Sunday, June 28, 2009

Bangalore: The transformation from a sleepy town to booming metropolis

The sleepy little town that Bangalore was when I landed there in 1951 to join college has grown into a huge metropolis of 6.5 million people. It is now the third most populous city in the country. The transformation was slow to start with but gained rapid momentum with the IT explosion in the early nineties. The place that used to be called ‘Pensioners Paradise’ became ‘Silicon Valley of India’.

In October 2006 the Karnataka State Government decided to change the city’s name from Bangalore to Bengaluru. There is a tradition behind this. An 11th century Hoysala king, according to legend, was lost during a hunting expedition. Wandering hungry and tired, he came across an old woman who gave him boiled beans to eat. The king called the area ‘benda-kal-ooru’ which, in the local language Kannada means ‘place of boiled beans’. This tag became mutated to ‘Bengaluru’. Bangalore is its Anglicized version.

Bangalore was once, long ago, called ‘Auspicious City’. Then, ‘Land of Heroes’. Labels for the place in the modern times include ‘Garden City’, ‘Stone City’ because of the light gray granite available abundantly in the area, ‘City of Pubs’, ‘Floriculture Capital of India’, ‘Fashion Capital of India’ and ‘Fruit Market of the South’.

Different dynasties including Western Gangas, Cholas, Hoysala and Vijayanagara have ruled over the area, but the township was founded by Kempe Gowda I, who raised a mud fort there in 1537 A.D. The Bijapur army defeated Kempe Gowda III in 1638 and captured Bangalore. It was then bestowed on Shahji Bhonsle. But Bhonsle’s son Venkaji was vanquished by the Mughal general Kasim Khan in 1687. The Mughals sold the city to Chikkadevaraja Wodeyar of Mysore. In 1759 the then king of Mysore gifted it to his commander Hyder Ali. The British defeated Hyder’s son Tippu Sultan in 1799 at Sreerangapatana and restored Bangalore to the Mysore kingdom.

In 1809 the British moved their troops from Sreerangapatna to a large cantonment they built at Halsur (Ulsoor) on the North East of the old Bangalore town. This resulted in Bangalore growing as two distinctive segments – the old ‘City’ and the Cantonment.

The City was under Mysore rule. The Cantonment was part of the Madras Presidency and a major seat of the Raj in the South. It became a world of sahibs, soldiers and Anglo-Indians, of butlers, ayahs, malis and a retinue of servants, of horses, racing and clubs, of bungalows and gardens, of football, cricket, hockey, boxing and golf.

This scenario had not changed too much when I reached Bangalore Cantonment Station one June morning fifty-eight years back. The first thing that hit me was the cold. The elevation of Bangalore, which is located in the south-eastern part of Karnataka (formerly Mysore) on the Deccan Plateau (12.97° N 77.56° E), is a little over 3000 feet (980m) above sea level. Though warmer now than it was half a century back, the climate is still reasonably comfortable.

The place did not have many taxis or buses those days. I took a jutka (horse drawn carriage) to St. Joseph’s College Hostel on Lal Baugh Road; it was a semi-circular granite building that was a landmark. Along the way we did pass a few cars but mostly it was horse carts and hordes of bicycles. Bangalore then had a large two wheeler (no scooters) population. Rent-a-bicycle shops were quite popular.

Like me, many youngsters from different parts of India and abroad flocked to the cool, quiet and green city for studies. Even those days the place had good schools, colleges, and major research institutions. This base in educational facilities in the early days and its subsequent growth certainly contributed to Bangalore’s transition from a quaint little town to a vibrant knowledge and hi-tech capital.

With Independence the City and Cantonment were brought under one administration. The process of integration was slow but sure and Bangalore turned into a truly cosmopolitan metropolis. Today on the streets one can hear not only English, Kannada and other South Indian languages, but also Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali and even, occasionally, French and Japanese.

One of the first visible impacts of Independence was the exodus of a friendly, colorful, and lively people who were part and parcel of life in Bangalore - the Anglo Indians. Usually they were thought of as engine drivers, secretaries and nurses. But the community had made commendable contributions to sports, defense services, music, and to the character of Bangalore itself.

The city’s communal harmony was a factor that helped its business boom. Two eminent men with great foresight – M. Visvesvarayya and Mirza Muhammad Ismail - paved the way for the progress that was to come.

Rail link to Madras was established and telegraph was introduced in the second half of 19th century. Early 20th century saw Bangalore becoming perhaps the first city in India to be electrified. It had major industries even before Independence. The most important one was Hindustan Aircraft (now Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) set up in 1940. There were several Americans attached to this establishment during WW II. They introduced softball game and Bangalore used to have a Softball League. Another American game, basketball, too was popular.

After Independence several Public Sector Undertakings and defense establishments came up. Bangalore was soon recognized internationally as an industry-friendly city and attracted several Indian and foreign investors. To man the new ventures, many bright young scientists, technologists and management experts from all over India moved in. It was a phenomenal growth. Today, according to one estimate, there are over 10,000 industrial units in and around the city.

All through the process of expansion, the city breathed through its two beautiful parks - Cubbon Park and Lal Baugh - and the Place Grounds. But the mini-garden circles at road junctions have mostly disappeared. The lakes in and around Bangalore – the major ones being Ulsoor, Sankey and Yedyur - too help. Then there are the open spaces of the Parade Grounds, and the city’s playing fields and stadiums which have produced many eminent sports persons of All-India and international fame.

During the first part of my college days, India Coffee House (now Indian Coffee House) on the MG Road was the place we used to frequent. It had a laid back atmosphere and excellent coffee and snacks at reasonable prices. One could sit there and talk for hours. When Parade CafĂ© opened on St. Marks Road around 1953, most of the college crowd shifted there. Occasionally we visited one of the billiards parlors, Old Bull & Bush on Brigade Road. That was where the star of Bangalore’s boxing days, Gunboat Jack used to hang around. This Afro American was on the skid row by early 1950s. Later the US Government shipped him back home.

