Anybody who moves to Bangalore cannot ignore the city's enviable tree cover, and how actively its citizenry protects it. It is not uncommon for Bangaloreans to be up in arms against the indiscriminate felling of trees, even though they are not always successful. So it is not very surprising that the city will play host to its first major tree festival, titled "Neralu" (meaning shade in Kannada). But Neralu, the organisers explain, is not just a celebration of the ecological diversity of its trees. "When a group of us met to talk about Bangalore's trees, we realised that they also formed a unique part of the city's culture and identity, something that otherwise took a backseat," says Deepak Srinivasan, artist and community media practitioner with the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, and one of the festival organisers. The discourse gets narrow when it's about ecology alone, says Srinivasan.
One of the motivations for holding a tree festival was a document released by the Agenda for Bengaluru Infrastructure Development, or ABIDe, a taskforce set up by the previous BJP government, which highlighted the fact that Bangalore has a rich natural heritage that goes unacknowledged. "We need to talk about that heritage," says Srinivasan. He cites the example of the African banyans on Hosur Road, which form a natural tunnel. These trees are supposed to have been procured from Morocco by Tipu Sultan and planted there so that merchants who went to nearby Sarjjapur to trade in textiles could travel comfortably, in the shade. "I don't think the ordinary citizen or even the government is aware of these facts," he says. Similarly, not too many people know about the Thigalas, a community employed by Hyder Ali as gardeners in Lal Bagh, the botanical garden, and who are supposed to have contributed significantly to the city's horticultural landscape.
Neralu has its origins in a conversation among friends of diverse backgrounds but with a common interest in nature and wildlife, about the trees in the city and their stories. A course they attended together insect and plant taxonomy was another trigger, says Sangeetha Kadur, an artist who specialises in wildlife illustration, and another Neralu organiser. During the festival, Kadur will be conducting tree journal workshops, where participants will be trained to observe trees and then replicate what they have seen through sketches and writing. "The emphasis is not on creating an excellent drawing but on what you observe, and feel when you look at the trees," says Kadur, who has conducted these "Green Scraps Workshop" before. This observation and narration, she feels, is one of the best ways for people to connect to trees. The festival will also have tree walks, film screenings, story-telling workshops and talks by artist and gallerist Suresh Jayaram, Vijay Thiruvady, an expert on the history of the city's trees and Kalyan Varma, a wildlife photographer.
Even before the festival kicks off, the response has exceeded their expectations, say the organisers. For instance, their crowd-funding campaign sought to raise Rs 1.2 lakh. To their pleasant surprise, they ended up raising close to Rs 1.58 lakh in just 20 days.
Much of this will go towards an art exhibition of the works of Rumale Channabasavaiah, and other Bangalore-based artists. Channabasavaiah was an artist who achieved acclaim in art circles but went largely unacknowledged by the general public, says Srinivasan. An exhibition of his works had been organised by the National Gallery of Modern Art last year. "He painted a lot of landscapes which are a form of microdocumentation the city in the '60s and '70s. They offer a window into the urban life of the era, as well as document the natural heritage," he says. Neralu has also faced little trouble in getting volunteers for the festival.
The organisers hope to make Neralu an annual event, and more than that, create a forum for engagement that will go beyond the festival. They are also considering reaching out to policymakers, as part of this. Meanwhile, Bangaloreans can head to the festival next weekend and revel in the city's greenery they take so much pride in.