Walk like a Bengalurean - SeekSherpa

Walk like a Bengalurean

(SeekSherpa — May 9, 2015)

 It was on a walk to Devanahalli Fort a few months ago that Divya Pai (32) found herself awestruck and mortified, in equal measure. She kept thinking: ‘Why are we going to this random village near the airport?’ Until Poornima Dasharathi, the founder of Unhurried.in (which was holding the walk), told them that Tipu Sultan was born here. Pai giggles awkwardly. “I had no clue! I felt like a fool, particularly because I was such a fan of that show on TV, and I considered myself good at history!” she says. It’s moments of discovery like these that keep Dasharathi and her ilk going. The stories couched in Bengaluru’s streets often escape the eye of those living here for decades. And Dasharathi revels in relating them to the city’s residents. She recounts how on a walk through Residency Road, a father-son duo of jewellers, who had had a shop on Avenue Road for decades, told her how they had no idea about the importance of the area until they took the walk. “The city has had a drastic transformation in the last 10 years. Old-timers want to hold on to their past and migrants want to discover their new home, while uncovering its past. Everybody has something to take away,” believes Dasharathi.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Meera Iyer, co-convener of the Bengaluru chapter of INTACH. Ask her how things have changed since they started conducting city walks in 2008, and she says with a laugh that every time they announce a walk, it gets sold out in 15-20 minutes. “We get all sorts of people- artists, photographers, authors, architects, economists, lots of techies, doctors…It’s great to see that so many people are now interested in discovering more about their own city, whether they have been born and brought up here, whether they have been here for a few years or whether they have just recently moved in,” she says. And the demographic spans all ages. The majority are in the age-group of 22-35 or so. The oldest person on one of Iyer’s walks was a 93-year-old man who came for a Gavipura Parichay. “He said he came because he had lived in Bangalore all his life but wanted to know more, and was thrilled because he learnt so many new things about his neighbourhood!” Often, it’s Bengaluru’s natives – not experts, per say, but citizens – who are the richest repository of its culture and legacy.

Arundhati Ghosh, Executive Director of the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), says she learnt this during the first edition of Project 560 – an artistic quest to recode this city through performances. “During the artistic interventions last year, residents and shop owners in areas such as Basavanagudi and KR Market would often come tell us stories about the place, who used to live there, what it was known for before its present claim to fame, and so on,” she says. That set them thinking about incorporating these stories into the second edition of Project 560, taking place this year.

Which is why, recognising the desire to discover the past of a city that is hurtling into an uncertain future at a breakneck speed, this edition has sent out a call for proposals from ordinary citizens for curated walks. Inspiration came from the idea of art itself, and from walks conducted abroad. Ghosh cites the London walks, the Beatles pub walk (older pubs that the Beatles would play at), art walks in Paris (which look at a particular time in a neighbourhood and how artistes would flourish there) and a walk in Italy that looks at an artistic tradition in one village which makes a certain kind of mosaic, as inspiration. “We realised that we could invite the city’s residents to curate walks around artist biographies, neighbourhoods where arts flourish, artistic traditions and practices, arts institutions, and so much more.” And the fact that the curators don’t have to be ‘experts’ makes it that much more democratic and interesting, helping them explore the idea of ‘expertise’ as a citizen theme. “Look at the number of Rajkumar busts we have in the city, for instance. Who made them? When did they come up? I would be very interested in exploring the idea of public sculpture through a walk like that,” she adds.

For a city that’s famously laidback and loathe to walk even the smallest distance, Bengaluru certainly loves its curated walks. And it’s not just because of the weather, as Aliyeh Rizvi, Founder of Native Place – which works to find alternative ways in which to involve people with their local history and culture through experiences and documentation – will point out. “Because of the way the city has grown overnight,” she believes, “History is now available in little pockets, and there are no real guidebooks that join point one to point two and three and then weave them all together. Unlike Mumbai and Delhi, where the tourism infrastructure is fairly well-developed, here there are no signboards, maps or collateral to help you connect the dots.”

Walks, then, fill up that gap and help involve people with the city. That’s something Suresh Jayaram of 1 Shanti Road agrees with. “The roads are not really conducive to walking, and it’s difficult to follow a route or map or a way of exploring the city. But if it’s put into context, it’s an oral narrative that gives the lazy Bengalurean motivation to do something more, and really experience the city.”

What is it that draws everyone – from migrants to techies, retirees and parents – to these jaunts on weekends that could be spent lazing? “Everybody loves stories. Stories make wars come alive, and take the audience back in place and time,” believes Dasharathi, before launching into one with passion – about Bengaluru’s role in the Anglo-Mysore wars. “War then was like a chessboard game – it wasn’t about gunning down a city from an aeroplane. The Marathas laid siege to Bengaluru, because our fort was much-contested. But what does a siege mean? They would lie in wait for three-six months, block all exits, wait for the granaries and water supply to deplete, and finally have people emerge out of compulsion.” Today, she believes history has become about jingoism. “But it all actually depends on the politics of that time and age. Tipu Sultan is a hero for Mysore, but a villain for Kerala.” Which is why Bengaluru’s heritage walks talk about local history as well as cultural history, the people who live here, and their occupations.

