Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Bangalore

I had picked up Janaki Nair's book "The Promise of a Metropolis - Bangalore's Twentieth Century" quite a while ago from Sankars. It is a well researched book and unlike Narendra Luther's account of Hyderabad about which I had written a while ago, this one is more academic and rooted in the scholarly tradition. For me it is a bit difficult to identify with a single city - Bangalore was the place where I spent nearly half my life - while the other part was spread out in Mysore, Udupi, Hyderabad Anand and Ahmedabad. I also have over a period of time developed a fascination for Mumbai and Delhi where I go often on some work or the other. However two cities that have endured my interest are Hyderabad and Bangalore. Janaki Nair's book is quite interesting - not only because of the serious research that has gone in, but also for making a Bangalorean's memory fresh by putting in several photographs of the city in its various stages of growth.

While the book focusses most on the twentieth century as a time period for looking at Bangalore, it is difficult to wriggle away from either the past or the present continuum. Being one of the the fastest growing cities, a city that had intentions of having a planned growth and also being cosmopolitan for ages, the issues that a city like Bangalore throws up are interesting and diverse. Janaki Nair starts off by looking at two parts of the city - Bengaluru and Bangalore - the older part where the so called "natives" stayed and the cantonment area which was a world of its own. Unlike Hyderabad, Delhi and Ahmedabad, Bangalore does not have an "old city" which is in the walled area and a new city that is more modern. It is just that these two areas grew simultaneously. Therefore it is but fair for the author to make this comment: "For a settlement that has been in existence for over four and a half centuries, the city of Bengaluru boasts of few physical markers or monumental sites as visible signs of its antiquity.." Unlike the Qutb Minar and Charminar, Bangalore's identity is largely drawn by much more modern structures - Vidhana Soudha an
d the Public Utility Building. Unlike the new Birla Mandir in Hyderabad taking over the pride of place from Charminar in providing an alternative identity to the city, the structures that dot Bangalore are much more secular in nature. [Does that help? I am not sure]. The identity of Bangalore is more as a planned "garden city". So how do we depict this as an icon?

However, Nair does bring in the cultural divide between the cantonment area and the "pete" quite well. The pete part being more conservative, and ethnic. The cantonment part being largely populated by immigrants - largely British, but also an entire group of multi-cultural immigrants from elsewhere in India. Thus while the pete part of it was largely inhabited by Kannadigas with a little bit of Telugu thrown in, the cantonment area would hardly see Kannada - she says

"In the old city area successive waves of immigrants from diverse language and ethnic backgrounds, had settled into a more or less composite culture dominated by Kannada, and in much smaller part, Urdu speakers. In the Cantonment, to which large numbers migrated from Madras Presidency in response to the burgeoning opportunities for employment and trade, a new division of labour between languages was achieved under the dominance of English an administrative language and the language of power. The immigrant majority of Tamil speakers retained their language for domestic and cultural usues. There was widespread use of Telugu and Urdu as well, though the language of the reigon Kannada, was rarely heard in the cantonment area, as labour was drawn exclusively from the regions beyond Mysore."

As such one can see this even in the symbols in the pete area and cantonment. Nair aptly identifies how the streets and localities in the pete area are named - much more rooted in the local culture - with aralepete, balepete, nagarthpete and chikkapete being the names that can be immediately recalled. Consider the other side, which was largly named in English - Fraser Town, Cox Town, Cooke Town... Thus the issue of so-called "outsiders" in Bangalore rooted not only in history, but also in the story of Bangalore's growth. It could be seen as a city with a cosmopolitan culture right from the beginning, or as an occupation of the local space by "outsiders".

But clearly there was a dividing line between the pete and the Towns and the crossover was not easy. The crossover to the Cantonment area for a person from Pete in olden days meant the thrill of alcohol and meat, a forbidden cinema or an outing into the coffee or tea clubs. The pete on the other hand represented a more conservative outlook. However there is one interesting observation that is made by Nair quoting DVG that while in the pete, eating in hotels was a taboo, it eventually became an necessity following an epidemic of plague wherein people sent off their wives and children away from the city. Well, what started as a dire necessity has now possibly transformed into a way of life - with eating out and having a by-two coffee becoming such a functional necessity in the city.

The municipalities of city and cantonment merged to become a corporation in 1949, thereby bridging the divide between two parts of the city - at least adminstratively. Following that, Bangalore somehow became a centre for a whole lot of public sector entreprises, largely promoted and run by the centre.