Today pubs with saucy names have taken-over. The top bracket West End and modest Victoria were the only hotels to speak of half a century back; Woodlands and others opened later. Another one, Central Hotel near the Cubbon Park end of MG Road closed down by 1960. Bangalore is now jammed with luxury hotels but shortage of rooms is felt often.

The symbiosis of Bangalore nurtured diverse cultural activities and art forms. Of late these are showcased in an annual winter event called Bengaluru Habba. The mega show includes Carnatic music, jazz, performing arts, crafts including pottery and weaving and painting. Enough corporations and affluent people are around to extend patronage. A recent study shows that Bangalore is the second ranked city in India for millionaire homes – over a hundred thousand of them! Many of the rich are young.

Where have all the cute little bungalows and gardens gone? Several of them were demolished to accommodate towering glass fronted office buildings, lines of multi-storied apartment complexes, modern Malls, multiplexes and lounge bars. The city is bursting at the seams, spreading out in all directions. The skyline is changing almost daily. During a recent visit to Bangalore I lost my way at night in the Cantonment area which I used to know so well!

The vertical and horizontal expansion of the city brings problems in its wake -traffic congestion, pollution, criminal activity and so on. Civic amenities are severely stretched, be it power, water supply, street cleaning or road repairs. Infrastructure development is struggling to catch up with the fast mounting requirements.

The new International airport thirty kilometers away from the city at Devanahalli, Tippu Sultan’s birth place, is a major contribution to the development of Bangalore. Another critical project is the Metro Rail. It got off to a start almost a decade late. The first phase is expected to be completed in 2011.

Sixty years back Bangalore used to sleep by nine o’ clock at night. Today it is known as a city that never sleeps. A silent witness to this transformation is the Bugle Rock, an ancient granite formation that was Kempe Gowda’s watchtower. It is one of the several interesting sights in the area.


Related post: Bangalore: Of a club, a park and a Chief Secretary couple


islandgal246 said...

Very interesting, it is good that you have personally seen and experienced the change. You know you have made India a less formidable country to us westerners. I have never had the urge to visit but blogging has changed all that. I don't know if I will ever realize this however my husband has traveled extensively in Asia and has a collection of Indian objets d'art in our home; including a three dimensional tapestry of the Taj and many of the deities. He also knows many of the stories and has a special room reserved for his art collection.

Anand Antony said...

My main concern is about water supply. In the eighties I stayed in Bangalore for around an year and the water situation was very bad.

Sunita said...

How interesting! I didnt know a fraction of this.

Nebu said...

I studied at Christ College (now university) during 1977-80. Then the city ended at the diary circle where there is a flyover now. The enitre stretch of land from Bangalore diary to Madiwala, in front of the college, including the property where Acropolis apartments and Forum Mall now stands were vacant space. Had I bought a piece of that land with the college fees, I too would have been a millionire now even in Dollar terms!

Kariyachan said...

Even when I was in Bangalore (1996-2000), the area where the Forum Mall and the Acropolis are situated used to be vacant land, and there used to be a short cut route for the girls from hostels (at sudhagundapalaya) to the JNC.

When I visited Bangalore again in 2007, the changes were too many and Bangalore has become more crowded, polluted and lots of flyovers and the likes.

There is something very special about Bangalore; especially the areas like Kubbon Park, Sadasivanagar, IISC, Malleshwaram etc are still pristine I believe.

I still remember, for the first time when I visited Bangalore, I was unable to get a bus ticket (via Hosur) or train ticket, so had to opt for the KSRTC bus frm Eranakulam till Bangalore and ended up in Majestic, and had to be at the college interview on short notice.

The crowd at Bangalore Majestic was a big shocker for a village boy of 17, who up until that time was not exposed to big city life, and the associated vices and virtues.

Like Mr Nebu, I am also a proud ex Christite.

Abraham Tharakan said...

islandgal246, thank you. India is a fascinating country with so much of diversity.

Your husband's art collection sounds fantastic.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Anand Antony, water supply is one of the matters of concern. But I think they are slowly catching up.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Nebu, thanks for the comment.
You are a millionaire anyway.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Kariyachan, thank you for the informative comment.

I can well imagine the village boy seeing Majestic area for the first time.

During my student days in Bangalore that was the place we used to go for Hindi movies. I used to be amazed at the number of theaters there.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Sunita, I am glad that you found the post interesting.

Maddy said...

did you have koshy's then?

Jacob Matthan said...

I was talking to a person who lived in the early 2000s in Bangalore. He said that it was much worse today then it was 8 years ago. My last visit was in 2000. I found it then as an unbearable city. I am dreading my visit there later this year, but unfortunately it cannot be skipped! I still remember Bangalore from my 1947-1954 era and when I lived there in the 1975-1984 era, I found it already becoming an unlivable city as the concrete jungle was mushrooming.

Jacob Matthan said...

Do you remember when Parade Cafe opened P. O. Koshy had all his waiters wearing white gloves and the floor was washed almost every hour! I had the honour of attending the opening as P. O. Koshy was my mother's cousin! When I left, one of the Koshy boys bought almost our entire Finnish glass and ceramic crockery and cutlery sets.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Maddy, PO Koshy opened Koshy's on Brigade Road an year or two after Parade Cafe.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Jacob, things are not too bad in Bangalore yet. But you won't find the lovely little town of your childhood any more.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Jacob, thanks for the comment. It recalled to mind chatting with Omi at Parade Cafe and playing tennis with Mathews on the St. Joseph's courts.