Beladide Noda Bengaluru Nagara!
An exhibition of photographs and maps, with text by Janaki Nair

Chitrakala Parishat, Bangalore June 19-26, 2000
National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, July 1-12, 2000
Gallery Sumukha, Bangalore, July 14-26, 2000

An exhibition consisting of 161 photographs, five maps and eleven text panels was organised at three locations in June-July 2000 at Bangalore. Ten themes were considered: work cultures, public life, domesticities, new religiosities, tanks and tank beds, contested spaces, streets and pavements, cultural inscriptions, village in the city, and styles of consumption. The first location was by far the most accessible to the public, and was attended by at least 1000 people. The second was a more remote campus location, where the exhibition was seen by about 200 people. At Gallery Sumukha similarly, there may have been up to three hundred viewers.

I gave two talks at NCBS and Gallery Sumukha on aspects of Bangalore that were not included in the exhibition.

Numbers apart, the exhibition also received a fair amount of review space in the media. Reviews appeared in Deccan Herald, The Times of India, The Economic Times, The Indian Express, Kannada Prabha, Prajavani and The Asian Age. The reviews were positive on the whole, with some critical comments in Deccan Herald on the aesthetic qualities of the show and the sheer scale of the project. There were also reports on network television, from Cauvery and Siti Cable to Doordarshan and Star News networks.

As the one who conceived the project and executed it with help from several people in the artist community, I was particularly interested in the comments from the general public. Perhaps the most paradoxical of the comments was on the question of nostalgia. It was a structure of feeling that the overall conception of the exhibit had not only tried to avoid, but to correct. There was little either in the themes, or the way they were treated that encouraged a nostalgic looking back on a world that once was. Yet innumerable people expressed exactly this reaction to the exhibition, and sometimes even demanded more photographs of the old Bangalore. What was it about the photographic medium that prompts this expectation, and indeed fosters this structure of feeling? Why is it that many amongst the public felt perhaps even slightly let down that there were not enough images of how things were, when the crowds, the clash and roar of the traffic, the unruly advertisements and buildings and the encroachments were not even dreamed of? Was this another expression of a fear of mass culture, mass consumption and indeed of the styles of democracy that the city has fostered?

To be fair, the Kannada speaking visitors did not express this sort of feeling and rather were more willing to take the exhibition as a document of our times. There were several such people who came to see the exhibition more than once, and urged that the exhibition be taken to other parts of the city. But here too, there was a great deal more interest in black and white photographs, insofar as they represented the events of the past, than in the high quality colour ones that were on display. Yet one hesitates to call this a form of nostalgia, since it was more in the nature of agreement that what was depicted was the truth of the past.

There was a wide range of people who found the exhibition useful: a tour operator wanted the text to memorise for his tours of the city; several dot coms wanted to collaborate on using the material; a high school teacher wanted to bring her students; an architect wanted her students to see the show. There were a number of casual visitors who were willing to be drawn into seeing the city from a different perspective. Trade union activists were pleased that there was due recognition given to their contributions to public life. There were some for whom the absence of recognisable landmarks of the city (Cubbon Park, Kempegowda's towers) was a disappointment. Some were even indignant that their little corner of the city had been missed in the show. But on the whole, the exhibition did prove to be an educative exercise.

It is not quite clear whether the rather tedious and expensive business of doing the exhibition, the catalogue etc in two languages was rewarding. Although no such sample was collected, there were far fewer people for whom Kannada was the only known language. Still, it is likely that the exhibition was made more widely accessible through the bilingual approach.

Among the more serious comments from critical viewers was the fact that the text panels rather overwhelmed the choice of the photographs in strength and style. By themselves, the photographs were eclectic and not immediately visually coherent. Yet the photographs were not intended as merely illustrative of the text, and were conceived as part of a whole. In that sense, the medium of the book would be more appropriate in restoring a balance between text and image, and the use of maps would be an additional narrative.

