Myself Mohan 1909

This article first appeared in IHC’s Visual Arts Gallery Journal 2016: “Art in Public Spaces”

Walking past the bustling streets of Bangalore’s old Pete area offers a rare glimpse into the city’s visual past, a treat missing from most parts of the metropolis. The capital of Karnataka is a distinctly deprived of a historical centre in comparison to the rest of India’s state capitals. Bangalore’s ancient Pete and Cantonment dichotomy has left its cultural identity hidden very deep under the surface, elusive to immigrants and new Bangaloreans, who often label it as a city of IT parks and pubs for want of a better lineage. During a trip into the cotton market situated in Chickpete, one of the many parts that make up the Pete, we stumbled upon a pocket of Bangalore’s unseen history. We met a common old man of the city, his weathered wooden staircase, his high vaulted rooms, and his solid stone walls, thickened with stories waiting to be heard.

Myself Mohan 1909, part of the Project 560 initiative by India Foundation of the Arts supported by Citi India, was an experiential story of an edifice, personified. As a way to discover and unfurl one of the numerous shushed, suppressed, and weakened historic edifices in Bengaluru, 15 members of Klatsch Collective created an experience that aimed to bring people back into the now abandoned halls of Mohan, and feel for themselves the value of these forgotten structures. The building stood out for us as the perfect representation of the decaying fabric of the city — extensively used, but forgotten and now consigned to oblivion.

Early visits to the Chickpete market made us feel rather alien, with local shopkeepers wondering why these sprightly city kids wanted to know about a 100-year-old structure well past its prime. Breaking the ice was a herculean task, with the local community being extremely fragmented; some families had stayed in the Chickpete for over four generations and then there were cloth merchants who were new entrants into the area, having moved just a handful of years ago. An intimate, open for all, ground-breaking ceremony helped open up the dialog. A vertical ceiling hung grid of images containing all the human faces housed in Mohan that when put together assembled the façade of the Mohan building, got the gathered crowd very excited to see their connection with the building and find their friends in the grid. This interaction, over chai and samosas, was a big step towards getting the locals excited to participate and help in what was to be a long familial relationship to follow.

As we uncovered small anecdotes one after the other, the edifice started feeling more and more like a familiar face. Like a frayed, wise nostalgic grandpa, Mohan deliberated and elaborated on the transient humans that brought him up; on the plight of his remaining few friends, the other frail and lonesome historic edifices of the city; and then finally on this all-encompassing city that humbled and grounded him. He told us stories of early days when he was called Ahmed, a magnificent family house towering grandly over the surrounding areas. The smell of biryani being cooked for the Sait family and his favourite grandson Ibu playing through the halls. He became pensive as he told us about his transition from a private home to a public property. One fine day a man from Bombay came with a suitcase of 5.09 lac Rupees and 1 Anna, signed the papers and rechristened him to Mohan. Used to the sounds of family voices and the patter of children’s feet, Mohan was suddenly assaulted with the stares of strangers and the sounds of commerce. Lost in a sea of faces, Mohan found a friend in the newly constructed Anand Bhavan Lodge across the street. Over the years he found his new family, faces that he was happy to see every day — Laxmi, the chatty typist at the traffic police station; Miriam, an old Anglo-Indian lady and unlikely confidant. Mohan spent a happy portion of his later years as the extension of the Anand Bhavan Lodge, vicariously living through the travellers that passed through him. It was during this phase that he found his love for stories. He had once loved the stories the sparrows told him when they came and sat on his eaves; until over time they were driven away by the fumes of the overbearing traffic. He loved the stories that his friends would whisper to him, the great watchtower of the Khaleel building, the dome of the Jamia Masjid. Mohan wanted these stories to be heard, stories collected over the years by the buildings of Bangalore, stories that make up the cultural lineage of a city.

The project culminated in a three-day celebration of the centenarian’s life, manifested in the form of numerous mixed-media spatial installations, and a printed newspaper, illustrating the narratives that developed from six months of groundwork and research towards Mohan’s life story. The narrative experience ended with participants asked to pin their favourite buildings on a map of the city. The experience was designed keeping in mind the diverse section of traders that make up the population of Chickpete, as well as art enthusiasts of all ages travelling from other parts of the city. Each piece was made to be touched, moved around or walked through, adding an element of playfulness to a serious narrative. Spatial and tactile media were chosen over written material avoiding the conventional textbook approach to temporal data. Through Myself Mohan 1909, Mohan spoke out, and he spoke in three languages to make sure no-one missed out on his story. Our multi-lingual team also dived in, giving tours in over five languages over the three days, each of which saw about 120–150 visitors.

The project really came alive in the penultimate stage because of the energy of the local shopkeepers and well-wishers. They provided us with invaluable advice on sourcing local materials and the encouragement required to push the project through. One of most memorable recollections is the proud ownership of the project taken up by some of the traders. Many of whom came to visit us everyday during the last week of assembly, became ambassadors of the project, bringing in more and more friends from the Pete area and beyond, and making sure no one missed out on hearing the story of their friend, Mohan.

The Mohan Building was the first step in our goal is to weave together a retelling of oral histories that together form a growing, living archive, narrating the story of Bengaluru’s built history and the city’s nebulous identity. Through a series of engagements with buildings — and the communities that surround them — we will bring to the surface some of the diverse threads that are embodied in this ever-changing metropolis.

Words by Akshaya Narsimhan and Shaunak Mahbubani. Photographs by Shashank Satish.