Shades of Pete
The people of Bangalore swear by their daily fix of ‘kaapi’ (a glass of steaming filter coffee). The coffee board van parked at the start of Avenue Road has become perhaps its most well known landmark. “Coming to Pete, see you at the coffee board van”, they say.
Gangadhar and Dhanraj often meet at the Coffee Board bus parked at the start of Avenue Road. Its a Sunday morning ritual, sharing anecdotes and reminiscing about good times over a cup of heady filter coffee. It is perhaps now their only association with Pete, a place which was once their home. As the area transformed over the years to become more commercialized, more and more residents left for quieter environs. Through this visual essay, we seek to document perhaps the last few vestiges of Pete’s history. People trying to be at peace with their lives, pursuing their beliefs, interests and traditions, in the middle of the cacophony and chaos that surrounds them. This is their story….
Seetha Phone company, is tucked away in a corner on the busy Avenue Road. In 1924, Mr. Seetharam Shetty wanting a unique name for his shop, decided to add a Phone to his name Seetha instead of the cliched ‘Seetharam Company’. And thus, the shop was born, selling gramophones to the music afficianados. As technology became obsolete over time, microphones and other audio equipment were added to the array. Finally, about 15 years back, Mr. Seetharam’s son, Mr Murthy, decided to completely move away from the gramophone business and started selling brass idols. However, Mr Murthy has kept his love for gramophones and LP records alive. “You need to love what you do” he affirms; his passion and enthusiasm as infectious as his warm chuckles. He takes us to his store room away from the dazzle of brass. Inconsequential at first sight, he slowly unravels one treasure after another. The erstwhile cylinder records, Japanese pocket gramophones, old models (perhaps the last few ones of their kind) pop out one by one. “This one is special” he whispers as he takes out an LP record, as he winds the spring on an old gramophone. The record starts rotating, and sounds of giggles, guffaws and throaty laughter fill the room. “I got this one recently, it only has laughs recorded, hahaha! I wont sell this ever” And neither would he sell the precious other artifacts “You don’t get these any more” he sighs. As we leave this store, we chance upon an old statuette of Mahatma Gandhi tucked away on the top of a shelf. “That was my father’s. He worshiped him. It has stayed with me too.”
Weekends are a busy time for Archikam Ranganathachar, the head priest at the centuries old Shri Ranganathaswamy temple. In addition to his daily worship rituals, he has to complete various ceremonies for the devotees. Built by the famous king, Vishnuvardhana Chola in 3rd century A.D., this temple was renovated again around 560 years ago by Kempegowda, the chief architect of Bangalore. There are many a legends abound here, including one of a underground tunnel connecting this temple to Srirangapatna, the historic town about 130 kilometers away. Inside the sanctum, a stone idol of Narasimha (an avatar of Lord Vishnu) with eight shoulders, is the main attraction. The stone pillars, with thick rings that can be rotated still, are unique to the temple architecture, representing the prevalent styles when the temple was built. Today, the temple complex, now in the midst of a busy noisy Pete, can be easily missed among the nondescript buildings that flank it all around. However, the flurry of devotees continues; people suffering from diseases, marital or infertility problems come here in hope and faith. Archikam Ranganathachar, is a 25th generation priest at this temple; his ancestors had been invited by the kings to perform important religious ceremonies on auspicious days. He still has a record of the five generations before him, and hopes the family legacy will carry on. Though times have significantly changed. The earlier generations were supported by the kings, who generously donated swathes of land to the temple priests. The glory ended with British India taking away all the land ownership rights, and eventually the priests survived on a monthly salary from the Indian government. Archikam Ranganathachar whispers, points at the framed painting of an aristocratic old man on the wall behind him. “That’s my father, in his royal dress when he visited the king’s court in Mysore”. “It takes 16 years of education in a gurukal to become a priest, how does the salary compare? “My son may just get into a professional field, perhaps computers”.
