Tata Nano: The Car That Was Just Too Cheap

The Guardian
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Faced with a poor safety rating and dismal sales among the targeted rural population, India’s Tata is changing the image of the Nano and nudging up its price.

Poor Tata Nano: dealt zero safety stars last week by the global Ncap for performing miserably in German crash tests, the world’s cheapest car also recorded a shockingly low sales figure of 554 units in December.

It had started so well. India’s answer to Ford’s Model T was set to be a revolutionary, affordable vehicle for the masses as well as a paragon of frugal engineering. At its launch in 2009, Indians were so eager to get their hands on one that 200,000 orders were put through before the first Nano had even rolled off the production line.

I was so inspired by the pioneering spirit of the car, I invested in my own LX model and took it on a 10,000km drive around India in 2010. Contrary to the expectations of most people I met along the way, I lived to tell the tale.

People were dubious. Was the car even meant for driving on highways? How would it handle on rural roads? And, in the wake of a spate of spontaneous combustions around the time of my trip, wasn’t I concerned about the prospect of a Nano fireball?

Vehicle safety in India has to be a huge issue. In a country where you often have to vie with livestock for road space, improvise lane directions, or suddenly swerve to avoid being swallowed alive by a gaping pothole, you need to know that your chariot will keep you intact.

So it was with concern that I watched the Ncap’s morose multi-angle footage of crash test dummies lethally head-butting the dashboard while the Nano crumpled pathetically around their legs.

Tata and other Indian car manufacturers such as Suzuki-Maruti, Ford and Hyundai, whose low-end vehicles performed badly in last week’s tests, have to rethink safety in the light of their new dismal ratings. For the Nano, this should coincide with a whole set of other changes Tata is making to save the brand.

For one, the company is no longer referring to the Nano as the world’s cheapest car. That moniker has not served it well, making the car sound flimsy and unreliable instead of no-frills and accessible. Thinking cheap is out and celebrating awesomeness – the Nano’s new catchphrase – is in. The new awesomeness image is meant to appeal to middle-class urban youth, who have always made up the Nano’s main fan base, a fact that Tata ignored following the car’s launch. Instead, it chose to focus on delivering its product to first-time buyers in rural areas, perhaps because Tata thought the potential market there had more scope. That decision doomed the Nano to fail.

Why? Because it turns out that people in a lower income bracket have the same sense of self-preservation as their counterparts further up the economic ladder, as well as similar image issues. And, due to lack of funds, they’re cautious, sensible buyers who’d rather not be fobbed off with a poor man’s car, or trade their family’s safety for a low pricetag.

India’s “people’s car” needs to get closer to its people if it’s to live up to the legend of the Model T or the Beetle, which sold 15m and 21.5m units respectively during the years of their manufacture.

In the meantime, Tata is chiseling the Nano’s image and nudging the price up with every change. January saw the launch of the revamped, slightly dearer Nano Twist. New features like power-steering and a digital music system should thrill the kids, but I imagine they’d be more pleased with the intervention of an airbag in the event of a high-speed collision. Just an idea.

Beijing’s Art Scene Raises Its Profile

The New York Times
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On a recent Sunday afternoon in the sunken terrace of Beijing’s sleek Opposite House Hotel, an art event was in full swing. The wine was chilling, the dumplings steaming and a few dozen locals and foreigners were looking on with curiosity as the artists Yan Wei and Yinmai O’Connor ran their black paintbrushes over the walls, furniture and even the human occupants of a whitewashed room.

The event was put on by a company called Surge Art and was its third in three days, its contribution to Beijing Design Week that ended in early October. The turnout seemed reasonable, though Tom Pattinson, Surge’s director, told me it had nothing on the party they held the previous Friday night at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Casual art events like this one are gaining traction in Beijing: Emerging artists who were previously overshadowed by the country’s high-end art stars are increasingly being given more of a platform by galleries and dealerships. While the works of established Chinese artists are still selling well internationally, the lower end of the market is now also beginning to open up in China, helped along by online sales of artworks.

The target market is twofold: the new generation of high-salaried Chinese professionals who are turning more toward contemporary artworks than designer trinkets, and foreign visitors for whom a painting by a hot young artist is the ultimate souvenir from the country’s capital.

Surge is one of a growing number of businesses in Beijing boosting the market for works by emerging artists. Others include the Hi Art Store — another online outlet — as well as institutions like the UCCA (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art) store in the 798 Art District, which also sells limited-edition prints online, and some of the more trailblazing galleries like Red Gate.

“Buying a work of contemporary Chinese art is buying a little piece of history and a window into how society is changing,” said Mr. Pattinson, whose passion for Chinese art began more than a decade ago when he moved to Beijing from England and, as an art lover with a small budget, was pushed to find affordable inroads into an art market that was, in his opinion, “elitist and lacking any depth.”

