February 17, 2020
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The Brigadier’s Loops ’n Hops

Brigade Rd retains its coolness. One-half of Bangalore’s dual self for long, it has seen the city’s chimeric change of colour.

The Brigadier’s Loops ’n Hops
Come Hither
The pleasures of Brigade Road, lit up at night
Photograph by Getty Images
The Brigadier’s Loops ’n Hops

Can a street tell the story of a city? Of grinding days and nights, fleeting chronicles on vinyl banners, celebration and protest. When in Bangalore, take a walk down Brigade Road. The festive lights will be up soon and they’ll stay all the way until New Year’s Eve. A few paces in, past the watch store and the drycleaners who are still ticking, and pressing on, was where the first Kentucky Fried Chicken opened in India in 1995. Of course, it has moved now.

Had you walked by that year, Col Sanders’s glass doors would have been guarded by a platoon of reserve policemen. The ’90s were the era of big brands and their baptism of fire in a country newly opened up and, hence, roiled by anxieties. The KFC was wrecked by the farmer’s group, Karnat­aka Rajya Raitha Sangha. In Bangalore, it was a sequel to the act­ivism of the previous decade, when language framed a wide canvas of mass movements across Karnataka, bore pol­itical upheavals and melded notions of identity. That last bit—an elusive, ever-morphing quantity, just like language. Especially so in a city that can rightly claim to be a post-lib baby-boo­mer with messily acquired polyglossia.

What else was cooking back then in namma city, besides crumb-fried chi­cken? Well, plenty stuff that went nat­­i­­onal. Infosys had just gone public. Veerappan was reigning in the fore­sts. H.D. Deve Gowda, straining everyone’s credulity up north, went from CM to PM. Cafe Coffee Day set up its first outlet—on Brigade Road, again. And Vijay Mallya was taking Kingfisher pla­ces. ISRO too was a buzzing colony of space beavers, grappling with glitches on the INSAT 2-D. Locally, the city’s gangland was in churn.

Bangalore lived its twin lives into the ’90s—it still does, subliminally, no longer bound by territory as it was then. Brigade Road was the heart, so too was the old Bangalore pete (market), the twain having kept their places for several decades in the old order. To the new settler, these nuances never mattered much. The paradoxes persist—Bangalore is no city of ancient monuments, but some celebrated traditions live on. A city used to forgetting its pasts, some observers note. A city in perennial transition.

In the not-so-distant past, it was a town of powerful trade unions—public sector units, garment factories, guilds. From there, it went to being the world’s software back-office, one that Banga­lo­red the western enterprise. That sta­­nding leap into the future probably stretched a somewhat diaphanous fabric loosely draped over a complex und­erlying structure. The softening of the lines—between the cultures of east and west—were inevitable, to a degree of course, as Y2K approached. The city was the sum of its parts and, as the argument went, each jostling for the reins. The city was both welcoming and wary. Science grumbled at IT’s magnetic pull; IT grumbled at the civic amenities.

Then, away from the manicu­red, orderly tech oases there came a breakaway to adventurism which led Bangalore to its current avatar as startup haven. Still a test-bed, as in the ’90s, but for ideas. Global, glocal and now hyperlocal. Look at the modern ‘working man’s’ toolkit of apps—you’ll find Swiggy and Dunzo, both homegrown.

Some strands illustrate those multiple facets of a city on the move. Competing notions of aesthetics, for exa­mple. In the early ’80s, the Charles Cor­rea-designed Visveswaraya Towers and the redesigned General Post Office were built on either side of Raj Bhavan Road, the thoroughfare that visiting heads of state dashed past in convoy. A tall, modernist building versus the dome, columns and grand steps of the latter—there were critics and admirers on both sides.

Brigade was the best known street, but not a cultural hub. Carnatic music evenings were held in old residential locales.

In the new millennium, the gaze turned to Singapore as the model to aspire for, but never quite got there. Bins went away but the garbage didn’t—we weren’t ready yet for door-to-door collection. India’s, nay Asia’s fastest-growing city, was in the thick of things but lacked a cohesive plot. You’ll hear the refrain even now, in newspaper headlines after every state budget—did Bangalore get its fair share? Reflect on the frenetic growth through the noughties. Take popular technology as a metaphor. Music World settled into Brigade Road in 1999 with a drool-worthy collection of CDs—which was, by the way, just two years before the iPod launched globally. But a decade later, savants were prophesying video streaming as the new frontier. (A goodbye finally to ‘camera-print’, you’d expect. But no, the TV channel boom opened up a new, home-made variant of that on YouTube.)

It’s in this short time-frame that the city’s boundaries expa­nded radially, like ink on blotting paper, bringing in newer tensions. On the world stage, Bangalore easily rolled off the tongue, even if Kadubee­sa­n­a­­halli didn’t, to the flock of tech giants that flew in to settle thereabouts. Back in 2000, when a new outer-ring-road sec­­tion was being opened along the south-east arc, you couldn’t quite get your bearings. It was in the middle of nowhere. Today, you need GPS to pick out the swanky business location you’re heading for. Estimated arrival time? Well, just start early.

The one innovation from the ’80s that proliferated through all this was in food: the self-service, stand-up-and-­eat darshini that churned out idlis and dosas throughout the day. Brigade Road, meanwhile, was getting further away.

It was the best-known street in town b­ecause of its central location, even if it wasn’t the def­initive cultural hub. The Carnatic music evenings were mostly in the old residential locales of Basavanagudi and Malleshwaram in the south and north (though some die-hard rock and metal heads too came from there). Their market streets were bustling as well. It wasn’t the definitive shopping place either. Still, Brigade Road held its place as a cool place to be. Of course, other parts of the central business hub were a short walk away. It had the youth on its side—some hallowed colleges were close by. It even had a song to its name—the Bangalore-band Thermal and a Quarter penned one sometime in the early 2000s. Practically everybody has a personal memory of a good time loafing the street or, need we mention, the happy hours at the dens around. And, maybe a peek into the shadier parts of the night.

The place still looks somewhat the same, though brands come and go. The glitzy main street still peters out into a grimy section dotted by seedy bars and small shops that tell you nothing has changed in 20-odd years. Of course, its footpaths are bustling even now. Even the century-old Opera House has a new lease of life. It was once a dance hall, then a cinema playing B-grade flicks, and this year, it became a technology experience centre. By itself, that transition is somewhat reflective of the times.

But if you took that walk on Brigade Road now, it is the sheer sprawl of a teeming city that probably hoves into view. Life is throbbing on elsewhere in what were—just 20 years ago—silent, residential lanes or remote villages. It’s a megapolis now, with nerve centres across the straggle. Brigade Road isn’t the only place anymore.

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