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A Reflection on Bangalore’s Changing Urban Culture

(Previously published in the Deccan Herald, Spectrum in July 1999)


"The chief function of the city is to convert power into form, energy into culture,  dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social  creativity."


Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), The City in History, (1961)



With its rapid rise to economic importance in recent years, Bangalore has often been criticized as being a city that has lost its sense of "place", as lacking an identity of its own and as  'a city in search of a soul'.  Many of its older residents, in their characteristically self-effacing manner, will admit that while these are possibly exaggerated descriptions, there might just be an element of truth to the allegations.


Over the last two decades, the famously over documented surge in the flow of business, money, and people into the city has led to a situation where Bangalore’s liberal, mild and self-deprecating culture has come under siege, been declared unfashionable and has been swiftly sidelined and replaced by a new aggressiveness and incivility.  The city’s culture has today, sadly, transformed into a somewhat rootlessly indifferent – ‘I’m not really from here’ - kind. While this may be an inevitable consequence of the city's growth, its headlong rush into sudden wealth and its embracing of a peculiarly superficial brand of Indian cosmopolitanism and modernity, the circumstances which have led up to this condition are interesting.


As a city shy and self consciously awkward about its provincial roots (small town, founded by Kempegowda, a local chieftain, with a place name that derives from a very humble, though touching folk tale), Bangalore has evolved into perhaps India's first post-colonial metropolis of national, maybe global, importance. What is different in Bangalore’s case is that the British didn't build or plan this city in the same sense that they built New Delhi or Bombay or Calcutta or Madras.  Those were cities of the 'Empire' and had big roles destined for them in the history of British India. Bangalore was merely a quiet troop station on the Deccan and a place to escape to from the heat of the plains.  While the British left an unmistakable legacy of their presence in the city - from Queen Victoria's statue to the exclusive Bangalore club – they built no particularly imposing monuments to Empire here - no Victoria Terminus with its impressive gothic exteriors - no mammoth memorials to Victoria the monarch - no Lutyen’s boulevards to propagate a sense of power and to 'awe' natives into submission or inferiority - no Presidency colleges to prepare men and women for the service of 'empire'. While this country's pre-eminent ‘metros', even today, draw much of their 20th century 'urban' flavor from the architecture of 'empire' - modern Bangalore does not.  The face that the city presents today - chaotic, noisy, congested and ill-planned and a consequence of its own omissions and failures in managing growth –  is also, let’s admit it, the face of post independence India.


Those familiar with the city’s recent past, also know that Bangalore was never always in the predicament it finds itself in today.  Even a couple of decades ago this was unarguably among the country’s more attractive cities - relatively clean, tree lined and, in the Indian context at least, well 'maintained'.  It even boasted a history of indigenous town planning activity that went right back to the time of the city’s founder, and later from Haidar Ali.  Equally importantly, it was a city with a liberal, educated, gentle outlook and a certain cosmopolitanism, qualities that, as it turned out, were the ideal seed material (along with its excellent weather) for the expansion that occurred in the 1980s. It was also exactly these qualities that made it vulnerable to devastation by that growth;  as is often the case, Bangalore's biggest attractions have proved its worst undoing.


While the problem of urban decay may be explained away as being a consequence of runaway growth and a complete failure of urban planning and city administration – the question that many Bangaloreans, in their moments of introspection, undoubtedly ask themselves is – why has such a cultural rout occurred in this city ?  Why has the city’s 'style' swung from one of quiet understatement to a new posturing bravado and aggression that smacks of deep insecurity ?  Some possible answers may exist all around us. 


As contemporary urban Indians, raised in an environment of low collective self-esteem, marked by our colossal national failures in eradicating poverty, educating and improving the lives of our people, we have developed a wounded admiration for qualities that are projected as being essential to survival in our adverse circumstances.  Far too often to be dismissed lightly,  we hear among middle class Indians, a celebration of qualities such as ‘being street smart’, ‘aggressive’ or ‘opportunistic’.  Most often, in the contexts of our lives, these are just euphemisms for breaking lines, skirting laws and being utterly exploitative.   Each of us has undoubtedly experienced, at some point or other in our lives, the self gratification and fake  sense of achievement, very often inspired by misplaced encouragement,  at having hustled our way to the front of booking counters, shops, or into government offices and at having conspired, bribed, bought and hustled our way through procedures and ‘the system’.  Routinely procedural tasks that should not call for any outstanding creativity or genius, in our society and given our warped realities, seem to.  What is worse is that we have begun to worship the qualities that win us these illegitimate, sometimes trivial, ‘victories’.  Since we have lost hope of systemic correction, we choose to glorify deceit.  In this frenzied effort to defy the odds we seem to have lost sight of socially responsible behavior – and some utterly simple realizations - that being able to muscle one’s way to the front of a shop counter is not being ‘smart’ - it is being disgusting; knowing how to bribe is not a ‘creative’ act - it is a subversive one; hustling for a seat on a bus is not ‘showing initiative’ - it is shameful.


In such absurd circumstances, it is natural that 'civility' is being misrepresented as ‘weakness’ in our times - and those perceived in the popular mind as being ‘weak’ will be discredited.  So also seems to be  the case with  Bangalore’s changing culture.  The city’s character of some decades ago is today mocked at and rejected as being indicative of ‘weakness’.  (Surely, you’ve heard said, disparagingly, that the native Bangalorean, is a ‘meek’, ‘mild’ and ‘accommodating’ chap, with ‘no initiative’)  The absurdity of this situation begs correction.  It is time we celebrated what is worthy of celebration and trashed unequivocally what is a culture of expedience and illegitimacy.  Only out of such recognition, celebration and a regeneration of self-esteem will perhaps emerge  a new energy and motivation to pursue the vigorous public action and activism, required to transform our distorted ‘system'. 


Can Bangalore re-possess itself ?  Can this city regenerate & revitalize its earlier values and combine them harmoniously with its contemporary dynamism ?   If this were possible, why couldn’t this city come to symbolize a new India, in the new millennium ?  Bangalore presents a genuine opportunity - unburdened by colonial symbols, seemingly dynamic in its new economic importance, pop- ulated by a diverse cross section of Indians and with a rare local urban culture - one that celebrates civility, liberal values and a certain humility.   What will it take to bring these qualities together and move ahead with strength ?