The quality of the photographs that were commissioned (as opposed to the ones that were collected) was uneven, insofar as aspects of the social life of the city were rarely captured that reflected the 'urban' in all its chaos and disorder. This is, as one reviewer pointed out, a challenge to the lens-person, but for the most part the images were on the quiet, restful side, with a great deal of attention paid to the composition. There was no deliberate attempt to aestheticise the banal, but the 'urban eye' was quite simply missing.

On the other hand, as a city, Bangalore has no distinctive edge or landmark that will make any pictorial representation of it immediately recognisable as in the case of cities such as Mumbai, Kolkatha, Delhi or even Chennai. This lack of an image is itself a sign of how this reluctant metropolis has grown, as a gradual replication of the low rise, low density structures, separated by green spaces, annexing more and more of the rural to its boundaries. Only more recently has the taller structure pierced the skyline, or made a difference to the lifestyle of the inhabitants. Other aspects of the difficulty of capturing Bangalore as a metropolis in the visual medium are a consequence of its unique history of invisibility: there has been no smokestack industrial growth for instance, which is a dominant feature of many cities. This is far from suggesting that there is no industry but that it is largely invisible, tucked away into large and distant industrial estates, or more recently, tech parks, or slums which are hidden from the public eye. Similarly invisible are its workers, in an overwhelmingly middle class city. Its green cover masks its high levels of pollution, visually neutralising the tedium of fumes and dust which frustrate its inhabitants. And the blandness of innumerable middle class layouts hides the sheer scale of the problem of housing.

One could of course have drawn from a large repertoire of images that are reproduced with appalling regularity in our city newspapers: a kind of social municipalism that provides the mandatory shot of overflowing drains, pitted roads and leaking sewage. But this was avoided, for its sheer banality, its petty complaining mode that tells us little of a city's history.

Here is a sample of the (English) comments:

"Even though I am a Bangalorean, it was an insight into the evolution of the city that is appealing. Many facets, old and new, very well presented." C.S.H. Rao

"Superb Collection – a real insight into much hyped 'IT City". Shree

"To trigger the memories of old times, there should have been many more old photographs on a comparative, "one to one" basis. This feat would have served the purpose." T.S. Umesh.

"Nothing special about the show, no use" Ramesh

"Some of the photographs are really interesting and beautiful, rather major number of the photographs are not so special, has to be improved a lot. Better next time." A. Raja

"Nice Photographs, I got some idays (sic) by the photographs. So many subjects from this exhibition, I am fully satisfied." Jagdish Kumar

"It is a genuine effort to bring out the "old" of Bangalore in contrast with the "new" One really feels nostalgic after seeing this wonderful work. " P.V. Ravindranathan

"A very distinctive display of a kind not attempted in any other city so far in India." K.N. Raj

"I found the show most interesting and hope that you can put together a book, Your text panels and captions add a lot to the exhibition. Great to see such an interesting exhibition." Sujatha K. Guha

"I am not an exhibition viewer On the first round it made my head spin, would rather have read it in a book. But then in an empty hall I took a chair and looked from a distance. I could see the city as from a vantage point in time and space, a good sense of relooking at my home town. And the excellent photographs stand out from the mere records. A big hand to JN, as to Elizabeth Staley, Claire Arni, Raghave, the department of Information for your contributions to the self conscious documentation of Bangalore. And your social insights, keep going." Peter Colaco.

"An excellent exhibition presenting the essence of contemporary Bangalore Brief introductions in between help the visitor to view the photographs with more insight." Suresh Moona

"I was totally disappointed after seeing the photographs. As a resident of Bangalore since last 40 years, I was keen to see Bangalore as it existed in 50s 60s 70s, majority of the photographs are recent ones." RV Kaveri

"Very informative well organised deserves exhibition on a large scale to educate Bangaloreans to know the decay of the city beautiful". DC

"A stunningly well researched collection/exhibition. I haven't seen so much research and effort of into an exhibition of photographs as this. I thought there was a studied avoidance of chronology in the narrativisation that helped to focus on the themes and issues that capture the complexity of change that makes up Bangalore histories." Ramdas Rao

Janaki Nair
Institute for Social and Economic Change