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A public art project is stirring time in Bengaluru

As artistes reimagine the past and present of the city of Bengaluru, forgotten stories resurface

Nikita Puri 

Bharatnatyam exponent Anuradha Venkataraman's reimagining of Bengaluru took her to the war artefacts' section of the government museum
Bharatnatyam exponent Anuradha Venkataraman’s reimagining of Bengaluru took her to the war artefacts’ section of the government museum

As you step towards it, the phone rings. “Press 1 to access the day of R’s wedding. Press 2 to...” This story-telling phone booth will soon find a spot under the Yeshwantpur flyover in the north-western part of Bengaluru. “It’s not a phone booth,” says Archana Prasad, creator of this structure, “It’s a time machine, which transports you to an age before this flyover existed.” As she elaborates on the idea, there’s new graffiti in the city. Seen on public walls and abandoned trucks, it’s just one un-rhetoric question that’s been irking passersby across Indiranagar, Koramangala and MG Road: “Mohan Kaun?” No flowing forms, geometrical illusions, or fanciful doodles clutter the question’s periphery; the words jump right at you, the old-school stencilled writing in English, Hindi, and Kannada giving it a no-nonsense demeanour.

So who’s Mohan? We’re told he’s faithfully served a family, a police station, a lodge, and more. “Mohan is our friend,” says Shaunak Mahbubani, a 25-year-old engineer turned designer. Mahbubani is also a member of Klatsch, a collective of artistes based out of Bengaluru. “He is over 100 years old and has many stories to share, but no one’s listening. We’ve begun a teaser campaign with graffiti bombings for him,” he adds. Here’s the kicker: Mohan is a sizeable building in the bustling wholesale market of Chickpet in south Bengaluru — the area’s history is believed to date back to the 16th century. On the ground floor, trade has been flourishing ever since residents can remember, and while the locality is plush with touts hard-selling their wares in the backdrop of “Fixed Rate” and “No Return” signboards, the space upstairs wears a deserted look. It has done so for years. The elegant white, blue and green ceiling tiles in the Mohan building, the spacious main hall, and the many small rooms have led solitary lives, except for when photography enthusiasts stop by to see what “old Bangalore” looked like.

A public art project is stirring time in Bengaluru

Come December, Klatsch will use the space for art interventions to share Mohan’s story. This project, “Myself Mohan 1909”, is one of the six public art projects under an initiative called Project 560, 2015 (560 being the starting digits of Bengaluru’s postal code). Backed by India Foundation for the Arts and Citi India, this initiative encourages artistes to engage with “found spaces”. With a total grant of Rs 20 lakh, the idea is to resist the slow deterioration that often ails places of historical importance. Prasad’s “time machine” is another of these projects.

Founder of Jaaga (a community space built to serve the arts), Prasad spent her formative years in Malleshwaram, a planned suburb built after the great plague of 1898. “The city has grown much faster than it could have, the fabric of the neighbourhood is torn. All the places that have held our memories are disappearing,” says Prasad. Her installation will have an IVR set-up, with recordings of “how things were” by residents. Why place this booth under the Yeshwantpur flyover? “It has always seemed alien to me; it’s a very physical interruption to the city. Before this flyover came about, you never felt like you were leaving Malleshwaram’s neighbourhood and entering Yeshwantpuram,” she explains.

For theatre artiste Mangala R, another Project 560 grantee, it was her love for Kannada literature that led her to Vidyarthi Bhavan, a restaurant in south Bengaluru. “The place was founded in 1943 and literary figures like D V Gundappa and Masti Venkatesha Iyengar would frequent it. I want to recreate that time. I’m working on a semi-scripted conversation between six of these greats,” she shares. While she rejoices in the fact that Vidyarthi Bhavan still retains some of its charm, despite the management changing three times, poet Pratibha Nandakumar is looking for a new venue for “One Lessu, One Plussu”, a project that traces the city’s history of cafés that were a hotbed of creative thinking. Her original venue is currently awaiting demolition.

Project 560 isn’t meant to be a record of urban decay in the city. So where there is a crumbling Mohan building, there’s also theatre veteran late B V Karanth’s well-maintained house where his protégé, Seturao Ramnatha, will create a site-specific piece. Going beyond private spaces, Bharatnatyam exponent Anuradha Venkataraman’s reimagining of Bengaluru took her to the war artefacts’ section of the government museum. “In my performance piece, I’ll be talking about how wars have shaped the city. During the (second) World War for instance, it turned into the country’s scientific capital,” she says. While all the projects will culminate in a three-day festival in December, the process of reimagining the city is a testament to how the gulf between artistic experimentation and social intervention was never very wide.

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First Published: Sat, November 07 2015. 00:16 IST