Remember picking up second hand books from a pavement seller? The sweet smell that wafted as one turned the pages and went through the notes scribbled on the first page, declaring a gift of love or a proud possession. As one walks down Avenue Road in Pete, hawkers pursue relentlessly “In college? medical books? engineering books?” they persist. But break away from the cacophony and head down the road towards Rice Memorial Church. One finds second hand book sellers here still, mostly on pavements and a few in shops. Maruti Book Depot, is one such notable shop. In 1915, Mr. Nanjudaiah Shetty, having newly moved to Bangalore, set up a small pavement book shop in Pete area to make ends meet. With no capital, he started by selling the books he owned. Slowly, people started donating their old books to him for resale and business picked up, with one book being sold for a record 2 annas. With 110 rupees, Mr. Shetty bought a piece of land and Maruthi Book Depot was inaugurated. His son, went on to do a diploma in printing technology, and gradually expanded into the publishing business. Having published about 600 books, the Depot became a prominent publisher in Bangalore. However, sales of second hand books continued as it was a high margin business, till recently that is. With the advent of online stores, economies of scale and exclusion of intermediaries in the business, new books have become easily available, often at discounted prices. “Why would one come and buy a book from a shop now when it is easily delivered to their homes”? Mr. Sreenivas, the second generation and current owner questions.
Pete has always been an ethically diverse area. Over many years, people from different communities and regions in India came here, either on their own accord or on the behest of a king, to work or trade. This unique cosmopolitan identity remains alive to this day, and is hard to miss as you explore the streets.
The much revered Karaga festival (celebrated two weeks after Ugadi) stands testimony to the cultural amalgamation. A designated Hindu priest , in a state of meditative trance, walks a distance of about thirty kilometers over the course of the night. On his head, he balances the Karaga, a pot suspended in the middle of a floral cone. Donning the temporary avatar of Draupadi (the wife of the Pandavas in Mahabharat), he visits important temples, garadi manes (traditional wresting gymnasiums) as well as the Dargah in Akkipet, the shrine of the revered Tawakkal Mastan baba.
Tawakkal Mastan, was the youngest of three brothers who came from Iran during the reign of Hyder Ali to trade in horses. However, soon word spread of their divine powers spread to all and sundry. Legend has it that in ancient times (the festival is about 800 years old) the priest was beheaded if the Karaga fell off his head. This happened way too frequently till the Karaga priest, after hearing of the powers of the Mastan baba, decided to pay obeisance to baba and seek his blessings. Since then, the tradition continues and there have been no casualties.
The dargah of the Sufi saint, was built by Hyder Ali and completed by his son, Tipu Sultan. To this day, the dargah see a regular stream of devotees from all religions. Mukunda Shastri, a priest in the nearby Anjaneya temple, believes in the powers of the blessings here. On his recommendation, a Hindu family has come to the dargah to pray for the longevity of their daughter’s marriage. They whisper in their prayer, which then takes on a material form of a lock fastened around the metallic grills on the rear boundary of the dargah. The spell of a divine blessing is cast, the key to the lock never meant to be found again.
Off the busy Chickpet road, as one turns into an alley, there is temporary relief from the shrill horns of the traffic and jostling crowds of the market area. Hardware stores share space with old derelict residences (some houses as old as 1940s). Suddenly, one chances upon a unique two storeyed structure, defined by thick magenta stripes painted on the walls and a blue ornate wooden door. This is a ‘garadi mane’. ‘Nadukusti wresting’ once enjoyed royal patronage, and keen interest from soldiers in the armies to hone their fitness. The tradition is perhaps as old as Bangalore itself, numerous garadi manes (wrestling gymnasiums) had sprung up across the city. With time, the traditional practices gave way to new, the mud arenas got replaced with wrestling mats, the wooden mallakhambs (stunted poles) disposed for new swanky gymnasium equipment. From a bustling hundreds a few decades back, today only a handful of garadi manes are left . One such garadi mane, Balegaradi, is managed by Mr. H. Revanna. In his heydays fifty years ago, he was a national level wrestler who even qualified for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics but could not make it due to lack of sponsorship and funds. Today, he manages the mane along with his son in law (Wrestling has traditionally been a male dominated sport). “These new fitness fads are not holistic” he says, “If you stop exercising, you go back to your original shape and weight “, “On the other hand, our traditional methods were far more effective, they were tougher, yes, involved playing in the mud, yes, but that is why they gave a wrestler immense and long lasting strength and flexibility”.
It is a weekend, but the mane is empty, the only signs of life in the room being the wrestlers proudly displaying their chiseled bodies and hard won trophies from the numerous photo frames hung on the walls.
