Proposal preview

Markets and the Marketing of Consumer Goods in South Asia, 1880-2018

While South Asian economic and business history now possesses an extensive and distinguished career, it has largely ignored questions relating to consumption and the marketing of consumer goods. Long preoccupied with understanding the impact of colonialism, the causes of Indian poverty and the origins of industrialization, the economic history of the Indian subcontinent has largely overlooked the fact that peasants and city-dwellers had begun to purchase and use consumer items on a significant scale by the early twentieth century, and it has failed to examine the methods businessmen used in attempting to develop markets for their commodities in both rural and urban settings. Well before the formal advent of India’s liberalization policy in 1991, South Asian business actors ranging from industrialists and foreign manufacturers to wholesale traders, small-scale producers and hawkers were involved in sophisticated efforts to influence consumer behavior. This panel explores the markets for, and the marketing of, consumer goods in South Asia.

The panel will focus on two central issues. First, it will examine the interplay between the forms of marketing present in “unorganized” settings, typically Indian bazaars, and new forms of “organized” marketing that emerged over the course of the twentieth century (such as those involving modern advertising firms, large department stores, retail chains, etc). Second, it will highlight the processes of change and continuity in retail marketing over time. Among the questions that will be explored are: How do bazaars function? How did merchants and producers manage to develop markets for their goods in “unorganized” settings? How did multinational manufacturers and modern advertising agencies enter the bazaar during the twentieth century and to what extent did they create novel forms of retail outlets for commodities? How did smaller-scale, “vernacular” capitalists sometimes manage to build up their businesses through modern forms of marketing, particularly the use of print advertisements? Why and how did the Indian state become involved in marketing “craft” goods made to middle-class consumers? How have large-scale retailers come to thrive in a business landscape previously dominated by “unorganized” markets? The panel will be an inter-disciplinary one, bringing economic historians together with social and cultural historians whose work has usually not been considered in historical studies the Indian economy. The panel fits strongly with the larger theme of the Congress, “waves of globalization,” because it examines the ways multinational firms, global advertising firms and international retail stores advanced new approaches to marketing in different phases of India’s globalization (contrasting, for instance, the wave associated with the inter-war expansion of consumer-oriented firms with that of post-1991 “liberalization). At the same time, it explores the ways local actors and agents of the Indian state have managed to resist or counteract globalizing forces by using their own innovative marketing techniques.

Tariq Omar Ali will first consider marketing of consumer items in early twentieth-century rural Bengal, highlighting the role of bazaars and the small-town traders who sold a wide range of new commodities to peasants with increased access to cash as a result of their participation in jute cultivation. Projit Bihari Mukharji examines in detail the micro-world of Indian shopkeepers during the early twentieth century; he particularly discusses the magical and religious methods these shopkeepers used in promoting sales. Focusing on the interwar period, Douglas E. Haynes will explore the ways that multinational companies created markets for their products in urban India, especially through advertising, in a variety of retail establishments ranging from small shops in the bazaar to large department stores. Abigail McGowan analyzes the marketing of craft goods by the Indian state after 1947, stressing the emergence of major ad campaigns that promoted the value of using “traditional” items in modern homes. Tirthankar Roy will look at the advertising industry in Calcutta from the 1960s to 1990s, and will especially treat the reasons for the decline of this industry as new methods of reaching consumers emerged. Finally, Chinmay Tumbe will discuss the evolution of the organized retail sector from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, focusing on four particularly important retailing businesses/chains and analyzing the reasons for their success despite the continued presence of a commercial environment dominated by the unorganized sector. A list of papers with titles is provided in the attachment.


  • Douglas E. Haynes, Dartmouth College,, USA

Session members

  • Tariq Omar Ali, University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, USA,,
  • Projit Bihari Mukharji, University of Pennsylvania,
  • Douglas E. Haynes, Dartmouth College,
  • Abigail McGowan, University of Vermont,
  • Tirthankar Roy, London School of Economics,
  • Chinmay Tumbe, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Geoffrey Jones, Harvard Business School,