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A Book Review of Janaki Nair's Bangalore's Twentieth Century - The Promise of the Metropolis
chillibreeze writer — Preeti Sharma
Bangalore’s Twentieth Century – The Promise of the Metropolis’ by Janaki Nair is essential reading for social scientists, planners, urban historians and anyone who is interested in knowing more about Bangalore.
This four hundred and fifty four page thematically presented book discusses in great detail Bangalore’s evolution- spatial, social, religious, economic, the colonial rule and its impact on town planning, architecture, local economy, consumption patterns and habits, post independence public sector impetus and finally its metamorphosis into the IT hub. More importantly and rightly so, the author has urged the reader ‘to think critically and creatively about our present’ and treat the past as ‘neither to be mourned nor celebrated’. Ms Nair has outlined her work in eight chapters, along with an introduction and conclusion.
Where does the city begin? The introduction is a critical analysis on urban social research in India. It discusses works and opinions of several lead social scientists and historians, which have determined the methods and insights for this research on Bangalore from a fresh perspective.
It highlights the slow pace of urban research in India even after Patrick Geddes report on planning in six Indian cities in 1915. The basic reason being ‘that the village and its ruins continue to haunt many recent reflections on, and representations of the city’. Different studies on Indian cities (Calcutta, Chandigarh, Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai) and their interpretations find mention in the chapter, along with highlights of urban historical research on cities like Mexico, Singapore, Brasilia and Los Angeles. The chapter concludes on the note that Bangalore ‘has suffered from the general neglect of urban studies in social science disciplines’, even though select works have been carried out by Noel Gist, Venkatrayappa, R L Singh, Prakasa Rao, VK Tewari and James Manor.
The first chapter entitled ‘Bengaluru/Bangalore: The Presence of the Past’ is an interesting account of Bangalore’s four and a half centuries of existence. ‘The history of Bengaluru/ Bangalore is thus a tale of two cities, a western part or pete that dates back to atleast five centuries and the eastern part that is no more than two centuries old’, referred as Bengaluru and Cantonment respectively.
The region was controlled by the Gangas, Cholas, Hoysalas and became a ‘fortified settlement linked to a network of temples and tanks’ during Kempegowda’s rule. It was also known as ‘Kalyannagara’, since tanks were an essential, characteristic feature of the settlement. The chapter describes the religious diversity of the city with the existence of the temples, dargahs, mosques and churches and events like the Karaga and St Mary’s feast, which are representative of the blend of economy and religion.
Following the twin city concept, the author draws a comparison between the old city and new city. She highlights the differences between the two economies as well as the development approaches. She traces performance of the old city economy as centre of textile and armament production and becoming an important manufacturing and commercial town for the region (1670), followed by a decline in textile manufacturing during the British reign and revival during early twentieth century to supply parachute silk and horse blankets during the war. On the other hand, the economy of the Cantonment was dominated by trades and services (tailors, merchants, builders, bankers, breweries, clubs) catering to the British military. The chapter further discusses the organic space of the old city and the planned development by the British, the impact of the 1898 plague on civic planning and emerging forces of national movement.
Remembered and Imagined Cities is the next chapter which illustrates the post independence development of Bangalore. It traces Bangalore’s industrial history and the dramatic impact on the demography, socio economic and behavioral profiles, consumption trends, spatial form, architectural styles and politics - beginning with the textile mills in the early twentieth century, followed by establishment of public sector units (HAL, ITL, HMT, BEL) in 1940s and 50s, then the defence and research establishments in 70s (NAL, DRDO, LRDE, ISRP, CPRI).
It discusses the use of urban space for varied consumption needs- housing, circulation and recreation. An attempt has been made to understand the evolving of the citizenship through various movements; the early eighties based on castes and language, neighborhood concept based on municipal concerns in early nineties and the emergence of ‘stakeholder’ participation in governance through ownership with initiatives like that of Bangalore Agenda Task Force.