Two interesting features represent these public sector enterprises - these were not the smoke emitting mills as in Mumbai or Ahmedabad. Instead there were based more on intellect and also represented the modern enterprise in a way. Hindusthan Machine Tools did everything from tractors to machine tools to watches, but it was watches that they were known for. I remember in the seventies, owning a HMT watch was as much a prestige as having a Bajaj Chetak. ITI, BEL and BHEL were not "factories" in the sense that we had known them. Possibly the existence of Tata Institute [or the Indian Institute of Science as it is formally known] did foster some sort of a relationship between the academia and the enterprises. Even IIM Bangalore was set up to cater to the public sector enterprises - and it then had sectoral specialisation in Agriculture, Education, Energy, Habitat and Human Settlements, Transportation and Health. No wonder that the study that Nair quotes most about Bangalore's growth was authored by VK Tewari who was then at IIM Bangalore.
Given that all these public sector enterprises were [apart from doing business] largely required to generate employment and were central establishments, possibly hired people from diverse geographical backgrounds - thereby strengthening the cosmopolitan nature of the city.

If all these were state establishments the "son of the soil" pressures possibly would have been much greater. Infact Nair notes this by saying that a regional bourgeoisie was only weakly present. Nair also makes one more interesting observation drawing from Tewari and Prakasha Rao - that Bangalore by passed the smokestack stage of industrialisation which was possibly a reason for the absence of a proletarian culture in the city. Most of the workers of these new industries could be slotted in middle class, having several privileges that a comparitive private sector employee in Mumbai, for instance might not have had. Therefore the nature of growth was also somewhat dictated by the past of
  1. being able to handle the knowledge sector
  2. having the tradition of accepting outsiders and thus an inherent cosmopolitanism that made it easier for multinationals and other knowledge based industries to set up shop here.
The fact that these public sector enterprises came up all around the periphery of the city and the fact that most of them operated buses to ferry passengers, the housing of the employees were spread out across the city. Only certain areas like the Peenya Industrial estate and before that the Rajajinagar industrial estate were earmarked for production purposes. For a while Bangalore continued to have its vast spaces as is evident in the planned portion of Jayanagar and on the edges of KR Road. These spaces are now closing in, and as Nair observes later in the book are being provided more in the private domain than in the public domain.

How is it that Bangalore has an entire range of eating joints on the organised space? When I say organised space I am not referring to the roadside pushcart type of outfits but more of the types which would have a registration and a legal existence. Of all the cities that I have visited Bangalore has the best range - from the cheapest Darshinis to the expensive Pizza Hut types of snack/meal joints. However is there a history in the fact that Bangalore restaurants have mastered the art of providing functional and inexpensive food? While Nair does not refer to it directly it might be the fact that eating out [starting with an early morning breakfast, including a wait at the Mavalli Tiffin Rooms] was quite an acceptable thing and it provided volumes. At the same time, in the Emergency days when there were controls on end-prices at which food could be sold [with the overall quantity and weight specified] most of the outfits may have learnt the art of optimisation of inputs to provide a minimum quality output, thereby exercising tremendous control on costs.

Look at the business that a Darshini
does - the service is self-help, no seating and thus the customer is being functional and the food moves real fast. And I also guess that they operate with minimal cutlery because the alacrity with which these outfits in particular and Udupi type of restaurants in general clear the plates just after you have consumed the last spoon of food indicates that they are desparate to take the plates to serve the next customer on line!! There is an interesting discussion on "eating out" that comes in every now and then in Nair's write up - almost as frequently as one has a by-two coffee in Bangalore.

Nair then talks about the movements in Bangalore - also ultimately ending up discussing Kannada Nationalism. What the book does to a person like me is to help me look at connections that are beyond the obvious. Ofcourse being a good academic she does establish most of the connections herself, but spares a few for my kite flying - obviously strong connections cannot be established there. She talks about the Samudaya movement and the personalities that it threw up during and after the emergency. Interestingly while both the leftists and the right wing activists were at the receiving end of the emergency atrocities, it was the left that effectively responded. Samudaya and its offshoots brought in a whole new theatre to Karnataka and did throw up extremely talented theatre personalities. Most of these personalities were rooted in culture and used culture as a medium of protest and education. In a way it could have been the first seeds of Kannada Nationalism that we were to see later, but it was not so.

It could have been because while the left constituency represented possibly multi-cultural "exploited" factory workers the language it used for communication was Kannada thereby opening up the possibility of creating a lanugage based identity. However Nair observes that it was not to be. She says "However, this vibrant and inclusive movement, with its critical style of theatre activity in Kannada faded into relative insignificance by the early 1980s, when language ceased to be the medium through which claims to a more democratic polity could be made." She then goes on to say that the Kannadiga identity crystallised around the Gokak agitation in 1982. The only like that Nair fails to identify is that the personalities that were active in theatre and literature were also active in the Gokak movement. Gokak movement in a way brought people with very diverse ideologies together on the issue of language in educaion. However, the writers and theatre personalities stopped at the footsteps of Gokak movement, while the Kannada nationalists then led by Chidananda Murthy through the Kannada Shakti Kendra took it to the next level, which went much beyond just demanding the primacy for the language but creating a space for the speakers of the language demand economic and other rights. The Mahishi committee that recommended reservation for Kannadigas in joby cementing the position even harder.


