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Resilience & buzzing activity at Russell Market, Bangalore- March 26, 2012

Earlier this month on a work trip to Bangalore, I had written about how traders in the city’s Russell Market were taking a private initiative to rebuild it without waiting for the city authorities to do so. This trip gave me the time and opportunity to see for myself.

I found a bustling market in Shivaji Nagar, in the heart of the city’s busy shopping district near Commercial Street. Visiting on a Sunday, we saw crowds pouring out after finishing mass at St Mary’s Basilica, the oldest church in the city, which is right opposite the market. The streets were lined with vendors and it was a bit of a mela. Russell Market is an Indo Saracenic structure built in the 1920s like much of this part of the city, which was known back then as Blackpully.

The char marks left by the fire were apparent on the exteriors and interiors of the market. Inside, the place was a medley of assorted wares–flowers, vegetables, fish, meat, fruits, poultry, even shops dedicated to prawns! The trade seemed to be largely in the hands of Muslim tradesmen; having driven through a few districts in Karnataka the past few days, I could see that the influence of Islam runs deep and is seeped into the fabric of this region; and the obviously Islamic character of the shopkeepers was not surprising at all.

Naked, dangling wires were everywhere. Apparently, this was the cause of the fire, which had gutted 123 shops and required 29 fire tenders working five hours to douse! Traders have accused the city municipal corporation of having neglected their repeated complaint to fix the wiring.The corporation did compensate shop owners though (to the tune of Rs 50,000 reportedly), and the money is being put to good use from the look of the renovation work that is proceeding full steam. The renovation is focused on the most damaged part of the market. The rest of the place continues with business despite the charred walls and structure; the walls have been painted over where necessary and life goes on. Of course, poking around with camera did attract some curious stares, but none   hostile! Finally, one vendor asked me which newspaper I work for. When he learnt I am an architect, he seemed delighted. And I had to make a swift getaway lest he expected instant advice on the interior remodeling of his shop!

I returned with a sense of hope at the resilience of the ordinary person in this country. Despite systems breaking down all around, Indians have the knack to refuse to be intimidated by obstacles and Russell Market’s traders epitomized this. I was saddened, however, by the neglect of this lovely building by the city. Clearly a heritage structure, a public place that must occupy a significant place in the public memory of this city’s inhabitants, Russell Market deserves a better deal.

Market entrance

Buzzing streetside activity in this predominantly Muslim neighborhood

Naked wires, charred walls

Hindu Gods and puja flowers share the space too

Charred walls have been whitewashed over and the market is buzzing again

Architectural delight

Lots of meat. This was one organized market....

The new interiors...not much heritage, but who can blame shopkeepers for wanting modern finishes!

Moving ahead without the government: Bangalore’s Russell Market march 13, 2012

In the last week of February, I read about how a heritage market in Bangalore had been gutted in a fire. I remember thinking how tragic that was and wondering if an ugly mall would come up to replace it.
Imagine my surprise then to read in today’s local newspaper in Bangalore that the traders who had shops in the historic Russell Market had, on their own initiative gone ahead and rebuilt it! Not only did they spend a crore to hire a private firm to rebuild the market, they brought in city architect Anitha Suseelan who teaches in RV School of Architecture to provide inputs to the project based on documentation that the college had done earlier. There has been a reasonable attempt to salvage and restore original components and rebus the structure in its original style.
For traders, the decision to bypass BBMP (local government) and build privately was a no brainer! They were focused on restarting work. A delayed project would mean several months of livelihood lost. This way they are back in business in a month or less!
A great example of community led action and perhaps a trend setter of a new kind of urbanism. I wonder how to reconcile the excitement of this with conventional wisdom that asks every project to be approved by the government. An uncontrolled spate of anarchic building, however community centric, could create chaos! But then our present system is chaos nevertheless. So I will go ahead and take courage from Russell Markets story and wish for many more such initiatives!

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