Whose City Is It?

This is the essay I wrote for my book Bengaluru/Bangalore – In First Person Singular. The book was published in Feb 2012. It’s available on many brick ‘n mortar online stores.

Mahesh Bhat
12 min readOct 17, 2014


I visited Bangalore for the first time in 1974 with my mother. We traveled overnight in a ‘luxury bus’ from Mangalore. My uncle picked us up from Ananda Rao Circle and drove us to his home on Hall Road, Richards Town, in the heart of the Cantonment. A few days later we made a trip to the Pété or the Old City to visit my mother’s friends. When we returned, my cousin who was a teenager then, asked if Avenue Road (Arterial road of the Pété) was like she imagined it to be — a treelined boulevard. When my mother told her that it was narrow andcrowded, she was disappointed. My cousin was born and brought up in Bangalore but in the Cantonment. And like the people of the Pété, she had no contact with the ‘other’ side. For the people of the Cantt., Bangalore then was a small area of about 25 sq km. That was their cosmos. But Bangalore has always been a different city for different people, from its founder Kempegowda to the Britishers, from South Bangaloreans to residents of the Cantt. and now the new settlers. And as it happened with my cousin, the city assumes its own character in peoples’ imagination.

Thirty-seven years after my first visit to Bangalore, I found myself at the highest point in the city, the helipad of the World Trade Centre in Yeshawantapura. I stood at 128 m above the city. I could see the sprawl. Aided by the fact that the initial expansion of Bangalore was in the south, the city had continued to stretch southward all the way to Electronics City. In the east, the sleeping suburb of Whitefield had woken up with an International Tech Park. Like a giant amoeba, the city arched along the new arterial ring roads. ‘Have road, will grow’ seems the motto. Looking northwards, I could see more expansion, galloping towards the new airport. The sun set, the city lights came on, on miles and miles around me, and I could see the new areas of the city so clearly.

Circa 1987: Rana my graphic designer friend, complained that the traffic was becoming so heavy that he had to change the gears of his motor bike, riding to work at Vasanta Nagar from his house in Frazer Town, a distance of about 3 km. He didn’t have to do so few years ago, he grumbled.

In the 80s, Bangalore was a wonderful place to live. It had the potential to be a great city. Ramakrishna Hegde, who was the chief minister of the state from 1983–86 was partly responsible for this. He wholeheartedly supported the arts and invited artists to make Bangalore their home. The city soon had a considerable number of highly creative people; society was tolerant and the environment was right for creativity to thrive. Reminiscing, artist S.G. Vasudev says, “The mid 70s were even better. Bangalore was an open society and absorbed everything and everyone.”

The 70s witnessed a renaissance in Kannada literature, theater and film. “This revival of Kannada became Bangalore’s renaissance,” says culture maven Prakash Belawadi. Pratima Nataka Ranga, the theater movement led by P.Lankesh and with the participation of B.V. Karanth, Girish Karnad and Chandrashekara Kambara produced many actors. Bangalore was in the forefront of the production of parallel cinema as well. The trend continued through the 80s.The cultural scene was vibrant. “It is art and culture that shaped Bangalore,” insists S.G Vasudev.

By the mid 80s, however, another revolution had begun to brew. Narayana Murthy and his crew had quietly slipped into Bangalore and set up shop in Jayanagar. Azim Premji’s Wipro began exploring new technology and a young man named Subroto Bagchi had arrived to work for him. These men brought to Bangalore its biggest changemaker, Information Technology (IT).

Circa 1988: I walked into my friend Jayadeva’s studio. He was designing a brochure. “It’s for a company called Infosys,” he said. “The Managing Director is going abroad to market his company.”

As the IT revolution progressed, people migrated to Bangalore from other parts of India. Money poured into the pockets of a section of the society. From the pursuit of arts and humanities, the core value shifted to wealth creation. This led to crass commercialization, land grabbing, and worse, a gaudy display of this new wealth. An entire city went after a piece of the IT pie. This frenzy was not limited to Bangalore but the true growth of the city diminished. A city grows when people grow, when their minds grow; they become creative and the quality of life becomes better across the society. Sadly, the IT revolution didn’t achieve this. The arts that had such a great start withdrew into a dormant mode. The divide in the city was again apparent. Only this time it wasn’t geographic, it was monetary. On the one side, there was money pouring into Bangalore but events like the Jazz Yatra, Bangalore’s quadrennial Jazz festival couldn’t muster any sponsors after the mid-90s.

Our politicians forgot the arts too. Political and business leaders dreamed aloud of converting Bangalore into a Singapore. They said they would bring wide roads, flyovers, tech parks, air conditioned malls and more to Bangalore. And people applauded. No one seemed to understand that Bangalore needed to be Bangalore and not Singapore or Beijing.