While there was clamour for Kannada and the visibility for Kannadigas in the city, firstly led by Kannada Shakti Kendra and later by Kannada Rakshana Vedike - there were other attempts that were being made to see that the City could be managed better. This somewhat contradictory aspect is evident in the constitution of the Bangalore Agenda Task Force by the then Chief Minister Krishna. The BATF in a sense was truly representative of the cosmopolitan nature of Bangalore.
Several members of the Task Force were not Kannadigas in the true sense, but they were Bangaloreans alright. The task force showed that like all large capital cities Bangalore was also moving away from localised considerations towards being a City of the country. Similar is the case with Mumbai and to an extent we find Hyderabad also moving in that direction. The constitution of BATF was moving towards identifying the citizens of the city as Stakeholders and thus was weaving a larger web of inclusion. However this agenda was somewhat disbanded when the Krishna government fell. The government that took over had to project a non-metro sort of an image and therefore the programmes could not necessarily be Bangalore Centric. We see that as we move our focus away from Bangalore, we appear to be nearer to the language. Thus the divide within the state is not only Bangalore versus the other parts of the state, but also Kannadigas versus others. However, the Kannadiga versus others fades into oblivion when we move out of Bangalore. Therefore as time goes by Bangalore will be witness to more and more assertion of the Kannada Nationalism. This would get sharper as the economic opportunities increase leading to a polarisation. I had argued elsewhere that when Kannadigas get the opportunities of the new economic boom, they would be seen as a part of a larger crowd without a clear linguistic identity, while the people who would be left out by the way side will largely be locals and thus language would turn out to be a stronger rallying point.

Nair then also talks about the use of public space. Bangalore also has had a menacing growth of temples. I remember as a kid that Netkallappa Circle, the circle near Bunworld in Malleswaram and Sajjan Rao Circle were actually mini playgrounds or parks.
A temple has also cropped up in Lakshmana Rao park [near Nanda Theatre], though the encroachment is much smaller to the overall size of the park. And of course the famous temple that has cropped up in Residency Road. However over a period of time several places are now occupied by temples. What starts as smaller places of worship seem to have really grown beyond expectations creating a pressure on other civic amenities. While other forms of usurping of public space could be dealt with if there is a will, it is difficult to deal with issues that touch on faith. She illustrates the instance of how the removal of Highway Anjaneya at Babasanpalya, Ring Road was soon followed by a reinstallation as the number of accidents increased soon after the removal of the idol.

As time goes by and public spaces are being encroached not only by faith, but by the commercial needs of the city, the need to maintain an environmental and ecological balance and the provision of public services is being pushed on to the private domain. Several of Bangalore's tanks have disappeared giving way to concrete structures. Overall water availability is a problem and finding space for a deep clean breath of fresh air amidst concrete structures is also turning out to be a problem. However, the response of the State is oriented more towards forcing private investments where ideally there should have been public investments, and prevention of encroachments. The private investments pan out in the nature of having Sumps with power guzzling motors, captive borewells, restricting the building space in a plot - and asking private properties to have green spaces and in possibly insisting on rainwater harvest systems. Nothing wrong with doing this as a general policy but aren't these technically private investments for the collective folly of successive governments. It would have been perfectly justified if these were done in addition to the prevention of legal and illegal encroachments on green spaces and water bodies. An other unrelated area where private investments are forced is in having invertors for almost every house, because we never know when the power goes off. I have been in Ahmedabad for years and have never felt the need to have a general back up system because the power failure there has only been at an average of once a year!!


Nair then talks about the overall architecture and aesthetics within the city. The entire discussion on what creates an identity for the city is somewhat interesting. However, it could be a problem when there is no thematic continuity. [What is a building like Vishveshvaraya Towers doing in Ambedkar Veedhi? How integrated is the red Atthara Kutcheri with Vidhana Soudha? Or for that matter does the GPO represent an architectural continuity at least with Vidhana Soudha??] Unlike most of the other cities, Bangalore does not have a history of great buildings from the past. The Bangalore Palace has always been in the periphery and too enclosed to make it an icon for Bangalore. Thus, the most visible icons of architecture that pictorially define the city are all modern constructions. This may be just as well.

