Saturday, October 12, 2013

M Chawla Reviews Bengaluru / Bangalore: In First Person Singular

Meenakshi Chawla Reviews Bengaluru/ Bangalore: In First Person Singular
To begin with, a city is a difficult organism to perceive; then to break it up into discrete segments of culture, history, people and other headings for its sights and smells, its moods and seasons and the luminosity of its sunsets, is a task for the gods. Or perhaps, a photographer with a pain in his heart for his city.

Mahesh Bhat is the photographer with a pain in his heart for his city Bengaluru, or shall we just call it, Bangalore, as we know it better. Bengaluru/ Bangalore: In First Person Singular (photo book) is, from the cover to the last page, a labor of deep love and concern. The very first photograph on the flyleaf inside the cover is that of Basavana Gudi taken in 1995. That picture sums up the book I’m yet to read. The dappled sunlight, the waiting stance of the structure amidst lengthening afternoon shadows and people arrested in mid-stride tell of a Bangalore that is caught in the cross-currents of identities, a city with roots, finding its wings.

Title: Bangalore/Bengaluru: In first person singular
Author: Mahesh Bhat
Publisher: Mahesh Bhat Publishing
Year: 2012
ISBN: 978-81-904535-1-6
Price: Rs 1200 / USD 30

To buy the book, visit flipkart

This photo book delights the visual sense; at the same time, the mind processes the subtle message of the image. And that is how the author conveys the pain in his heart to his readers – not through cart-loads of words on reams of acid-free paper, but through pictures (on art paper) that reflect a city in all its living, and lively, detail.

The author begins with a brief acknowledgement of the catalysts and supporters for this endeavor to narrate the story of Bangalore’s 25-year journey of change. Contemporary thought leaders come first – Nandan Nilekani, Subroto Bagchi. Nudging them (gently) are the artistes who, by the author’s admission, ‘have been amazing’.

The book begins with a full-page photograph of a sunlit field at the edge of a wood with a girl running across while her brother stands by, playing his violin – a wide-open sky looks in interestedly. The caption informs the reader that this field has now been imprisoned by a cigarette factory at Chikkajala.  The next picture, three pages later, belongs to another world - urban squalor of asbestos-capped shanties amidst piles of garbage dwarfed by futuristically designed commercial complexes in the background.  We have seen this picture – in cities that grow breathlessly, and mindlessly.

The author asks “Whose city is it?”

Indeed, who has the right to stake first claim on Bangalore? Its cultural denizens re-imagining concepts of life and living; IT professionals, taxi drivers and businessmen from all parts of the country coming in search of a new life; students; or its oldest residents holding fast to memories of the first urban neighborhoods – whose is Bangalore?

A city is planned on sterile drawing boards to systematic plans and proofs by conscientious engineers, farsighted patrons. Give the city ample time, minimal space… and you will see it grow under the sun and sky - amidst the confusion of livelihoods and living spaces, braving the profusion of vehicles and vagaries of weather, through government inaction, or worse, pot-bellied solutions to civic issues... the city will grow with a life all its own, into a future that belies all predictions.

The harsh midday sun and the struggles it contains give the city-face its character. The author documents Bangalore’s character evocatively. There are so many pictures, and of such diversity – marketplaces, bus stands, and women vegetable sellers glittering in diamond earstuds.  Then there are dargahs, people celebrating Durga Puja, as well as shops being set up for the day’s trade and the new night life in the newly emerged part of the city.

Pages 56 and 57 present a contrast that truly mirrors present-day Bangalore – the left page shows a line of four somber black burqas adorning a shop window, deep undertones of demure womanhood. The right page has a picture of a highlighted bright-red banner shouting, “Happiness Sale Last 4 days left” and a line of four painted-up smiling ragdoll-faces atop the banner. They both thrive – to each, Bangalore is home.

Pictures pack in power – elegantly. The portrait of the descendants of Sir Mirza Ismail, five graceful matriarchs of varying vintage, is a keepsake; old world charm that we lost in our relentless march into bold new futures.

The chapter that leaves behind a lingering fragrance is ‘Bengaluru Karaga’. A ‘dramatic’ festival that began in the 1800s but still has relevance for ‘struggles over urban space’, it encapsulates the essence of the teeming city. It unifies across ‘geographical, religious, linguistic and cultural’ divisions and is perhaps the only time when Hindu deities are allowed to enter the precincts of a dargah, Tawakkal Mastan Dargah.

A city is the sum total of its citizens’ experiences. It is what a rickshaw-puller feels when he sets down his first client at seven in the morning; it is what the student sees as she takes the bus back home; it is the child watching the birds in the school playground. The city shows a different side to each of its citizens, like a million-sided prism. Each side of the prism is true, and each side must keep pace with the other faces in change and growth.

In frame after frame in this well-produced, sturdily-bound, and smartly edited book, the reader sees the million-sided prism that is Bangalore, or Bengaluru…a living, thriving organism suffused with energy and flaws, and radiant hope.

Author’s Bio: Mahesh Bhat is a Bangalore-based photographer and has worked on projects for a number of publications in over 20 countries, all the way from New York Times to Newsweek of Japan.

Reviewer’s Bio: Meenakshi Chawla is a Delhi-based writer and writes book reviews for Contemporary Literary Review India.

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