Circa 1992: I was in the United States to attend photography workshops, meet photographers and broaden my horizons, so to say “Where are you from,” I’d be asked. “A city called Bangalore in India” I’d reply. It didn’t ring a bell. No one there had heard of Bangalore then. Mumbai and Delhi, yes…Calcutta…hmm…sounded familiar but Bangalore? Not at all! Six years later, I was back. This time, everyone seemed to know about it. “Bangalore,” they’d say, “that’s where the tech park is coming up.”

By the mid-90s Bangalore was already being touted as one of the fastest growing cities in Asia. But the growth was unplanned and exponential. For city authorities, it has been nothing short of a nightmare. A senior official of the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) once confided (unofficially) that the BWSSB is able to take only 30% of the sewage for treatment. The rest, he said, flows into Cauvery or sinks into the ground contaminating the ground water. Even today the city does not have a comprehensive plan to regenerate its water sources and a good waste management plan.

Circa 1999: I was in the office of S.Vishwanath at the Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO). Vishwanath is a pioneering water conservation expert and one of the fewpeople who has been speaking up on mandatory rainwater harvesting in Bangalore. When I met him, Bangalore was

already getting its water from the Cauvery about 120 km away. “We are sitting on a tinderbox” he rued. “This city will soon run out of water if we go on mindlessly spending this scarce resource.” We had two sources of water, two reservoirs, Hesaraghatta and Tippegondanahalli, both created by building check dams across two rivulets, the Arkavathy and Kumudvathy. Both reservoirs were almost dry.

The exponential growth of Bangalore placed an enormous pressure on the basic infrastructure. Roads were clogged. Public transportation was inadequate. Yet, malls and residential apartments mushroomed. People bought cars and motorbikes as if buying peanuts. The pressure was on authorities to widen roads leading to the IT corridors so that traffic would move smoothly. The rest of the city was neglected. The flip side was that neighborhoods and communities were forgotten. There was very little emphasis on the development of human capital. This uni-dimensional growth had other consequences. Many began to feel that their voice would not be heard by the powers that run the city. This perception prevented the emergence of a concerned, strong and caring civil society. The city seemed to belong to no one. There was no unified voice speaking for the city. It seemed as though the many divides in its history had finally become Bangalore’s undoing. Narendar Pani describes it in his essay ‘Imaginations of Bengaluru’

All through Bengaluru’s often tumultuous history, the emerging dominant groups have had little reason to celebrate the past. From the cantonment in the early nineteenth century to the public sector in the middle of the twentieth century to the information technology industry in the beginning of the twentyfirst century, the emerging growth centre have always been located outside the boundaries of what was then the city. As the emerging economic powers put their own stamp on the city, they had no reason to celebrate earlier traditions that they were trying to replace…….This absence of an adequate ongoing dialogue between the pastand the present has an overwhelming impact on the way theinhabitants of Bengaluru, and hence others imagine the city.”

Consequently, even before the 21st century set in, many creative people migrated to Mumbai, Delhi and even outside India. Bangalore began to lose its appeal and its vibrancy. Over coffee at Koshy’s, I am in conversation with Aliyeh Rizvi. She is the great grandniece of Sir Mirza Ismail who was the Dewan (Chief Minister) of Mysore State between 1926–1940. He is credited with laying the foundation of modern Bangalore. I ask Aliyeh what she thinks has changed and she says that grace and memories have been lost in the unplanned and sudden growth of the city. Many old Bangaloreans from across the city have echoed the same thought. Their memories are of an organically growing environment where culture had a place, and where the natural and the built could coexist. The loss of such an environment has created a sense of disconnect in an already fragmented city. Urban life has begun to lose its sheen. The debate is not about the old versus the new or art against technology. It is about the lack of creativity and the support system in the society for its growth. I am not the first to think and believe that the arts will provide the change that cities need. Across the globe, where commerce and politics have determined the path of a city, arts and creativity are increasingly stepping in. Artists, writers and architects will play a crucial role in shaping cities and urban environments in only a few more decades. Richards Florida, thought leader, author and urban studies theorist asserts that,

Metropolitan regions with high concentrations of technology workers, artists, musicians, lesbians and gay men — “high bohemians”, exhibit a higher level of economic development. Collectively called as the “creative class” they foster an open, dynamic, personal and professional urban environment. This

environment, in turn, attracts more creative people, as well as businesses and capital. Attracting and retaining highquality talent versus a singular focus on projects such as sports stadiums, iconic buildings, and shopping centers, would be a better primary use of a city’s regeneration of resources for longterm prosperity.

