Delhi: From a granary to creative business street
- For the uninitiated, Dhan Mill Compound, a former granary and a cluster of warehouses, has morphed into the city’s modish food, fashion, design and lifestyle destination.
Amanda Bhandari compares Dhan Mill Compound near Chhatarpur in south Delhi with London’s Covent Garden.
Before you could begin to wonder why, she elaborates: “ I feel this place has a European vibe, what with its cobbled streets with designer benches, vintage streetlights and a variety of tastefully done cafes and stores. It is such an eclectic mix of culture, creativity, and luxury, ” says Bhandari, sitting inside Bombay Club, a café she launched on Sunday.
For the uninitiated, Dhan Mill Compound, a former granary and a cluster of warehouses, has morphed into the city’s modish food, fashion, design and lifestyle destination. Its streets are lined with art cafes, home décor outlets, ateliers, art galleries, pottery studios, dance halls and high-end boutiques, whose facades and interiors are as interesting and experimental as the wares they deal in.
Interestingly, all of these fancy establishments are housed in re-purposed warehouse buildings, which still have metal roofs.
“Dhan Mill is such a vibrant creative community, here we get inspired from each other and help each other in our creative pursuits,” says Richa Sinha, who runs AGENC Colab, a design studio and a co-working space, home to several fledging design companies. Sinha, who studied photography at Parsons School of Design, New York, co-founded AGENC with two fellow Parsons students.
In fact, many enterprises at Dhan Mill Compound are owned by young creatives, who have studied their art in New York, London, Milan and Paris. Take, for example, Atul Jindal, who runs Big Dance Center, a dance studio. Jindal, who studied at Broadway Dance Center in New York is trying to replicate his alma mater’s model in Delhi.
“And I decided to open (the center) in Dhan Mill because it provided us both the creative atmosphere and the large space that we needed. This former warehouse just served our purpose fine,” says Jindal, who has also choreographed several Bollywood stars, including Amitabh Bachchan, who was recently at his dance studio in Dhan Mill for a shoot.
As we talk, a group of 40 students are learning hip-hop, practising their steps to the high-pitched music. The Big Dance Center teaches several dance forms, including hip hop, jazz, belly dance and B-boying.
It is not uncommon to see Jindal’s students swaying in the compound’s cobbled alleys, where they get an appreciative audience.
“In fact, street performance is an integral part of the Dhan Mill experience; we regularly invite performers here, including musicians and dancers,” says Rishabh Jain, 26, who runs Dhan Mill with his sister Gunjan Jain, 34.
Their family, which owns the Dhan Mill Compound, was one of the country’s biggest grain traders.
The Jains, who originally hail from Chhattisgarh, shifted to Delhi in 1964. In 1974, the family started rice mills in Mehrauli, and in 1978 bought a 4.5-acre land in Chhatarpur and set up a granary, which over the years came to be known as Dhan Mill Compound. In the 1990s, they started a logistics and warehousing business in the compound.
“In 2010, we were approached by a few property brokers who asked us if we would be interested in renting out one of our warehouses to a furniture store. The rent they offered was more than double the going rates. We agreed, and Dhan Mill’s new journey began.” says RK Jain, Rishabh and Gunjan’s father sitting inside his office in a part of the compound which still looks like an industrial estate. “You see these property brokers are some of the most futuristic people I know,” says Jain with a laugh.
The first to move in the compound was In-Living, a furniture store in 2010, then over the next few years celebrity fashion designer Tarun Tahiliani opened a store and celebrity hairstylist and make-up artist Ambika Pillai also opened her studio. Some of these early stores have since moved out. Even as the new stores came up, until 2015 the place continued to have an industrial look, with trucks moving in and out of the compound. “But I had decided to wind up our warehousing business as I felt we made more money by renting out our premises,” says RK Jain.
He says the look and feel of the compound began to change after he handed over the reins to his daughter and son in 2017 — and that marked the family’s complete switch from logistics to aesthetics.
“We figured that Dhan Mandi has a great potential as an experiential food, lifestyle and design destination and decided to carefully curate the space,” says Gunjan.
“We often took suggestions of the existing brands, and during the second coronavirus lockdown last year, we redeveloped the cemented roads into cobbled streets, put up new street signage and introduced street furniture. We wanted Victorian aesthetics inside the Dhan Mill Compound,” she adds.
Ask her about her inspiration for the compound, and Gunjan, who has studied finance in Germany, says she was inspired by Bicester Village, a shopping centre on the outskirts of Bicester in Oxfordshire, England. The place has over 160 boutique stores and is one of the most visited tourist attractions in England.
Dhan Mill’s cobbled streets, with benches and large potted plants, bear a striking resemblance to those in Bicester Village.
“I simply love the place for its experimental food and its alcohol-free and pet-friendly cafes and restaurants that make it the perfect place for an outing with family. My daughter is a painter, and she cannot have enough of this place, we end up visiting almost every week, ” says Deepak Arya, a software engineer in Gurugram, who is in the market with his wife and daughter.
Rishabh Jain says that 20 of 45 outlets in Dhan Mill came up during the past two years of the pandemic and he gets about 25 applications every month from brands wanting to rent space in the compound. “But we are very particular about who can move in. We did not approve several brands because we felt they did not fit into the aesthetics and ethos of the place, though they were offering rent several times more than the prevailing rent rates in the compound. It is only for businesses with an artistic bent of mind, the ones that add value to the compound. Currently, we have just one space and over 50 applications pending from various brands,” adds Rishabh. In fact, the rentals in Dhan Mill have soared from ₹80 per square feet to ₹900 square feet in the past decade.
The compound’s reputation is spreading far and wide. It has become one of the finest examples of regeneration of what architects and interior designers call ‘leftover urban spaces’. Last year it featured in the book ’Design of the Unfinished: A New Way of Designing Leftovers Regeneration’.
Edited by Luciano Crespi, a renowned Italian architect and Interior designer, the book aims to encourage city administrators and planners worldwide to experiment with new ways of regenerating out-of-use built heritage.
The success of Dhan Mill has encouraged the family to start Dhan Mill 2 on a piece of vacant land they own in Chhatarpur. “And this will be inspired by the Ibiza old town in Spain,” according to Rishabh.
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