Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Bandstand in Cubbon Park

The bandstand in Cubbon Park is undergoing 'restoration', PWD style. Right now, the roof has been stripped off and only the iron pillars remain standing. It's a little upsetting, especially because INTACH spoke, nay begged, the Horticulture Department to restore the bandstand more than a year ago. They were very interested in it, and asked us to submit a proposal for its restoration, which we did. Some phone calls, some phone-tagging, some emails, some re-sending, more phone calls, and the next thing we know, it's been given to the PWD for restoration. Not that that is a bad thing necessarily, but the PWD's record in restoration does not exactly inspire confidence.

The bandstand is - was - a pretty interesting structure. There has been a bandstand in Cubbon Park since at least the 1870s, but not where it currently stands. In fact, the earlier bandstand was probably where the petrol bunk near Koshy's is today. It was demolished and a new one built at the current location sometime in the early 1900s. The one in Lalbagh was built in 1863. This is just two years after the world's first ever bandstand was built in Kensington in England. Like others built elsewhere in England's then colonies, Bangalore's two bandstands also probably use steel imported from Scotland's foundries.

Of course, the bandstands were built for bands to play music in, and indeed, the Cubbon Park bandstand has been the venue of hundreds of concerts. In the early days, it was military bands that played here. By the 1960s, people came here in their hundreds to listen to musicians and bands playing Kannada hit songs. But in the late 1970s, the crowds thinned and gradually, the music wound down. Some years ago, an NGO called Prakruthi managed to revive the musical tradition. For four years, the grounds around the bandstand once again echoed with music and laughter. But funds weren't forthcoming and the show couldn't go on. But they haven't given up hope. MS Prasad from Prakruthi told me, "We are waiting for the Bandstand's resurrection and will always strive to showcase talent and make it a heritage site." I hope his wish comes true.

You can read more about Cubbon Park's bandstand here.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A star fort

I had been to Puttur in Dakshina Kannada a few weeks ago. A lovely place, with farms, groves, forests and lovely traditional houses, all set amidst undulating hills. The drive down to Puttur took us via Sakleshpur and just about 10km from Sakleshpur was a little gem of a fort in a place called Manjarabad.
Here's what the fort looks like in Google Maps:

To my knowledge, this is one of the most complete star-shaped fort you can see in India today, and certainly the most accessible. Back in the 1600s, star-shaped forts were all the rage in Europe, especially France and Italy. In that period, the French were universally acknowledged as being authorities on military architecture. The General Commissioner for Fortifications (yes, there was such a post!) under Louis XIV, Sebastien Vauban, had written treatises on the subject and was considered the foremost expert on the subject. His designs were used by military engineers everywhere. Fort McHenry in Baltimore, in the US, built around 1799, is a great example. The British built star-shaped fort in a town called Ninety-six in South Carolina dates from the mid-1700s. There are plenty of other examples from Europe, too.

Photo credit: miuina / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
Photo credit: miuina / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
In India, both Tipu Sultan and his father Hyder Ali before him had alliances with the French. Both had regiments of French soldiers in their armies and both used their services in the renovation and building of their forts. Most of the forts in their kingdom, such as the forts in Bangalore and Nandi hills, for example, were those that had been built earlier and which they renovated during their reign. Manjarabad was one of the few forts that was built from scratch in 1792. And it appears that when not constrained by a previously existing structure, Tipu and/or his French engineers decided to follow a European pattern much more closely.  Everything from the plan to the design of some of the elements within the fort, such as the turrets at the corner of each bastion, seems to betray a French influence. Compare the turrets or sentry-boxes at Manjarabad (left) with those in a Vauban-designed fort in France (above).