Even as chaos thrived and troubled the old Bangalorean, a lady named Arundhati Nag was quietly laying the foundation for another cultural renaissance. It was the year 2003–04. I remember it as a time when people around me were bored. The IT revolution of the previous decade was no longer a novelty. It had brought money to the city but did not spawn innovation. Our professionals were restless. The question “What do we do on the weekend?” hung in the air, reminding me of the classic “Where shall we eat?” in Douglas Adam’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. At this juncture Arundhati Nag set upon building a theatre in the memory of her husband, the actor Shankar Nag. It was evidently a labour of intense love and passion. Almost single-handedly she managed to build a world-class theatre in south Bangalore’s JP Nagar. Arundhati’s Ranga Shankara promised the city a play every evening. Performers could afford its costs and audiences, its tickets. Across the city, several parallel movements began. Suresh Jayaram’s 1 Shanti Road became an artist’s hub. Prakash Belawadi established the Centre for Film and Drama. Archana Prasad’s Jaaga, Creative Common Ground broke new ground as a place for new media and arts. Arundhati and Jagdish Raja built their theatre, Jagriti in Whitefield. Vivek Shanbhag and his friends took up the publication of a Kannada literary journal, Desha Kala. Painters and sculptors prevailed upon the government and brought the National Gallery of Modern Art to Bangalore, and housed it in the beautiful old building, the Manikyavelu Mansion. Almost as though they were emerging from a stupor, dancers, musicians, photographers, painters, sculptors and writers began to make their presence felt. For them to innovate and create, the city needs more, much more, by way of infrastructure. Performance spaces, and spaces to exhibit art are desperately required.

In today’s post-industrial society, however, it is highly qualified and creative people who are the most crucial resource for economic development. To attract and retain such people, cities must offer high quality of life. This includes comfortable, fast and accessible public transportation; wide tree-lined sidewalks; protected bicycle lanes; abundant parks, sports facilities and libraries; and a rich cultural life.” So thought Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota. He was one of two mayors who, using unorthodox methods and in less than 10 years turned one of the world’s most dangerous, violent and corrupt capitals into a peaceful model city populated by caring citizens.

As Jayachandran Palazhi, founder and artistic director of the Attakalari Centre for Movement Arts says, “Culture is as essential as water or air. The need for cultural spaces should sink into our consciousness. They are as important as schools and hospitals.” Centres of higher learning too have the potential to make major contributions to the development of human capital of a city as well. Though Bangalore has several, these centres have remained as self contained islands, rarely interacting with the society at large. The National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Indian Institute of Management (IIM) and International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) have made small inroads in dialogue with the city but does the city encourage this exchange? As Vijaya Raghavan, Director, NCBS puts it, “the city needs a common watering hole”.

A new era in Bangalore’s history may be in the making as arts and the sciences, IT and the other, the Pété and the Cantt., the old and the new come forward to meet at long last. Great progress can be possible. The impediments in the way of a developed Bangalore are three-fold: physical, social and cultural. The water table of the city is dwindling at great pace. Today water is piped from the Cauvery for almost 140 km into the city at a great cost. Once the fourth phase of the Cauvery water supply is completed, it cannot draw any more water from the river. In the last 25 years, the population of the city has increased by 250%. The total area covered by the city has quadrupled. As I write this, newspapers report on areas in the city that have not had water supply for two months. Where will we get our water from? There are no answers. The second problem of garbage and sewage. Without waste management solutions, garbage is choking the city, its lowlands and waterways. The third area of concern is the rise of cultural jingoism that has reduced the openness and tolerance in the society. The supporters of this jingoism are everywhere, in politics, business and civic authority. Jane Jacobs called them squelchers – people who divert and derail human creative energy, posing roadblocks, acting as gatekeepers and saying ‘No’ to new ideas, regardless of the merit. It will be interesting to see if through these obstacles we can still create a new urban memory, one that connects the natural, the built and the cultural environments. A memory that can be a guide to the future. An hopeful note, all is not lost yet. The arrival of people from across the country and even the world is a positive development. Historically too, it was this ability of Bangalore to invite everyone and allow them to feel at home, that enabled creativity. In fact, one of the city’s founding fathers, Sir Mirza Ismail was of Persian descent. Some of the best-known Kannada writers did not speak Kannada at home. The Alliance Francaise and Goethe Institute have always supported the arts and culture. Today’s youth carry enormous goodwill towards this city, far from the discontent of the previous generation. The IT revolution did open Bangalore’s doors to the entire world, bringing varied exposures and experiences. There can be a resurgence of creativity. But that can happen only when the various divides within the city are bridged. Bangalore can become a melting pot of cultures. And only then will the citizens find their space within the city and a unified voice rise in support of it. And only then can we hope for an open culture to be created once more. But if we don’t act now, the city might just go South.

St.Mark’s Road, Bangalore.

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Originally published at writingsonphotography.wordpress.com on June 18, 2013.



Mahesh Bhat

I am a photographer, independent publisher & photographic educator based in Bangalore. www.maheshbhat.com