“After speaking to friends in the art world, I realized there was both a supply of great young artists looking to sell their work and a huge number of people interested in picking up something contemporary, original and yet affordable,” he said.

Beijing’s art scene has already become a staple destination on the sightseeing itinerary. Companies like Bespoke Beijing and Context Travel have been leading walking tours through the 798 gallery district in the northeast of the city for several years and setting up studio visits to meet and greet artists. What was once a small, alternative scene there has flourished, an expansion that has forced many artists to move to more affordable nearby areas like Caochangdi (home to Ai Weiwei), Huantie and the 318 International Art Village, as well as the farther-flung Songzhuang.

The price of artwork bought online starts at about $75, making it a tempting foray for a souvenir hunter with no previous aspirations of art collecting.

Janice MacLeod, a 76-year-old social worker from England, was one such unassuming buyer first exposed to Chinese contemporary art at one of Surge’s art fairs, while visiting her son, a journalist, in Beijing in 2013.

“I was blown away by the exhibition, got wonderfully carried away, and bought my first piece of contemporary art,” she said, referring to the painting “Chinese Cabbage” by the artist Ma Jing, which now hangs in her Oxfordshire cottage.

Other buyers are also entertaining the possibility of some return on their vacation purchase: One potential perk of buying art in China over a souvenir porcelain tea set is that the art is more likely to appreciate a few years down the line. Artists like Sheng Qi, Zhou Jun, Hei Yue and Gonkar Gyatso, now selling their creations for five-figure sums, originally started selling their work online for just a few hundred dollars.

Bradley Schurman, a 37-year-old Washington, D.C., resident — who came away with an original sculpture by Huang Yulong after a trip to Beijing earlier in 2014 — has been surprised to discover that the work he bought online is now worth several times more than its purchase price.

Mr. Schurman said that his art purchases have always been for aesthetic reasons. “That mentality was no different when I bought this piece,” he said of the artist’s gold ceramic skull, his Chinese art keepsake. “However, there is something incredibly gratifying when these beautiful pieces grow in value at a rate similar or substantially above the market.”

New Face of Mercado Santurce in San Juan, P.R.

The New York Times
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“BUSINESS isn’t what it used to be,” Ramón Tellado Rosa said from behind a pile of bananas at his stall at the Mercado Santurce in the Campo Alegre district of San Juan, P.R. — for decades the place where Sanjuaneros have come for fresh produce.

Mr. Tellado Rosa, 86, blames the fall-off in business on a transformation the area has seen of late, as myriad bars and restaurants have gradually cropped up around the market’s plaza. Now the plaza — La Placita, as it’s known — along with the surrounding area, has been undergoing a fresh wave of popularity as it is rediscovered by a new generation of young professionals.

A short walk but a far cry from the whitewashed high-rises of Condado and the manicured streets of Old San Juan, La Placita is a worn world of wooden Creole porches, brightly colored shop fronts and — most important to the new crowd — cheap beer and cocktails sold in plastic cups.

The Mercado Santurce itself has been active for almost a century. Merchants once would teeter atop heaps of fruit and vegetables with a pair of scales and a fistful of cash. Today the vibe is a little more subdued, but it’s still one of the most atmospheric places in Puerto Rico to forage for local fare, like giant avocados, guineitos (small and very sweet bananas) and mameys.

El Coco de Luis (787-721-7595), a hole-in-the-wall joint nestled in a corner at the front of the market, has locals lining up for the soup of the day or a cup of a brew indigenous to the plaza: whiskey and fresh coconut water.

Across the street, a spot for regular live salsa and a relaxed rum and coke is Taberna los Vázquez (Calle Orbeta, 1348; 787-723-1903), an open corner bar with a fried-food counter for late-night alcapurrias (meat enclosed in grated yautía, a tarolike root vegetable) and sorullitos (deep-fried cornmeal fingers), about $2 a piece.

From the market, head down Calle Dos Hermanos and take a right on Juan Ponce de León for a taste of culture at the MAC, Puerto Rico’s Museum of Contemporary Art (Parada 18; 787-977-4030; http://www.museocontemporaneopr.org) with an extensive collection of modern local works exhibited in blissfully air-conditioned rooms.

For a classic Placita dining experience, try the Tasca el Pescador (Calle Dos Hermanos, 178; 787-721-0995). The green polka-dot tablecloths and garish neon lighting may be uninviting, but the handwritten daily fish menu is a no-nonsense bill of freshly caught and simply prepared seafood. The grilled white sea bass is delicious and arrives with mofongo (mashed, fried plantains) or tostones (flattened fried plantains). A meal for two costs about $40.