In India, Fort William in Calcutta, built in the 1700s, was also star-shaped. Here's a picture of it taken from Wikipedia. A lot of the original walls still stand, but as it is the headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army, most of us cannot get to it. There is also a star-shaped fort in Jhansi, again inaccessible to non-military folks, and another in Potagada in Orissa, which as far as I can tell, is mostly in ruins. In other words, Manjarabad's star-shaped fort is one of the best-preserved and perhaps the only example of 17-18th century French military architecture that you can see in India.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

An unusual motif

Dambal is one of those places India abounds in, a generic village, so to speak: hot, dusty, with a row of tiny tea shops where men in turbans sit around a table drinking chai. It also happens to have a 1000-year-old temple, a 900-year-old temple, a beautiful kalyani, remains of temples and basadis, and a ruined fort. Like I said, a typical Indian village!

Most people who find their way to Dambal, about 15 km southeast of Lakkundi, come for the Doddabasappa temple - a magnificent temple, truly one-of-its-kind, built about 1124 AD. Constructed when the Chalukyas were reigning, some people think it is a precursor of sorts to the flamboyance of the Hoysalas who started building their dazzling temples in Belur and Halebid at about the same time, but completed them much later. Like the Hoysala temples, the Doddabasappa temple is also constructed with grey-green chloritic schist. This is a slightly softer stone than granite which  most other Chalukyan temples use. Historians wax eloquent about its unique stellate plan. And yet, when you see the temple, it looks circular, not star-shaped. That is because the architects dreamed up the temple plan by taking a  square and rotating it eight times to get a 32-pointed star, which at first glance, looks circular. Ingenious!

Like the Hoysala temples, this one too is decorated on its outer walls, but not quite as profusely. And whereas the Belur & Halebid temples abound in images of sinuous gods and goddesses, here the recurring motifs are architectural elements from the temples in miniature! One very common motif is a single pillar topped with a little gopura-like structure. Very cute, methinks!

There is another temple across the street, also a Chalukyan-period construction. It is quite plain, especially when compared to the Doddabasappa temple, but still worth a look. There is also quite a pretty kalyani (stepped well) not far from the two temples. When we went, it was still being renovated. We walked through some fields to get to it and came upon it quite suddenly, without much warning. Stones were falling off its sides and the water was green with algae, but the setting sun turned the stone a beautiful golden brown. I loved the isolation and the pastoral setting.

But what about the fort and the remains of numerous basadis that Dambal is supposed to have had? I shall just have to go back and look for them. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The RBANM behind the RBANM schools and colleges

I had the honour of meeting Mr TV Annaswamy some days ago. Anyone who is interested in the history of Bangalore would probably be familiar with that name - he is the author of Bengaluru to Bangalore: Urban History of Bangalore from the pre-historic period to the end of the 18th century, a comprehensive compendium of information on Bangalore f
rom numerous, varied sources. I went to meet him not because of his role as an author but because Mr Annaswamy is the grand-nephew of Rao Bahadur Arcot Narrainsawmy Mudaliar, i.e., RBANM.

I had long wanted to know more about this man RBANM who had lent his name to so many institutions and grounds in Ulsoor. So I started from his death. I knew from Wikipedia and here that he was buried somewhere on Veerapillai Street so one morning, a friend and I set off to look for his grave.

Addresses have changed. So have people. Most people we knew had no idea who we were talking about. We were variously directed to the RBANMS grounds and an old hamam (which I have to check out sometime). Even the people at the post office had no idea where the grave might be. Finally, it was a sardarji in a tyre shop who knew exactly what we were looking for and directed us to the spot (unfortunately, I forgot to ask him his name, nor do I remember the name of the shop).

The samadhi was inside a neat little compound in a corner of a huge cricket field, opposite what appeared to be a pay-and-use bathroom and what I presume was a warehouse. It was locked and neither the puzzled person at the warehouse nor the drunk watchman at the gate to the warehouse-bathroom area (and the samadhi) knew when it would be open. From the outside, I could tell that a shrine has been built around the grave, but since I have not yet gone back to check inside, I cannot tell you what it looks like inside the shrine.

I was disappointed with the samadhi, but not entirely surprised. Not one of the people we talked to in the area knew about it or seemed to care. It was lost inside and belittled by its inappropriate surroundings. Right outside its gates, all I could see were huge construction debris and paraphernalia like huge tin sheets. But at least there was a board and the samadhi itself seemed very neatly maintained.