The author rightly highlights the ‘irrelevance of the Singapore to the Bangalore case’ by simply comparing the transport system of that city state (with the mass rapid transit, area traffic control and curbs on private vehicle ownership) with Bangalore. For present Bangalore she says ‘between the technocratic imaginations of planners, leaders of the new economy, and the bureaucrats, on the one hand and the social life of various groups , on the other, lies a very wide and contested range of meanings of urban space. This gulf may not be bridged by a revolution powered only by information technologies’.
Nair follows up by discussing Bangalore’s master planning process, rise of the informal sector, the various interventions by different state governments and judiciary to manage and control the real estate sector.
She excellently presents the change in the urban planning ideology. The discussion focuses on the emergence of dichotomous urban space ultimately leading to formal, informal and illegal fields of power in the city. The author highlights the changes in land use and housing patterns. She discusses the establishment and relocation of slums in Bangalore, some of which are in well serviced areas and have a booming economy and others which are on the urban fringe, a lack of mobility preventing access to opportunities. She talks about urban villages meeting the land requirements of migrant population and the destruction of the green belt and alteration of the skyline by real estate developments like resorts and clubs.
She discusses the need for planners to give ‘a more imaginative meaning to space’ in light of the fact that there are increasing number of ‘unauthorized’ shrines and temples at roadsides and public places. She also points to the fact that at times land acquisition is prevented by constructing a religious temple and later developing it as a commercial site. The author says that ‘it may be necessary to rethink the ritual obeisance to the Master Plan which by its rigidity invites and engenders countless illegalities.’
The role of the judiciary in the rapid real estate development in the city has been clearly brought out. The clandestine and inefficient role of Bangalore Development Authority has been critically analyzed, along with the government’s failure to take care of the needs of the poor and marginilsed. The reality of the close nexus between builders, administrators and politicians and conflicts between various ethnic groups staking claim to public property has also been discussed. The author, like in all other urban studies, mentions the need for reducing the number of legislations to prevent illegalities in real estate. The author is of the view that ‘negotiations contribute to the production of space in the city and any understanding in the changes of urban morphology goes well beyond, or below, the two dimensionality of the map’.
A brief on the Architecture and Public Life is not so much on design, but more on the concepts and discussions on the post colonial constructions of Bangalore. Amongst other buildings, the design and related controversies in making of the Vidhan Soudha and now its twin and the use of Cubbon Park and Ambedekar Veedhi and its environs as public space, dominate the discussion. It further discusses the gradual restriction on commoners’ rights for using public parks in order to ‘save and protect’. The chapter also features the controversial role of the Bangalore Urban Arts Commission in preserving the aesthetics. For a list of things to do in Bangalore and around, read an expat mom's recommendations.
The last chapters are dedicated to language, ethnicity and women’s’ issues. Discussions on language politics mentions the Gokak movement, Cauvery agitation, anti Urdu telecast agitation and actors Raj Kumar’s kidnapping as major milestones. The Tamil – Kannada incompatibility has been dealt with in great deal, as also the dominant role of the ‘local language speaker’ in the public sector economy. Nair highlights the emergence of English as the language of great economic value. The symbolic space in the city, past social and linguistic legacies, politics of caste and religion and citizens initiatives in saving Cubbon Park are described in detail.
The author states that the ‘city determines, but is not determined by the spatial practice of women’. Recounting the sacrifice of Kempegowda’s daughter in-law in the establishment of the city, Nair goes on to discuss the absence of women in spatial representations, their marginalization in politics, emergence of the middle class women in civic action, domestic violence, dowry murders, feminist activism and increased visibility and mobility of women in public life
The author concludes on the note of caution towards grandiose planning initiatives, ignoring the needs of the poor and feels encouragingly about the private-public partnerships in working towards improving infrastructure and services. In Nair’s words ‘The metropolis, thus, enjoys only a partial existence, and remains a promise, refracted through many remembered cities and villages, and real and imagined political identities’.
The book, all in black and white-text, photographs and maps, is one of the most authoritative urban- social studies on Bangalore in recent times. Its makes interesting reading since the author has taken care to cite characters and events capturing daily lifestyle aspects from different times. The book is all about people and space and their interdependence. Though nothing different has been brought out from the planning perspective, it is a well-researched work on Bangalore. I would highly recommend it to researchers, planners, and historians and just as a good read for those who would like to learn more about Bangalore.
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