Social History and the City: A guided tour of Avenue Road

Avenue Road, Bengaluru. This crossroad is said to the spot from where Kempegowda sent out four oxes to mark the frontiers of this city.

Heterodox is flavour of the season. This encourages me to make transgression into history, a discipline where I can only be described as a consumer of texts and accounts of places and events. Hobsbawm’s collection of essays Uncommon People and his endearing essay on jazz music remains a favourite reading in history. I have enjoyed Tony Judt’s Post War although I can’t seem to agree with his rather condescending views on social history that I discovered later. But this post is about a guided tour along one of the oldest roads in Bangalore. This walk was an opportunity to think about writing history and methods of this discipline. I walked down Avenue Road led by my friend Srikara, on whom I have relied on over the years to know Bangalore better. We walked a whole afternoon and evening, with him speaking of the settlements, monuments, events and major developments around this old and very busy part of the city. It is anything but forgotten. Avenue Road is like those Angkor temples, which are engulfed by massive growth of tree roots all around. Avenue Road, much the same is enmeshed into the everyday life of this city and people instead of just trees. The throng of people on Avenue Road is perhaps the same as in earlier centuries, only a bit more dense with an expansive variety of goods traded in its bylanes.

A walk down Avenue Road is to take a break from the stiffness of history that holds structuralism and determinism with an unquestioning faith and from historians of that ilk. This road and the space around it, affirms the relevance of social history. To understand the transformation of this city social history presents a method that yields a nuanced picture of the city and its historical transformation. From this walk with Srikara, I return with a firm intent to venture into history as discipline because of dissatisfaction with political history based narratives of the city and its spaces. They are plainly inadequate in identifying the cultural and social richness of the past of a city. It is a transgression because I am neither a historian nor an architect. These are the two varieties of professionals that one comes across when it comes to writing, speaking and researching history of cities in India. Chronology is important. But with that chronological movement there is often a story told through lives and work of well-known personalities or story that is hero-led (think of the Dewan of Mysore, or Chief Engineer of the Presidency etc). This is the kind of history that is insular to everyday life. On heritage walks, one is likely to hear this variety of historical narratives. I am tired of them. The everydayness of life and spaces, which is situated at a distance from the day’s politics, holds as much potential in revealing a past that, if not better, can illuminate the present just the same as other methods. I was on this tour to know about this everydayness of life and people on Avenue Road.

Srikara explaining a beautiful series of motifs depicting Parvati and Shiva’s wedding ceremony, on the walls of sanctorum of Kote Venkateshwara Temple. It is located next to Tipu’s Palace in Bengaluru.

We walk along one of the roads that was once the center of the city. Bangalore expanded much beyond this old center, not forgetting, but shifting out into adjacent areas. The sprawl wasn’t expanding due to political reasons or changes in production relationships. This is where deterministic historical analysis is likely to run out of steam. Here is a city expanding, less due to politics or economic drivers but out of other reasons, one of them being poor hygiene and sanitary conditions in the old quarters. This could be a one-off event. These reasons don’t lend themselves well to the determinism that one would want to read in the expansion. Moreover, it isn’t that the settlements of artisans, textile workers (in Cottonpet), salt workers (in Upparapet) and others shifted out once new housing locations developed. Many preferred the congested and tight spaces of this old center then and in future. In fact, embedded deep in the bylanes running perpendicular to Avenue Road one finds the city’s oldest mosque, from a time the area was called ‘Taramandal’ during Tipu Sultan’s reign, one of the oldest chapel and several Hindu temples that are centuries old. All of these continue to be visited. It turns out spatial re-arrangements and civic engineering are not sufficient reasons for people to move out to where the engineered intent of the administrators might wish them to go. Instead, they stay. Their reasons often slip out of the grasp of a political historian.

The imposing wall is of Bangalore Fort and the space next to it, of scores of hawkers. This contrast and interaction with historical monuments has been fascinating to see in cities and towns across India. It is interesting to compare this with the sterilization that monuments undergo with conservation projects.
This is why I love guided walks. In all these years that I have ridden past the flyover in front of this shrine, I failed to notice this. This shrine, Dargah Hazrath Meer Bahadur Shah, is built over the grave of Bahadur Shah a fallen military commandant during the siege of Bangalore Fort in 1791.

In Social History and Its Critics published (1980) Louise Tilly provides a back-to-the-basics kind of explanation of the project of social history to its detractors and its utility,

One of the key impulses of social history’s development is (was) a populist vision that aims (aimed) to seek out how ordinary people lived and acted in the past. That these people seldom appear by name in the political narrative of events is another way of saying it is hard to discern their individual or collective consciousness in the narrow political sense, or that discernable collective consciousness is expressed episodically.

Avenue Road should be of interest to those seeking lives of ordinary people and a sense of what the collective lives of various social groups was like, over the centuries. It offers an enriching experience, with possibilities of finding narratives beyond the predictable ones of politics, architecture and urban design. For instance, in the motifs of temples, old stables for horses and elephants, cavalries and hubs of goods trading one finds glimpses of continuities to present day.
From this walk emerged glimpses of a city’s social past. I am intrigued and fascinated at the same time. Avenue Road is also rich in a kind of aesthetics which needs some time to sink in. Beyond the chaos of pedestrians, pushcarts and scores of hawkers, this aesthetics emerges in the temple motifs, in the shrines for fallen heroes and in dozens of minor ways that people go about tending to their trade or craft. Or one can just find a corner to imagine the visuals of stories that are told today, of events in the city. Either way, it appears a great way to explore the city, especially, for those interested in history. I could make a laundry list of observations, but I’d rather let Avenue Road work on the visitor in its own way. And for the rest, I am thankful to Srikara for the tour.

4 thoughts on “Social History and the City: A guided tour of Avenue Road

  1. I am envious of the depth of history of your city. I live in a relatively small and new city (of course there were people here for thousands of years but they did not settle but were hunter/gatherers). Thank you for sharing the rich history of this area.

  2. That’s the history that I like to imagine when I walk through old parts of any city. The lives and loves of people who walked there, the trees that witnessed the best and worst of human nature and the same continuum of sky that has been an unbroken link between the past and present.

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