My earliest childhood memory of BRV is in the late 70’s when it was still a ” Thayter” ( as they say in Shivajinagar). I was taken to watch an old B&W film, Albela (1951), where Bhagwan Dada, in his famous ganji created a cacophony in the kitchen singing ” Shola Jo Bhadke” to a coy Gita Bali. Little did we know how ironic this was. `Shola ‘ did indeed `Bhadke” at BRV. In many ways.
This beautiful building with its stone turrets was once an armoury for the Bangalore Rifle Volunteers, the headquarters of the Bangalore Battalion (Auxilliary Force) at the turn of the century. It was a multi-purpose space with a Billiards Room, Reading Room, Ladies Room and a Bar on the ground floor and the Regimental Offices, Stores and other rooms on the first floor. It was electrified, had a stage as well as an orchestral pit and served as a glittering space for concerts, dances and finally, the movies.
BRV is on Cubbon Road, in the heart of the Bangalore Cantonment. From the War Memorial that once stood near the GPO, to Baird Barracks at the other end near East Parade, (named after Major General David Baird who defeated Tipu in 1799) the entire road is part of a colourful World War history that quietly draped itself in camouflage and melted into the backwoods of our minds.
But there was a time in the 1940’s when Bangalore was at the epicentre of hectic WW II activity. The skies were dotted with Hurricanes, Mosquitoes, Catalina’s and Spitfires that roared over Bellandur to HAL and Yelahanka, Kempegowda’s ancient domain. As they headed out on super secret missions, they would perhaps have also flown over convalescing soldiers recovering from war wounds in Hospital Town (as Jalahalli West was called back then).
A significant portion of Jalahalli had been acquired by the British Defence Forces during World War II and served as a sanctuary for military men who were wounded while fighting in the lush, tropical jungles of Burma and the searing sands of the Middle East. At first, it was a little cluster of hutments and then it grew into many buildings of modest proportions. The shanties were hand built by the Italian Prisoners of War, men who had probably been brought in from Africa following Italy’s surrender in Ethopia. There were a several thousand of them, at the POW Camps (Group 1) in Jakkur, Hebbal and Jalahalli. The contract for building the camps was given to the VST Group, a company establishedby V S Thiruvengadaswamy Mudaliar.
But evidently war or captivity could not dampen the irrepressible Italian spirit. Margaret Ledger, an English nurse, stationed at the Bangalore Military Hospital during the War says in her account of wartime India ” They were very polite, but enjoyed hiding away from work. One day three of them had disappeared, and I went to search for them, because we were short of staff. They were sitting outside the Quartermaster’s Stores. I told them to come back to the ward. In a chorus of three voices, they replied “Madam, we do not make war, we make love!”
They also made a lot of pasta, built the beautiful Italian Garden at the Botanical Gardens in Ooty and played football matches against the barefoot Indian team from Austin Town.Once a month, the men would seat themselves at an open air theatre (a cloth stretched between two army trucks) where Ramalingam Mudaliar, a Bangalore based businessman and his son had a contract to screen films brought in from Europe.
If black outs and fears of air raids weren’t enough to send our traditional Bangalore residents scurrying back to their ancestral villages, the antics of the American soldiers who rolled in on shiny Lorries (newly introduced into India by the British) would have definitely done the trick. One story says that their camp was in the civilian area where the SJ Polytechnic stands today on Seshadri Road. This unruly contingent apparently “enjoyed riding in buggies, drawn by zebras that had been brought in from Africa.” I am sure they would have left native Bangaloreans boggleyed !
Many soldiers must have also dreamt of being the next Rudolph Valentino as there were both Cavalry and Artillery Theatres in the Agram Barracks, an Infantry Theatre in Baird Barracks and a Royal Horse Artillery Theatre in Ulsoor. The men also played Polo at the Polo Grounds west of South Parade, golf at the Bangalore Golf Club ( 1876), attended the races at the Turf Club and spent time at the other Clubs that dotted the Cantonment.
But there was another side. “There was no running water or drainage or lighting.” said John Forster about the OTS (Officer’s Training School) Bangalore.” One night a cadet from the next room went and sat down on the toilet, but leapt to his feet when he felt something bite him and discovered a rat hanging on to him ! ” There were also darker anecdotes such as the story of a Private in Camp just outside the Cantonment who ` was almost decapacitated by a thin wire which was drawn across the road at neck height by villagers in the hours of darkness, with the express purpose of injuring inebriated soldiers returning to camp on their bicycles…’ (PB Norris, Follow my Bangalorey Man)
But while many a homesick soldier cooled his heels here, grim battles were fought and won around the world, with a special export from India – the famous Bangalore Torpedo. The BT’s were created in 1912 by Capt. Mc Clintock, a British officer in Bangalore and a Madras Sapper no less. They were specially designed to blow away barbed wire. Used intensively by almost all the Special Forces in Normandy, when the powerful ‘Torpedo’ was detonated, the scrapple cleared a path of almost 3 meters! To my surprise, they re-surfaced post the war, cradled in Tom Hank’s arms in `Saving Private Ryan’ . The Madras Sappers had a close and significant relationship with Bangalore City and another noted Sapper, Lt.General Richard Hieram Sankey also designed and built civilian spaces such as Cubbon Park, Sankey Tank and the Attara Kacheri.
Many regiments were raised or left for battles in the Far East from Bangalore during that turbulent time. They boarded ships at Madras and sailed across the sea to an uncertain fate that awaited them. All that is left are traces -a War memorial here, a tombstone there, and plaques in many Churches across the Cantonment. A peaceful walk through the South and East Parade at 7 am on a cold, grey morning brings it all back quite easily. Thanks to the defense forces, at least some parts of the city’s heritage has been protected successfully against land sharks, unplanned development and indifferent governmental policies.
The War took a lot from our little town in South India – men, land, lives. But it also gave us our very own unique war time legacy; the unique Rava Idly. It was apparently invented in the 40’s (according to local legend ) by MTR when Bangalore was gripped by a severe rice shortage.Now sit down and digest that story.
Weekend must visit : HAL Heritage Centre & MuseumAir port- Varthur RoadBangalore 560017Ph : 91 80 25228341 ( may be subject to change)