Since it opened in 2008, Piropos (Calle Iturriaga, 1361; 787-723-5577) has become a go-to spot for dining and drinking, especially on Friday nights. It offers a modest tapas menu that can serve as a satisfying dinner, with options like stuffed peppers, chorizo and churrasco ($8 to $22). The owner, José Martinez, who vividly recalls the squeal of pigs being led to the market in the early mornings of his childhood, agrees that the face of La Placita is changing and thinks his old family neighborhood is now worth investing in. “I think of this area like SoHo in New York,” he said, “though I don’t think it should be limited to just a drinking hole.”

Spin City

The Guardian
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They’ve been outlawed for almost a century, but you can still find whirling Dervishes spinning themselves into a meditative trance in a serene little enclave of Istanbul. The unassuming Galata dervish lodge is located off a side street in the very centre of the city, its most bewitching feature a graveyard of tombstones capped with the regional serpus hats, under which are buried generations of Sufi masters.

Cross-legged among the graves, playing his ney, one of the oldest musical instruments in the world, is DJ Arkin Allen, more commonly known as contemporary Sufi musician, Mercan Dede. “This is a magical place, where I come for total peace,” he says. “Time and sound stop here.”

Despite this year’s secular demonstrations, 2007 is a spiritual year for Turkey. Unesco backed a special project of cultural events to mark the 800th anniversary of the birth of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, poet and founder of the Mevlana school of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam.Advertisement

An adherent of Sufi practice and its music, Mercan Dede’s style of performance includes mixing traditional Sufi sounds with digital and electronic beats, as well as working with everyone from Istanbul’s Roma musicians to the city’s biggest rap stars, directing the stage shows from behind the turntables, from where he occasionally lifts his hands from the decks to play a stint on his ney. Not surprisingly, his favourite concert venue is the majestic 1,700-year-old Byzantine cathedral and little sister to the Hagia Sophia, Hagia Irene, although you are just as likely to find him at Babylon, one of the city’s most pumping nightclubs.

I arrived at Arkin’s Istanbul home in the neighbourhood of Cihangir, and he whisked me past Mira, a Dervish dancer, who was ironing her trademark neon-blue whirling skirt for their performance that evening, up to his balcony, overlooking a patchwork of terracotta rooftops and the glittering Bosphorus.

It’s hard to imagine that this picture-perfect scene is so frenetic at ground level. Arkin tells me he survives the chaos of the city of over 10 million people by keeping little refuges. One such is the canteen-style Haci Abdullah restaurant in the city centre, another the dessert emporium Inci, brimming with sweet treats concocted from honey and pistachios; both are old-school Turkish in their cuisine and character. Beyond the city, Arkin escapes to the Bosphorus villages, the latter-day fishing stations lining the strait all the way up to the Black Sea, which have managed to maintain much of their rural character, despite Istanbul’s exponential expansion in the last century.

One of the more popular villages is Bebek, a leafy suburb on the European shore. “I like to walk around there and sit down on a bench and get some tea or coffee from one of the portable three-tiered coffee carts,” says Arkin. It’s not a place that many visitors to the city get to, and the experience is a world away from the teeming tourist magnets in Sultanahmet: women walk their children, kids take turns throwing themselves into the water, and dogs bask in the sun, occasionally lifting their eyelids at the sound of a fishing boat parking up for the day.

The best way to negotiate the Bosphorus villages is by boat, and an unhurried service runs every hour or so between the quaint wooden docks on both sides of the strait. Arkin’s favourite neighbourhood in the city is Kandilli, just across the water from Bebek. An outdoor coffee house by the pier sits at the bottom of a hill of steep and narrow residential streets, some housing beautifully restored yalis, wooden homes from the late Ottoman period, often gaily painted, and smacking of the colonial style of much of 19th-century America. Climb up the weed-strewn stone steps to the top of the hill for a sweeping vista of the second Bosphorus suspension bridge and all of the European shore.

The “Dede” part of Arkin’s stage name is a title used by Sufis to denote an elder in the tradition, and is a mark of an allegiance that began two decades ago when he started to play the ney. He makes no secret of his affiliation with Sufism, even though the Mevlana school has in effect been outlawed since the time of the birth of the Republic in 1925, when all 250 or so dervish lodges in the city were closed down, thus demoting what was for centuries the profound spiritual practice of whirling to a tourist curiosity, on a par with bellydancing.

Although Arkin moved to Montreal in the 80s, he often returns to Istanbul: “Montreal is about peace and being myself and digesting the ideas and inspirations I get in Istanbul,” he said.

And how about Istanbul? “It’s where the angel and the devil walk hand in hand.”