People like Dr Meenakshi Bharat, gyneacologist and old Bengalurean, lap it up. In 2006, she took the Victorian Walk in Cubbon Park with Arun Pai, the founder of Bangalore Walks. And she was hooked. Since then, she has been to six walks with different groups, takes “whoever I can convince” and does “all the walks I can find” when she travels. “I learn so much!” she exclaims.

“Did you know why Bengaluru is the beer city? Because the British soldiers who came here wanted beer, which would become stale if it came from England. It was the first city in India to get electricity because we’d drilled in Kolar to find gold. There are so many flowering trees in Bengaluru because Wadiyar wanted a different-coloured carpet every time he rode!”

Stories are also ways to reimagine the past and create links between the past and present, like Rizvi’s walks helped the students of the National Institute of Design do. Tanishka Kachru, design educator at NID, wanted to do a project experiencing history as it was lived and connect with the environment. “We started opposite the temple at Mysore Bank circle, and were asked to visualise the mud fort that Kempegowda built. We all imagined the walls —and therefore the past, in different ways. And that is crucial because in the present we only see it one way,” she says.

One of the newest entrants to this space is Seek Sherpa, which launched its Bengaluru walks in December last year. Founded by the Delhi-based duo of Dhruv Raj Gupta and Sukhmani Singh, both 24, Seek Sherpa aims to keep it “counter-culture, cool and eclectic”, mainly by having ordinary citizens who “have a story to tell” take you through namma ooru. Some of their guides include a man who has visited 54 different countries and wants to take you through his story, to another who is a “traveller in his own city, even though he’s gotten accustomed to the sights and sounds of the place,” Gupta says. The ‘pub city’, Gupta believes, really needs an identity beyond that. Plus, it’s a young city that has been urbanised at an astronomical pace. “The need to indulge in diverse activities is very high. People are looking for activities beyond dinner, drinks, the mall and a movie.”

That is one the reasons Sriram Kumar (31), who runs a start-up that’s into broadcast solutions for media, attended an Unhurried walk in 2011. Having moved to Bengaluru 10 years ago from Chenani, he says he was looking for a way to understand the story of the city. The people he meets are usually from the IT field, and history books didn’t really cut it. Which is why the walk near Majestic worked for him. “It was like listening to a story, complete with chariots and temples,” he says. Since then, he has gone for five more walks, with different organisations. In fact, he hopes more walks are introduced soon. Like Gopi Krishnan, General Manger & head of domain consulting at Wipro, who takes his wife and kids along with him.

Having returned to his city only in 2006 after years of travelling, it was the desire to introduce his children to the city and do more on the weekends, that got him hooked. “I don’t like malls and touristy places, no matter where I am. I’d rather visit a place with a story and soul in it. What is native and original about a place is what makes it social. Bengaluru is so concrete today, unlike Bali and even Hong Kong, where they’ve managed to preserve old ways of construction and design and heritage,” he says.

People make their own unique connections to a city. For Simi Mathew, co-founder of the Oota Walks, food was the link between a city she made home a decade ago. “I discovered Basavanagudi through Vidyarthi Bhavan and Malleswaram through Veena Stores,” says Mathew, a self-confessed foodie. Food, then, becomes a way of drawing a map to a city. Mathew believes Bengaluru is a city of stories, not monuments. “I can’t relate to it when people call it the IT city, or talk about in terms of traffic. It became a personal objective to break that misnomer, and I decided to use food as a medium.” And while people may come for the food – biryani at 6.30 am, for instance – they leave with stories about 500-year-old temples. Like blogger Sujatha Bhagath, who has lived in Bengaluru all her life. She went for her first walk in 2010, an INTACH-NGMA collaboration in 2010, a Basavanagudi Heritage Walk in the neighbourhood of the age-old Gavi Gangadhareshwara Temple. And even she made discoveries – the kalyani (temple pond) at the Bhoganandishwara Temple near Nandi Hills is “one of the most tranquil places” she has been to, “where you can finish a book in one sitting. Another time, it was 4,000-odd Dasara dolls at Unhurried’s Dasara Golu walk last year, that had her fascinated.

Clearly, no one is complaining. Iyer recounts how after one walk, a 7th Std kid came up to her and said: ‘Ma’am, in school, in history class, I just keep waiting for the bell at the end of the class. But this walk was not at all like that. I actually enjoyed it!’ That could have something to do with the nature of people conducting these walks, believes Mathew. Despite her jaunts across the world, she says Bengaluru’s walks have an edge because of the personal connect. “They are employees trained to do this. But here, we’re not flexible. We know every single person who comes on our walk. We make the effort to meet them and take care of special requests,” she says. Bharath agrees. “They do it with passion – it’s not a profession.”

Today, in a city “struggling with its identity” as Mathew puts it, an opportunity to walk on the streets is precious and rare. And the stories woven into walks make it worth the while. Have the distractions of technology and a changing lifestyle dulled the sheen of stories, somewhat? Ghosh disagrees. “I think stories will always interest people. It’s what we live with. Look at technology – what are we ultimately using it for? Telling stories or listening to other people’s stories. There is a constant need to communicate.” And as long as that is the case, Bengalureans will find a reason to walk.

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