BANGALORE: Is heritage just a structure or is it also a way of life? Is Russel Market just a crumbling building or is it a repository of what Bangalore once stood for? Abundance in simplicity. Memories of buying staples and occasional indulgences for the entire family from people who knew you and also your family tree. Of bringing home local produce not in plastic bags but cane baskets. Can these memories be mortgaged and phased out? Will Russel Market too in the near future be severed from the cityscape?
A cornucopia of memories
Russel Market was once every Bangalorean’s favourite weekend destination. Theatre personality Kirtana Kumar recalls wistfully, “I lived on Nandidurga Road as a child and every Sunday, my mother would drag all of us to Russel Market where we would hire a lady to carry home the day’s picks in a big basket. There was Bhaskar’s Stall for fish and a pet shop we once got two parrots from. It had such a courteous vibe especially because of its Muslim shopkeepers.”
Artist Seema Sathyu reminisces, “I prefer local city markets any day to malls but they will go too. In the 80s, we went to Russel Market and City Market for everything. That good old Bangalore is dying. You can only see the city’s old charm in the green cover in the cantonment areas and the Anglo-Indian architecture that still survives in certain pockets. We have now developed such bad aesthetics."
She abhors the profusion of glass and steel structures and says, "We are a city of malls now. In Turkey, Egypt, China and other ancient civilisations, you can still walk down city streets enjoying arts, crafts and local food stalls but we have nothing to show for where we have come from. Bangalore was once a setting for many simultaneous eras and cultures. In the hurry to make everything uniformly globalised, we have lost that. And we will lose Russel Market too. Just like we lost so many other heritage structures.”
Capitalism - the root cause
Photographer Vivek Mathew has been photographing Russel Market for many years and he finds subtle changes every time he visits the thrumming corridors packed with colour. Says he, “This is a place with great character. It is the only place in the city that is located near a mosque, a church and a temple. It overflows with cheer no matter what festival it is. It has great food, great snapshots of everyday life and a presence that must be preserved. Go modern but don’t destroy your past.”
Kirtana too rues the current disregard for local idioms and says, “This new sweeping capitalism we see around us cares not a tad for memory or experience. Because when all you want is to sell something, you do not have the time to feel. Those who dismiss us old nostalgists for wanting to hold on to the past do not realise that by destroying the city’s character, the quality life is suffering. And you can see that in the rage and anger on people’s faces. What defined Bangalore once was the relationship we had with each other, with spaces within the city, with animals. Today it is hard for Bangaloreans to relate to each other, so who cares about a relationship with spaces?”
Loss of identity
In Europe, Kirtana says, citizens and policy makers “furiously protect” their heritage. She recalls, “Once, I was walking right in the heart of a European city next to a river and realised just how much we (in India) have alienated ourselves from the simple things that give us joy. Does walking in a mall bring lasting joy to anyone? A city in the end is just about how good it makes you feel. Why does walking on the streets of London make you feel good? It is not because of the malls but because of the local markets and the glorious old buildings that are part of the continuum that time is. The super-developed countries we aspire to be like also assiduously protect heritage because they know it contributes to their quality of life.”
The problem with policy management today, she says, is that there is a determined attempt to erase anything that does not fit into colloquial jingoism, starting with the attempts to change the city’s name and renaming streets.
She says, “It is like denying your past and disowning the Bangalore that was multidimensional, multi-lingual and liberal. The cantonment was what gave the city its pizzazz. We want to ape the West for its shining buildings but not its liberalism. We want to be like Shanghai for its towers but not its cultural history. It has finally come down to the citizens and it pained me that just about 1,000 out of the eight million Bangaloreans cared to protest against the proposed demolition of the Balabrooie Guest House. "
She like many Bangaloreans believes that the city is in a state of flux today. And she warns, "If we do nothing, there will nothing left to protect. What will we hold on to then? The malls?”