The ‘garadi manes’ continue to be integrally weaved into the religious fervour and festivities. As one walks into the Balegaradi arena, one can’t help noticing a rather impressive painting of a goddess (Chamundeshwari) atop a tiger imposing her majestic presence. In fact, the mud at the wresting arena is used to make a replica of the Karaga floral cone during the Karaga festivities. People who are unable to participate in the Karaga procession visit the mane to pay their obeisance.
“As I sat there meditating near the Rock Memorial in Kanyakumari, I had an epiphany. It was the first time I was experiencing the sounds of the sea. I had travelled thousands of miles away from home.The world here was so different and so much more than what I had seen in my village in Bihar. At that moment, I decided that I must get out of my cocoon.”
Pandit Rajguru is the headmaster at a school in Nagarthpet. He came here in 2007, entrusted with the task of managing the school. The job was not easy – there were just eleven students across 7 classes, the school building was a crumbling 100 years old, the street in front of the school a garbage dump. Not one to get intimidated, Rajguru took charge and within a year, the student count increased to 35. “While I had to make the interiors appealing to children, it was important to retain the existing elements, the wooden pillars, the ornate doors, even the ceiling fans.” As one walks down the Nagarthpet road today, one cannot help noticing the well preserved heritage building in midst of newer and uglier concrete structures. The bright yellow flowers painted on the outer wall add a cheer.
Today, there are 200 students, with about a half coming from underprivileged backgrounds. “Every child has a right to education, no school should turn back a child” Rajguru affirms.
An M.Sc in Astronomy, Pandit Rajguru retains his interest in the field, often checking out planets with his telescope. He is also an avid poet, with 25 Hindi poetry books to his credit.
Mr. Rangadhamappa is in his small cosy office in Cubbonpet , surrounded by, godly calendars and portraits of ancestors. It is a hot day, and he generously offers us a refreshing glass of juice. “I loved sports” he reminisces “and represented the basketball team from Devanga union (Devanga is the traditional weaving community in Pete)” It seems a tad difficult to believe, given his warm and gentle grandfatherly demeanour today. He inherited the weaving looms from his father who set up the business in 1945 with a loan of Rs. 1500 from the bank. Over a period of time, Rangadhamappa added more looms, including yarn twisting equipment.
Today, he sits in solitude in his three storeyed building, having rented out the looms to workers who weave sarees on contract. The ground floor has a few power looms, while on the first floor, a lone weaver spins a saree on the traditional handloom, working in solitude and hidden behind arrays of multicoloured thread yarns.
Rangadhamappa will be eighty years old next year, he still manages the looms, his children having taken up other jobs. As we leave, he asks us our names and places we come from, noting them down neatly in a little notebook. He opens a drawer and takes out posters of the patron god of the Devanga weaving community, gifting a copy to each of us. It is a different world, a different time in here.
One first notices the prominent R shaped studded earring on an otherwise unassuming soft spoken person and wonders why. Till he hands you his visiting card and you connect the dots. “M.K.K. ‘R’amesh – ‘R’olling Skating Coach and International Player” it declares. He invites you inside a room tucked away in a corner of the house. Shiny golden medals won for numerous skating championships hang nonchalantly down the rows of shelves of the metal almirahs. The gaze slowly shifts to the pastel green wall above, at first you casually glance at the framed black and white photos from an erstwhile era , all of a wrestler proudly exhibiting his win spoils. In one frame, fancy stars added by an overzealous photo studio twinkle around his intense face; in another, he sits taut holding up a massive silver mace up his shoulder. “That’s my father” Ramesh chips in, shaking you out of a momentary reverie. “He won that silver mace about 90 years back on defeating the then Commissioner of Police in Andhra who had been unvanquished ”. With the four thousand rupees won, he bought a piece of land in Thigalarpet, this very ground beneath our feet”, he adds. We move to the living room, and he quietly points to the overflowing glass shelf on the wall. We spot it immediately, the exquisitely carved mace, unsullied and gleaming in spite of its years. A closer look reveals an outline of Lord Hanuman and the winner’s name – Krishnappa- neatly etched on the mace head.
Ramesh accompanies us as we approach the street outside his house. The family name and an image of a cow are engraved on a black plate. “Any interesting story behind the cow?” we ask amused. “Yes”, he smiles back, “my father bred 10000 cows over his lifetime, it was his hobby.”