The ‘other’ Bangalore

Paul Fernandes’ cartoons capture the delightful transitional era of post-Independence Bangalore Cantonment, revelling in the afterglow of the British Empire for decades.

Published : Jul 24, 2013 12:30 IST

FOR a significant part of its history, Bangalore was a divided city. The cultural divisions between the British-established Cantonment and the old town of Bangalore (commonly known as “City”) were deep, and remnants of that rift linger on in contemporary Bangalore. Younger residents of the city and newer migrants —who pour in daily from all over the country —find it strange when they hear that current-day Bangalore was the uneasy conjunction of two separate conurbations that officially merged only in 1949. For older residents though, the divide between the two parts of the city was the most visible way they conceptualised Bangalore.

That is perhaps one of the reasons why Paul Fernandes’ cartoons of the daily life of Bangalore Cantonment in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are such a hit. Nostalgia and wonder are the two emotions that dominate visitors’ minds when they view the quaint collection of artwork harking back to an idyllic Bangalore in Fernandes’ small gallery, aPaulogy. Through his work, he has archived certain events in the time and space of Bangalore Cantonment, thereby providing a rich and useful way of understanding urban history.

In his book The Country and the City , the Marxist cultural critic Raymond Williams argues that “nostalgia” is a mythical response to the urban experience. In this, he is also referring to the inherent modernity of the concept of nostalgia.

Nostalgia can exist only when there is a linear conception of time, and modernity, with its notion of progress, is deeply intertwined with the concept of nostalgia. Thus, nostalgia works at several levels, and as humans think that the condition of their lives is improving as they head into the future a part of their mind also harks back to a supposedly simpler time when life was more peaceful. And Fernandes’ work satiates that hunger for nostalgia an old Bangalorean would have.

At the same time, his work provokes wonder among teenagers and people in their twenties who marvel at the fun lives that their parents’ and grandparents’ generations led.

Hoary history Historians have established that parts of Bangalore were inhabited since the time of the Western Ganga dynasty (A.D. 350 to A.D. 550) and played a role in the fortunes of the Chola, Hoysala and Vijayanagar empires as the place was situated in a strategic location in the middle of the south Indian peninsula. In spite of this hoary history, the founding date of the city is usually given as A.D. 1537 when Kempe Gowda I built a mud fort which was fortified later by Haider Ali in the 18th century. This fort was the nucleus of what is now commonly known as the “pete” area, a Bangalore that preceded the arrival of the British.

With the defeat of Tipu Sultan in the Fourth Anglo Mysore War (1798-99) in Srirangapatnam, the British army garrisoned itself in the vicinity of the old city area of Bangalore, thus laying the foundation of Bangalore Cantonment in the early 19th century. This was the beginning of a very different Bangalore from the one that existed around the old fort. For all purposes, it was a different city entirely “ the cantonment was the antithesis of the native quarter of the town” (according to Pramod K. Nayar in his work Colonial Voices: The Discourses of Empire ).

Through the 19th century, Cantonment gradually expanded and acquired a distinct cultural and political salience as it was governed directly by the British and was known as the Civil and Military Station of Bangalore. While it remained in the princely territory of Mysore, it was a little enclave of British India, proud of its unique identity. It continued to attract Britons from across India as it was well known even then for its pleasant climate.

According to the work of M. Fazlul Hasan, an early chronicler of Bangalore and author of Bangalore Through the Centuries , Bangalore Cantonment extended for 13.5 square miles (1 mile = 1.6 km) and had a population of 1,00,081 in 1891 as opposed to the old city area, which had a population of 80,285. The two parts of the city were separated by a broad swathe of grassland (Cubbon Park) and had a system of toll gates spread across the divide that needed to be passed if one wanted to go to the “other” Bangalore.

According to Janaki Nair (author of The Promise of the Metropolis: Bangalore’s Twentieth Century ), the demographic profile of the two cities also varied sharply. Cantonment had a large military presence and a cosmopolitan civilian population that came from outside the princely state of Mysore. This included Britons, Anglo-Indians, migrant Tamil labourers and contractors, Urdu-speaking Muslim merchants, Telugu traders, Marathi tailors, north Indian bankers and so on. Kannada was rarely heard in Cantonment. City, on the other hand, had a largely Kannada-speaking population with a few Tamil Brahmin residents. The overwhelming influence of the British also bequeathed a particular libertarian cultural character to Cantonment that the conservative residents of City loathed and longed for at the same time. There were social clubs and cinemas which played the latest English films. There were spacious bungalows, bars where spirits were served, and balls where men and women danced the night away. Hunts, in the tradition of fox hunting, were organised.