But the samadhi had piqued my curiosity and I wanted to know more about RBANM. Enter Mr Annaswamy. Well, actually, I entered his office and immediately noticed all the yummy antique furniture. "Everything here is antique...including me," quipped Mr Annaswamy. He was a charming, helpful and soft-spoken person, and only too happy to talk to me about his ancestor. Being passionate about history in general, he has taken it upon himself to compile as much of his family's history that he can. "My family thinks I am a little mad," he said, smiling at his obsession.

Mr Annaswamy had retired as the Joint Director of Town Planning in
the GoK and had written a book that was highly regarded, but here he
was generously giving of his time to a paltry freelance writer. He talked to me about his collage, helped me with photographs and entertained all my questions. I couldn't help but admire his humility and grace. I learnt about how RBANM could hobnob with Bowring and Sankey but never forgot his nationalist spirit, how he never forgot the help that the Maharaja gave him, how he argued for entry to temples for everyone fo all castes, how he had believed that wealth was something that was meant to be shared.

At the end of the interview, I came back impressed by one man, inspired by the other.

Friday, July 6, 2012

A slice of Paradise

I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a hike as much. We were at Bhagamandala, in Coorg, where the river Cauvery is joined by the Kanika to create a sacred confluence. We had just been to the beautiful Bhagandeshwara temple and were now off to Talacauvery to see the source of south India's most sacred river. But rather than drive up, we decided to walk up. I had done this 6km walk before, but that was several years ago, when I had come with a group of friends from the mountaineering club SPARK. I had very fond memories of that short trek. Would things have changed now? 

Incredibly, it is as if the years in between never were. As before, we didn't meet a soul along the way. The moss- and fern-covered old stone steps were just as I had remembered and it was still a delight to walk along the tree-lined path that wound its way through orange plantations. And there near the top of the hill was top was the small stone Nandi, looking into the distance where the Talacauvery temple was. From that vantage point, we could see the Talacauvery gate and temple in the distance, partly shrouded in mist. We could also hear cars whizzing past us on the road below. I couldn't help but feel they were missing out on a small slice of paradise. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Heritage Interpretation

At Hirebenakal
Over the last year, I have been working on a clutch of heritage interpretation projects for the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Some of these were at some megalithic sites in north Karnataka, some at sites that have Ashokan inscriptions, and a recent set that I just finished was in Bhatkal and Mirjan in North Kanara. Here are pictures of some of the signs. Concept, research and writing by yours truly. Illustration and design by two gifted young women, Sneha Prasad and Nikita Jain.

At Hirebenakal

At the Ashokan edict site at Gavimath. That's a portrait of Ashoka there!
At Bhatkal 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Why your grandma loves you

A good deal of my interest in science (in topics other than ecology, I mean) dates back to the time I was working on my doctoral dissertation. When staring at graph after graph became too much, or when I had just managed to hammer out another paragraph full of et al-s, howevers and therefores and really needed a break, my chosen method of chilling out was to browse science journals! I read up all the latest research on pesticide residues, acrylamide in foods, chimp behaviour, cooking oils, vitamin D, and sundry other topics in science. 
That was when I first read about, and was immediately intrigued by, the Grandmother Hypothesis. Since those early days, there has been a lot more written on that subject, including some pretty nice refinements that are stunning simple but exciting in how much they explain. The hypothesis - which includes explanations for why women undergo menopause and why grandmas dote on their grandchildren - had been on my mind a lot lately. When I found myself explaining it to a friend the other day, I decided it was high time I got it out of my system. This week's S and T section in Spectrum carries an article on the hypothesis:

What do women, whales and elephants have in common? Answer: The irreversible cessation of fertility that occurs well in advance of the end of the average adult life span.Or in plain English: menopause. In all the animal kingdom, only some kinds of whales, Asian elephants and women go through menopause. Naturally, scientists have long pondered over why this might be. And funnily enough, your grandmother might have a lot to do with this mystery.

You can read the rest of the article here.