That Bangalore lacks an easily recognisable character tends to concern its great and good from time to time. The architect Naresh Narasimhan, for example, recently proposed that Bangalore, needing just such an identity, should be called a “city of invention,” as a neat way to encompass both its present and past.
But Bangalore does have an identity that most Indians are already familiar with. It manifests itself variously; sometimes in the nickname "Pensioner's Paradise," at others in the famous soft-spokenness of all our great cricketers, from GR Vishwanath to Rahul Dravid. Bangaloreans, other Indians say, are always polite, well-mannered, laidback, and “adjusting.” When there is a minor incident on the roads, both drivers put their hands out, not to strike but in apology, and move on—as much moving that Bangalore roads allow, that is. Here’s my theory about where this identity comes from: layouts.
Lay It, Sam
For someone not from Bangalore, the word “layout” belongs to the world of engineering, or graphic design. But it has a very specific meaning here. It is a planned urban area, with well laid-out roads of standardised widths, with strict classifications of land meant for residential, commercial or civic use. They come in all sizes. Tiny ones like Craig Park Layout or Yellappa Chetty Layout are just a couple of small streets. Humongous ones like JP Nagar or Banashankari are still oozing into new parts of Bangalore by adding new blocks, stages, and phases.
Why does Bangalore have so many layouts? History has the answer. The Kannada word for them, “baDaavaNe”, literally means “extension”, which is exactly what most layouts started out as: well-planned extensions to the city, because Bangalore always has been a planned city. Really.
When Kempe Gowda established the city in 1537, it was laid out as a rectangle comprising other rectangles, each of which was allotted to people of a particular trade. It didn’t take long for the first layout to come about. His successor, Kempe Gowda II created Kempapura Agrahara,quite close to the current city railway station, in 1605. Granting land for agraharas or Brahmin settlements was commonplace enough. But the way Kempapura was created set up a template for how Bangalore’s layouts would be formed.
Most agrahara land grants tended to be far-flung, but this one was right beside the city -- an extension. The agrahara consisted of 48 parcels of land, each one of which was allotted to someone who had gained the king’s favour. Unlike other agraharas, it was not all for Brahmins; one parcel went to a Vokkaliga owner, too.
Planners Maketh The Man
Modern Bangalore’s first layouts—Chamarajpet, Seshadripuram, Malleswaram, Basavanagudi—followed ideas not too dissimilar from those of Kempe Gowda II. In the original plans of these layouts, specific areas were demarcated for specific religions or castes (all of them rich and powerful unsurprisingly) and allotments were more or less a result of how much favour you curried with the administration.
For most of the twentieth century, Bangalore’s layouts have been the handiwork of the Bangalore Development Authority and its predecessor, the City Improvement Trust Board. Hundreds more housing societies that created smaller impressions of the larger layouts that BDA laid out. It’s these orderly layouts that account for a majority of Bangalore’s population—especially the middle class who moved in before the technology boom of the past couple of decades.
In other words, the kind of Bangaloreans other Indians think of when they think of us, have lived their whole lives in places of order and orderliness. Is it any wonder we turned out the way we did? In Anveshane, the Anant Nag-Girish Karnad starrer -- a movie where Bangalore layouts play a rather important role -- a character sums it up rather well in a cult line: “What else does the middle class know but to be afraid of breaking rules?”
Left to themselves, streets curve. They become narrow at some points and broad at others. They hug the contours of their lands. But in Bangalore’s layouts, the landscape is always a rectilinear Mondrian painting, with small, older villages holding out, for a time, like rusty nails. Everywhere else, we’re ruled, and have been ruled, with discipline. What the rest of India sees as a laid-back and well-adjusted lot of people, are just generations and generations of layout-dwellers who only know to live by the rules. An extended commentary, if you will, on our social life.
Thejaswi Udupa is a tech entrepreneur, writer, and very Bangalorean. He's currently working on a book about the city.
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