullick in Calcutta are arguably living off glossy reputation and Lonavala Chikki curated by Paper Boat is surely more consistent that the hilly creators.

Darjeeling and Shimla are both desperately overcrowded, Tanishq can do appropriate justice to timeless craft and the Oberoi hospitality classics in Calcutta and Shimla have to contend with worthier competition, privy to customer sentiments.

Government emporiums often fail to uplift the traditions they are designed to service, while a whole host of aspirants are vying to balance business with realness. Customers sincerely seek authenticity, from a varied continuum, but often do not know where to look for the real thing. This is why they gravitate to the nostalgia brands, often being badly let down and eventually moving back to the mediocre contemporary.

So why exactly does the nostalgia cadre fail to serve the purpose they are destined to uphold? A common problem is unwieldy scalability, driven by investor opportunism but not supported by technical elasticity. A single store outlet of Flury’s or Paradise Biryani could still manage authentic originals but the moment it moved to assembly line rigour, the outcomes were unstable.

The next problem is skill transmission, as the secret sauce of a Tunday Kababi loses crucial gunpowder as generations pass. Yet another timeless constraint is management motivation, familiar generational malaise, as newer wings of families explore fancy businesses losing interest in the core. Costs remain another venomous foe as real ingredients, saffron and ghee, in the case of biryani, find easier alternatives clearly less fulfilling.

Some of the other reasons are in the domain of customer-centricity - good from a business but clearly bad from an authenticity perspective. The evolution of Chinese food in India, Ludhiana or Karol Bagh, is a demonstration of how a scalable business model emerged through deep-fried and spicy excesses. A preference for Italian-style pastries is demeaning the worth of traditional anglophile processes while an enhanced consciousness of health is taking urban folks away from rich and heavy foods.

Cosmetic Western-styled jewellery is impacting the patterns in designer creations while the need to cram tourists in palatable conditions is ruining the virginity of the legacy hill stations.

For a whole host of factors, authenticity is facing an existential crisis, thereby impacting the continuity of legacies and the sustainability of good taste. In this world of Generative AI and ChatGPT, there is a sincere need to get comfortable, once again, with the real and truthful. Actually, as a guardrail against the culture of counterfeit that is now threatening to become endemic, driven by the greed to perform quickly and earn irrationally.

Perhaps, the need of the moment is to build a Heritage Brand Consortium, a version of INTACH in our daily lives. Where a certain code of conduct, in terms of experience curation, is imposed on the manufacturers and exposed to the common customers.

This can be applicable for Britannia and Co., in the business of dhansak and berry pulao, which should be inspirational for the home chefs in Bandra as well. Putting a price on authenticity will be a worthwhile practice in more ways than one.

In summary, it must be concluded that authenticity is subject to eclectic interpretation, and not just enslaved to entitled continuity. The preservation of the past is often finely served by the ambassadors of the present, through rigorous exploration and an unassuming twist, in the tale. Whatever the success protocol, civilisation is the only winner—2024 promises to be a test case.

(Our guest author is Shivaji Dasgupta, an autonomous writer on brands and customer-centricity)

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