Walking down Avenue Road in the Bengaluru Pete with Pradyumna Roy and friends.
The Pete (pronounced Pay-tay) area is a complex warren of shops, narrow streets, crooked gullies and irrational layouts. If you don’t know your way around, it can be very easy to get lost here indefinitely. The local population however, wander about with the confidence of homing pigeons. But getting lost here always leads to moments of pure serendipity. I have found the quaintest stores, the best deals and the strangest of things only when lost in the Pete. From fake flowers, to neon coloured feathered stoles to theme party Rama -Sita costumes for hire, to silver jewellery and shimmering silk at whole sale prices, trimmings, bits and bobs, paper, sequins and beads, glittering lace and zari borders, spices, sweets and flowers, Avenue Road has it all, including warm, curious, friendly people. On the surface it is just another traditional market, but dig a little deeper and you will discover a complex network of layered identities created by people, commercial, residential and sacred spaces, social stratas, traditional occupations, customs and communities that tie the area into one large, crowded, noisy whole that never stops buzzing. All day long, Avenue Road is at the epicentre of a tidal wave- of people, goods and services whose journey into and across the city often begins right here. It has been this way for centuries.
In 1537, Kempegowda I laid down the boundaries for a fairly well planned township enclosed in a mud fort. It had clearly demarcated areas for trade (The Pete) , horticulture (tank ), worship (temples ) and dwelling.The Bengaluru Pete also had two main roads that intersected (Doddapete-Chickpete) and divided the area into four slices of a pie. These contained market clusters defined by informal geo-social demarcations (still existing ). The divisions were not just occupational (like the medieval guild system in Europe) but also by caste/community because in traditional India they do not exist in isolation.
The markets were also identified by specific goods or services. So even today, Balepete is where you go to buy musical instruments and cotton mattresses. The silver jewellery stores line both sides of the narrow lanes in Nagarthpet while Chickpet is swathed in yards of shimmering South Indian silks.
Tharagupet was for grains and Akkipete traded in rice. In Ballapurpete and Ganigarapete the traditional oil pressers from the Ganigara community pressed nuts, seeds and other natural products into pure oils. Tigalarapete was the stronghold of the Tigala community who were traditional horticulturists and Sultanpet is thronged with parents deciding on gilt edged wedding cards to announce the forthcoming nuptials of bashful couples.
If you walk through the crowded streets of Mamulpet, prepare to be shoved aside to make space for hand carts, dizzy scooterists, stuffed autorickshaws and even the occasional cow. There are no pavements so to speak of. Headless plastic mannequins dangle dangerously in front of shops that sell hangers and other retail paraphernalia. The roads are lined with stores selling fake flowers, plastic dabba’s, raincoats and birthday party accessories -wrapping paper, whistles, hats and more.This is where you stock your container kitchen at half the price in town.
The more adventurous among us who venture into the deep inner lanes of the area just might hear the `clickety- clack’ of the looms manned by the weaver Devanga community in the bylanes of Cubbonpet or the dull thud of metal being beaten into shape in Kumbarpet, a little further down the road.
Not so long ago, the area also had a Kumbarpet Muslim community – the `Takaras’ who traded in stone products, `Chapparbands ‘ who fixed broken roof tiles, `Sikkalgars’ who sold copper and brass vessels and the `Phuleras‘ who strung and sold flowers. But times have changed and their traditional occupations find no takers in this new economic environment. So like others before them many have adapted and moved on to find new ways to earn a living. This loss of social and closely interwoven occupational identity is tragic, but perhaps unavoidable.
Over time, the Pete was transformed by its people into not just a spatial identity determined by livelihood but also into a symbol of their own urban social identity, thus becoming a storehouse of collective memories and shared sacred significance.
The Tigala community continues to map a sacred route through its streets, past temples, shrines and homes of community members, the Dharmarayaswamy Temple in Nagarthpet and upto the Dargah in Cottonpet, transforming a busy market into a remembered space where groves and gardens once existed. At the end of Avenue Road, near the Mysore Bank Circle is the ancient Anjaneyaswamy Temple built by Kempegowda I at the Yelahanka Gate. At the other end, near the KR Market Flyover is the Dargah of Hazrat Manik Mastan Saheb Soharwardi (RA) from Haider Ali’s time and in the middle is a Memorial Church dedicated to Benjamin Lewis Rice’s father. These and other shrines hidden in its depths give the entire stretch a ritual and historical significance that extends all the way down to Kalasipalayam and Tipu’s Palace, Armory and the Old Fort.
But not all residents are locals. There is a sizeable Marwadi Jain trading community in the Doddapete who co-exist with all the other representations of Pete society in the narrow streets of this heavily congested area.
Unlike the orderly neighbourhoods of the Cantonment from which it was socially, emotionally and physically isolated till about 1949, the Pete displays a rich cultural diversity marked by a permanent state of chaos.This apparent state of chaos and disorder, points out noted architect Charles Correa `actually consists of several layers of order, all superimposed.’ It is what has functioned as `a self-defense system, protecting society against agents of change. After all, how does one `improve’ upon chaos ?….that is why, after two and a half centuries of trying, the British were unable to re-structure India.”
But at this early hour, Avenue Road, all is quiet. A group of people with cameras doesn’t even cause a stir. Leave alone chaos. Dogs and people alike yawn lazily as they stretch and look at us curiously. Shops are shut but the temples are open because God wakes up pretty early. Managing the earth is a full time job. Around us, traders prepare for a busy day ahead, the roads are swept and breakfast (rice ) is eaten at wayside stalls on the route to work. The busy Raja Market is yet to open and the flyover is basking in the morning sun.
The symbiotic relationship of a city and its people never ceases to amaze me. Do people make a place or is it the other way around? I look at these early morning denizens and wonder what their lives must be like backstage. Did they get on a bus from a faraway rural hometown, bringing with them meagre belongings and dreams that faded under the glare of the neon city lights ? Or are they as old as the city, generations that have lived under its harsh yet protective umbrella ?
I think of all those lives that are being lived in parallel to mine. At this very moment, somewhere in the Pete, someone is winning and someone failing, someone is being born while someone dies, someone loves while someone walks away, someone weeps and someone laughs. We are all Bangalore. You, me, those who will come in just for a while and those who have been here forever.
Pradyumna walks around easily, catching people in candid moments because his lens allows him to. They don’t even know he is watching. In another few hours the buses will roll in, horns will scream, shutters will roll up and the City Market people will swing into action – hawking, selling, bargaining, buying, pushing, shoving, driving, running. All day long.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the show is about to begin.
Pradyumna on Avenue Road: As a child, I loved looking closely at situations and pasting them into my mind. Today, photography allows me to visualise how things would look if positioned differently, at a different time of day, in different light. Street photography was challenging but exciting because it required a combination of skills. Walking down Avenue Road, I did wonder what the Pete was like long ago, but am still unsure if the changes here are to be seen positively or not. Capturing people and spaces created a familiarity I did not have before. The fun part ? Those who knew I was there, just loved posing !