A.N. Murthy Rao, a well-known Kannada writer who passed away in 2000, had this to say about Bangalore Cantonment: “The relation between City and Cantonment was strange. It was neither one of friendship nor one of enmity. The English were not very interested in matters relating to the City.... We must admit that they kept their areas clean and beautiful. Broad streets lined with trees, large compounds of the military and civil officers, colourful gardens around each home, English women pushing children in prams: we must admit that in addition to the strange appearance of a foreign environment, Cantonment was also beautiful... [but] Even the most ordinary Englishman had the superior air of the British Empire” (as quoted in Janaki Nair’s book).

Paul Byron Norris, a Briton whose early years were spent in Bangalore, writes about the Cantonment of the 1920s and 1930s in his book Follow My Bangalorey Man : “There was a unique quality of life in the Cantonment which was a subtle mixture of British and Indian ingredients with the former dominant and setting the tone. The amalgam was more complex than this suggests, for the preponderating British influence was never quite that of a contemporary life in England but was lived at one remove, more conservative, more tenacious in its retention of older attitudes which has become somewhat anachronistic in the Mother Country.”

Efforts to bring these two disparate towns under a single urban administration were strongly resisted in the 1930s by leading Indian members of Cantonment. But with the departure of the British in 1947, it was only a matter of time before the two were brought together in an uncomfortable union in 1949. The two coexisted under a common administration, but the gulf remained wide for several decades, with Cantonment continuing to revel in the afterglow of the British Empire.

Gradual changes in the demographic profile affected the character of Cantonment. The Anglo-Indians left in large numbers for countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. The 1990s hastened the bridging of the divide as the spurt in the information technology sector led to a concomitant real estate boom. Bangalore expanded while the divide between Cantonment and City shrank.

Transitional era Fernandes’ cartoons capture this transitional era of Cantonment —when it was no longer under the tutelage of the British and, at the same time, it had not really embraced City. To understand life during this interesting phase in the growth of a city, we need to turn to the account of Peter Colaco, a long-time resident of Cantonment who died in 2011. He compiled many of his writings on Bangalore into a book titled Bangalore: A Century of Tales from City & Cantonment . Many of Fernandes’ caricatures were initially accompaniments to Colaco’s memorable writings on Bangalore.

In one of Colaco’s enjoyable essays, he writes about the cultural gulf between Cantonment and City: “The Bangalore of 1958 was already a complex and cosmopolitan city, with clearly defined ethnic areas. Broadly defined, these were the Cantonment, also called Cantrement, and ‘City’. Within each region there were further sub-zones. But City referred to the orthodox Hindu area, what was once Maharajah’s Bangalore. Cantonment was the hold-out of regimental British Bangalore, English-speaking, meat-eating and (supposedly) delightfully wicked. The cultural divide from Fraser Town to Basavanagudi or Jayanagar was greater than to London or New York.”

Fernandes’ mirthful artwork captures this delightful transitional era of post-Independence Cantonment in a light-hearted manner. He is clearly inspired by the work of the Goan cartoonist Mario Miranda and he does not shy away from acknowledging this. Girish Karnad, the well-known Kannada litterateur who recently viewed Fernandes’ work, said: “While his work shows that his immediate predecessor is Mario Miranda and he has captured Bangalore Cantonment in the same way that Miranda captured Goa, I would trace his style to that of early British caricaturists like Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827).”

When Fernandes decided to display his expanding collection of around 60 watercolours on Bangalore Cantonment in a gallery a few months back, he was sceptical about how it would be received, but the popularity with which his work has been received has surprised even him. With the rapidly changing cityscape of Bangalore, it is clear that Bangaloreans are fascinated by the way Fernandes’ pictures transport them to another era.

One of his popular pieces is the pictorial rendition of the consternation that a 30-foot cut-out of a bikini-clad temptress caused when it was displayed outside the BRV Theatre on Cubbon Road in the 1960s. The theatre is now an Army canteen, and one can only imagine the melee preceding the screening of Tokyo by Night , the film that the salacious poster had advertised.

It is memories like this that make people smile when they step into Paul Fernandes’ “Gallery of Curious Memories”. The talented artist, an old resident of Bangalore Cantonment, is currently compiling his illustrations into a coffee-table book.

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