We are not talking about Jaipur where the area around hawa mahal continues to be
maintained with some elements of heritage. I also remember that Quebec City also had restrictions on how its heritage could be retained. Two things in Quebec were striking. You could go on a horse drawn carriage [an eqivalent of a Victoria of Mumbai] by paying through credit card.. this is tradition meeting modernity!! The other thing striking [it was striking because it was not!] was the size of the golden arches of McDonalds on the main street. No, these were not huge, and they did not even have a red background - the signage was like any other shop on the street, restricted only to the top of the entrance. Bangalore could have maintained some of its older streets as heritage zones. The ones that come to my mind immediately are the older portion of Mahatma Gandhi Road, Commercial Street and even Avenue Road which should really be converted into a walk only zone.

The next part of the book shifts to the somewhat controversial topic of Kannada Nationalism - with linguistic identity playing a main role. She quotes DR Nagaraj who identified two streams of Kannada Nationalism - one represented by Alur Venkata Rao which was termed as spiritual nationalism which advocated for an inclusive approach while giving a predominant status for Kannada. The other stream is what is termed as the fear-centred nationalism represented by Chidanandamurthy and Shakti Kendra. We have seen that the fabric of Bangalore is woven with people from different linguistic identities, for a long time. This included a number of non-Kannadiga employees in the big four public sector units. Indeed Nair identifies that the in-migration to Bangalore has been happening largely from the old presidency areas rather than from other parts of rural Karnataka. The fact the Bangalore is a capital of Karnataka makes it sensitive when it comes to language. This ultimately turns out to be a question of occupying the spaces and gaining them from other occupants.


Over a period of time, we have found that issues that do not directly affect the language also are being articulated in linguistic terms. The Gokak agitation was one which received wide spread support both from activists and intelligentsia. But that really provided a platform for the creation of a more militant language identity. This later manifested itself in the Church and extended itself to issues on Cauvery water [which had much more to do with a geographical water dispute, but got itself into language based dispute], telecast of Urdu in Doordarshan. There is also an ongoing issue on the unveiling of the Tiruvalluvar statue in Bangalore with certain give and take with Tamilnadu, and surprisingly this was made to be one of the demands during the Rajkumar kidnap controversy by none other than the forest Brigand Veerappan. While the kidnapping of Rajkumar did not lead to a major riot, the feelings it evoked were no less than that of a time of riot and increased the cleavage between Kannada and other languages, particularly Tamil.

The increasing polarisation between the secular opportunities being provided by the new
age economic enterprises, including IT continues on an inclusive basis [including a fair number of Kannadigas], while those who get left behind seem to be exclusively Kannadigas, making it easier to use a visible symbol of Language in agitating against what could essentially be a denial of economic activity and employment. Of course, this is a complex issue and Nair deals with it with poise trying to analyse the counterpoints with a scholarly flair. I myself have written about this in a recent write up in Kannada on a discussion in a literary journal Deshakala.

There is a very nice educative chapter on the gender aspects with some interesting discussion on what she calls as "kineticization" and the entire movement pertaining to the protests of the Ms. World contest that was held in Bangalore years ago. Somehow, this is an area where I would not venture into a great discussion as I feel ill equipped to get into a debate on this.

Nair concludes this wonderful treatise with a critique of the role of BATF and the public-private initiatives. For an old time Bangalorean this was a wonderful experience to be with the book, reflect on how the city has changed, and also reflect upon some very noticeable changes that do miss your eye when one is not reflective. While she has talked about spaces and town planning she somehow misses the point that Bangalore has the largest number of ill conceived flyovers. The Double Road- Residency Road Flyover, the one built opposite National High School amidst strong protests from local communities, the Ananda Rao Circle Flyover and the Underpass near Sangam Theatre. And of course the folly seems to extend to Malleswaram, thereby having an equitable distribution of ill conceived roads all across the city. Possibly she completed the book before some of these actually saw the light of the day!

Having returned to live in Bangalore after a long absence, amidst all this chaos I find that I still can have a decent morning walk in Lalbagh, a cheap breakfast in Upahara Darshini, afford a trip to Vidyarthi Bhavan and reach my workplace without sweating out too much.. a welcome relief from a city that sees 40+ temperatures and no rains. Bangalore is still beautiful and I hope we would be able to save it. After this treatise, can we have a little bit of declogging of Bannerghatta Road please??

18 comments:

Sanjaya said...

It should be noted that Bangalore has not been a seat of political power till it became the capital of the state. This has had impact an impact on both the form and functional aspect of the city.

As you mention, Bangalore clearly lacks an architectural heritage and seems to have grown hap hazardly from the very begining. It neither has the efficieny of a New York or the beauty of a Paris, London or even a Buenos Aires.

Yet, it makes up for all these deficiencies by its charm; the charm of an old city that seems to be perpetually youthful - carefree, chaotic and very welcoming.

..
Seshadri

Dusty said...

Hi. Came across your blog quite by accident. Nice blog. I must pick up this book. Yes, I am one of the immigrants, living in the Cantoment area, but after six years, perhaps Bangalore or Bengaluru has become home. Happy New Year.

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