If you prefer the charms of the `gullies’ to that of the high street, then turn right near the top end of Commercial Street onto Jeweller’s Street where jewellery enthusiasts go for silver nose pins, anklets, ear studs and the traditional wire piercing. But there are other jewels hidden within this rabbit warren of lanes named after prominent personalities from the Tamil Mudaliar and Arya Vysya community who once dominated this area.
Quaint little buildings in the Tamil row house style with faded paint in jewel tones are wedged closely on Narainpillai Street, Veerapillai Street and stretch all the way down to Thoppa Mudaliar, Lubbay Masjid and Dharmaraja Koil Streets on the fringe of Shivajinagar. “These buildings are over a hundred years old” says Govind Pillai Narayanan, sitting in his wheat grinding shop on Jewellers Street. He tells me that he is a seasoned world traveller who has even worked on machines in German factories.
The row houses are built with an endearing mix of both South Indian vernacular and European architectural elements that seemed to have caught the fancy of local house proud merchants. The traditional Tamil `tinnai’ (open to the street verandahs also called katte in Kannada ) sits comfortably here alongside delicate European cast iron grill work, curling Victorian metal lamps, fluted Ionian columns and pilasters and stucco borders with the Greek meander motif. Colonial monkey top slats shelter traditional outward opening double windows and carved doorways decorated with religious symbols.Everything seems to be thrown together to develop a confident, new hybrid vocabulary.
This ` continuous ‘ building style is typical of the older sections of an Indian city. Traditionally, the heart of urban mercantile centres were densely packed with a mixed use (residential-commercial) typology. Space would have therefore been at a premium with front doors literally opening out onto the street. The traditional colonnaded street verandah (talavaram ) seems to have been discarded here.Many houses would therefore take you down a long corridor from the front door. This leads into a private open to sky inner courtyard (with a tulsi mattram) that aimed to let in air and sunlight.Rooms were built around it in the traditional Tamil style.The `katte‘ was therefore, the main point of interaction with the street and the designated place for social activity.
The Katte-life is lived on the street
I then get to wondering if the definition of polite architecture would apply.“The Polite” refers to buildings designed to include the artifice of non-local styles for decorative effect by professional architects. Its opposite in architectural terms is vernacular architecture “. It is almost like this side of the Cantonment looked at the other side and decided to go shopping one day to acquire some architectural details to dress the area up a bit! They then came back home with baskets full of ideas and proceeded to incorporate them into their own homes wherever and however illogically they fancied.
Cast iron lattice
However, the two storied houses here adopted only distinct, executable elements from their colonial counterparts such as arched windows, plaster decoration, fluted pilasters and columns with capitals.Traditional layouts were retained inside the house. This cross cultural amalgamation seems to echo the words of V.S Pramar in his book `A Social History of Indian Architecture ‘ where he says “The decor and (wood) carvings of the house were not meant for the family to enjoy, but to display status to visitors.” He goes on to state that this ornamentation was usually seen to be prominent only on facades (referring to houses in Western India) while the personal spaces inside were usually simple and functional.
Other gems on these streets include the beautiful but forgotten Mohammed Ali building and the disintegrating Kannun Hall on Veerapillai Street. While Kannun Hall remains a mystery, Mohammed Ali building was built in 1824 by a wealthy army contractor and philanthropist Yejaman Mohammed Ali as a space for both residential and religious-political gatherings. Mohammed Liaqat Ali, the owner of `Yaadgar B.C ‘ a catering service in its courtyard wonders if writing about the building will change its fate. But the boys in his kitchen smile and offer you piping hot, creamy chai from this last surviving mews in Bangalore. Its stables now house small shops and not horses.
In the evening, the area is transformed into a bustling food street with hot dosas and idlis dished out from handcarts. Veerapillai Street also houses the famous Muslim Library with a treasure trove of Urdu and Persian books and manuscripts that wait quietly for non-existent readers. Elsewhere on Narain Pillai and Jeweller’s Street are traditional bone setters, an old fashioned flour mill and vintage watch repair shop, vegetable and flower street markets, the crumbling Bhoopalam Subba Chetty Choultry and the Dharmaraja Koil, a temple dedicated to the Pandava, Yudhishtra.A smaller Karaga procession takes place here each year.
Much of the area around Commercial Street became the property of Rai Bahadur Sir Arcot Narayanswamy Mudaliar ( 1827- 1910), a wealthy businessman and noted philanthropist who is said to have resided at 6/57 Veerapillai Street. His initial venture, the `Bangalore Agency’, at No.19, South Parade dealt with real estate, livestock, auctioneering as well as excise contracts and banking. He was also awarded the contract of building the Attara Kacheri based on a design by Col.Richard Hieram Sankey. In 1936, his grandsons went on to build the flamboyant but now long gone Plaza Theatre on MG Road.
In the early 19th century, these streets were occupied by merchants and contractors who supplied grain, provisions, supplies and materials to the British army stationed in the Cantonment. The Army & Military stores in the area are remnants of this military legacy that built not just the Bangalore Cantonment but also the fortunes of its inhabitants.