Two boys whack a table tennis ball across a shiny red oxide floor right above the Karur Vysya Bank on Avenue Road. Dharmaprakasha Sri SV Sreenivasa Setty watches them from a portrait on the wall. He wears the Ganda Berunda, a bejewelled two-headed eagle, the symbol of the Mysore Maharajas that is now the official state emblem of Karnataka. The young men in the Chinthalapalli Venkatamuniah Setty’s Free Boarding Hostel and Choultry (1911) have been recipients of his generosity for over a hundred years.
But the history of the hostel begins with its founder, Chinthalapalli Venkatamuniah Setty who was born on 22nd August, 1868 in Chintalapalli, near Kolar. He arrived in Bangalore around the latter half of the 19th century and soon became a leading businessman-trader in the weaving industry that was thriving on Avenue Road. The Canara Bank opposite the hostel now stands in place of his shop where the family fortune was spun from cotton yarn.
Around 1909, the newly founded Arya Vysya Mahasabha, an association of Telugu speaking Arya Vysya merchants in the area, met and agreed that while education was a priority, students struggled to find accommodation in the city. Recognising this to be true, Chinthalapalli Venkatamuniah Setty built the hostel and along with his admirable wife, Smt. Lakshmidevamma, donated an additional Rs. 50,000 and Rs.20,000 respectively for its maintenance.
Like many other traditional but far sighted women of her kind in Bangalore, Smt. Lakshmidevamma played a prominent role in the making of this city. Following her husband’s demise, she rebuilt the hostel with help from her younger brother Sri SVS Setty (1899-1967) who had become her ward after their father’s early demise. It was inaugurated by Diwan Sir Mirza Ismail on May 21st, 1930. The new hostel now accommodated about 45 boarders. A community hall or chattram was added on the ground floor. She continued the family’s philanthropic work and was conferred the title of `Dharmaparayane’ at the Dasara Durbar in 1934. Two years later, she built the Venkatamuniah Setty Lakshmidevamma Children’s Hospital at the Vani Vilas Hospital. The project cost Rs.63,000, a large sum for those days. The construction was supervised by SH Lakshminarasappa, Government Architect and A Tandoni Rao, Executive Engineer.
The KV Bank is busy this morning. A harried young man rushes in. He does not know that the ground floor of the hostel building with Art Deco elements, cherubs and Corinthian capitols then became a fair price shop during WW II. Those were hard times and commodities faced severe rationing. Sri SVS Setty decided to buy grains being sold at severely inflated prices in the open market and sold them at lower, affordable rates in the shop. They were also distributed to the poor. “People were in awe of him because he came up the hard way. He had four cars and was an automobile enthusiast” remembers his son, SVS Subramanya Gupta whose own passion for four wheels led him to set up and lead Advaith Hyundai as its Director.
His father’s sartorial elegance, says SVSS Gupta, was maintained by “frequently changing his clothes through the day. He also had someone just to help him with his peta (turban). The immaculately dressed gentleman in the portrait was always seen in a crisp dhoti, coat and turban and “received special permission to wear Indian clothes at the Mysore State Representative Assembly.” Sri SVS was also a prominent member of the Mysore Chamber of Commerce and the Bangalore Turf Club. His palatial family home, Sreenivasa Mahal (1933) in VV Puram was “one of the first to be electrified and have a telephone connection.” And then, he acquired an ailing financial institution and transformed it in 1930 into a successful new venture; the Vysya Bank. He was its Founder-Chairman.
Being the tallest building in the Pete, the hostel became a vantage point during the Quit India Movement in 1942.“One evening, when I was in the student union building (now the Law College building), there was a mob disturbance at the Mysore Bank Circle. I heard the firing sounds by the reserve police and the union office doors were closed for safety. People rushed to the building verandah where an air raid precaution wall existed with a small entrance. Due to pressure of occupants, the ARP wall collapsed and we had to run in different directions…I went to the Vysya Hostel on Race Course Road and stayed with a known relative for that night… I was informed that the top floor of the hostel building was used by the reserve police to control the mob by firing shots in the air.” – KR Narasimha Setty, President CVMS Hostel Old Boys Association.
There were also frequent lathi charges. Mysore Lancers grouped in front of the hostel to intimidate people and “we used to throw ragi on the roads as a result of which horses slipped and fell” says HG Venkatachalaiah Setty. “When India got freedom in 1947, we did not have a radio in the hostel. We approached Sri SVSS who kindly sent us his personal radio. We all sat around the radio to hear the updates. At the stroke of midnight, Independence was declared.” Old time boarders also recall being invited to lunch at Sri SVS Setty’s bungalow on special occasions and the homemade pickles that were sent to the hostel from his home. “This building is our old home. It is our legacy” says SVSS Gupta. “We have even retained our family home in Kolar.”
I have stood outside the hostel and admired it for over four years and now I finally walk in through a door behind the bank. The choultry kitchen has a huge chimney and soot stained walls. Marriages were solemnised and pilgrims took rest here once. But the windows looking out onto RT Street Cross do not release sounds of clanging dishes and hints of meals being cooked anymore. The original Sira stone flooring has worn out in places and been replaced carefully with red-oxide. But the old Jack arch roof remains. “Each brick was first put in water and tested” says MP Srinivas Prasad proudly. He manages the building. “That’s why it is still standing today.” Precious photographs and documents salvaged by him from a back room hang on the first floor. They contain faces and events familiar to those acquainted with Bangalore’s history. A bespectacled Diwan of Mysore, Sir Mirza Ismail is flanked by stiff British officers and stern Arya Vysya businessmen against a backdrop of inaugural banquets, speeches and well known city institutions set up by Sri SV Sreenivasa Setty who was conferred the title of Dharmaprakasha in 1949.
But while the ground floor has seen several changes through the decades, life at the hostel has stayed pretty much the same for over a century. Prasad says his father boarded here in the 1920’s and was later its warden till his demise in 1975. I meet Sandeep KN from Kolar who has been here for five years and will soon leave after completing his MCA. The Arya Vysya boys stay here only while they are students. Dressed in white dhoti’s and angavastrams, they eat modest meals in the hostel kitchen on the second floor, “beetroot palaya, rice, rasam and curd-rice for lunch” and pray “at 6 am and before dinner.” But they now also browse the Net and surf TV channels in these vintage rooms that rest on steel beams from Middlesborough based Dorman Long&Co (1875). Perhaps it is this seamless blend of old fashioned values and forward thinking that best defines the founding families of this city.
This story was originally published in the Bangalore Mirror, June 16, 2014.Read it here. The memories and information in this story are part of `Bangalore-A remembered city’, my project that maps the city through the personal narratives of its people.
Written with inputs from: M. SVS Subramanya Gupta and MP Srinivasa Prasad. Dharmaprakasha S.V. Sreenivasa Setty JP; A source of inspiration for generations to come‘, by Suresh Moona. The Centenary Celebrations of C.V.M.S Hostel, 1911-2011, Souvenir