Rishad Minocher calls himself a hospitality consultant, but he is really an epicurean who enjoys single malts, fine wine, good food and heritage buildings. He happens to live one: a 175-year-old gem situated in the center of Bangalore on Cunningham Road. Called Hatworks Boulevard, the one-acre property has now been converted into a series of high-end boutiques and retail outlets. Minocher and his wife, Anna, live in the back with their two daughters. “My grandfather rented it from the original owner, a British man and then bought it after World War II,” says Minocher. “After my parents passed, we five siblings were left with a choice: should we give it to real estate developers who would tear it down and construct a high-rise in its place or figure out another way? We chose the other way.”
Minocher and his wife travelled all over Asia and saw Chinese shop-houses being used as retail outlets in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. They decided to do the same with their home with an iron-clad contract to all prospective tenants. No major structural changes were allowed; and several architectural features could not be touched: the heritage flooring, mud brick walls, lime plaster, curlicues above the entrance arch reflecting the family’s Parsi heritage, and the Burma teak false ceiling, all had to be handled with care by the tenants. Even fixtures like air-conditioning units had to be inserted tastefully and not “be stuck here and there so that they are an eyesore,” as Minocher says.
Several years into the exercise, Minocher says that the family is happy with their decision. “We have the home to enjoy and leave for future generations. It is a great way to keep these old structures going. Even financially, the rents we are getting is commensurate with the rentals in the area,” he says.
Heritage preservation in Bangalore has taken an unusual approach for a city with such a young workforce. This resolutely modern city, known more for its call centers and software companies, has large tracts of army land and several buildings from the Colonial era. Winston Churchill served as a young army officer in Bangalore in 1896; and in fact, had outstanding dues at the beautifully preserved Colonial-era Bangalore Club, founded in 1868 by a cadre of British officers. When Prince Charles visited Bangalore a few years back and saw an entry in the displayed ledger book of the club from June 1899, in which, “Lt. WLS Churchill” was one of the 17 defaulters, he offered to settle the dues on Churchill’s behalf but the Club refused.
In the eighties, this city of 5 million people expanded and exploded, thanks to a nascent software industry. Homeowners who lived in old bungalows with their characteristic monkey-top windows and slanting tiled roofs were forced to make a choice. As the land they lived on became more and more expensive, many sold it to real estate developers who tore down old bungalows and built high-rise monstrosities in their place. A few homeowners, however, chose to do what architects call “adaptive reuse,” or turn their homes into offices, shops and in one case, the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA).
The NGMA building used to be the home of Raja Manickavelu Mudaliar. The Mudaliars are an Indian “forward-caste” community with extensive land holdings in Bangalore. They came from neighbouring Tamilnadu during the British time to service the British army cantonments with leather and oil goods— they could touch leather while their Brahmin counterparts wouldn’t– and never left. Two of the nicest homes on Mahatma Gandhi Road (MG Road) in Bangalore are still owned by people in the Mudaliar community. Arun Pai talks about them as he takes groups of tourists and natives on the Victorian Walk of Bangalore that he does every weekend under the auspices of Bangalore Walks, a company he founded (www.bangalorewalks.com).
The Velu family remains prominent and one of their homes is now a luxury boutique called Raintree. Raja Manickavelu lived in a sprawling 3-acre mansion on Palace Road. Minocher remembers stories from his mother who used to visit the mansion for dinner parties served in the family’s exquisite gold dinner-set. In the sixties, the state government acquired the mansion and in 2000, decided to house Indian art in its lofty premises. Architectural firms were invited to bid for the complex project involving landscaped gardens, a crumbling Colonial mansion and painstaking restoration. The architect who won the project was Narasimhan Naresh.
Naresh shepharded the controversial and complicated project through to completion. Competing architects carped that Naresh had won the commission unfairly; artists complained that they were not consulted in the design of the gallery spaces. Nine years later, in February 2009, the gallery was finally open to the public.
Since that landmark project, Naresh has developed a passion for restoration. His father, also an architect, was involved in Bangalore’s first restoration project. The city wanted to tear down the fire-engine red Attara Kacheri landmark building. “My Dad and his colleagues did something very smart,” says Naresh. “They invited the prominent English conservation architect, Sir Bernard Feildon (responsible for restoring Britain’s cathedrals, the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China) to come in and speak to the city officials. Feildon persuaded them to let the building stay, thankfully. It was a great victory for the conservation lobby in those days.” Today, the Attara Kacheri building houses the Karnataka High Court.
But such public heritage buildings are few and far between in Bangalore. They do exist; but far more common are the gated estates like Palm Meadows and Epsilon that look like California or Florida once you enter the gates. “Maybe we have too much of history in India and therefore very little respect for it,” says Naresh in explanation. “Historical buildings are seen as old fashioned and out of date. There is no appreciation of the physicality of buildings; no understanding that unless these buildings are preserved, the history of the city and the continuation of its fabric is lost. India’s old buildings are seen as archeology, not history; and there is a difference.”
Recently, there has been some cause for hope. A team of Bangaloreans have been working together with Bangalore’s government on what has come to be known as ABIDe (Agenda for Bengaluru Infrastructure and Development Task Force). They have been pushing for better conservative and restoration of Bangalore’s heritage. According to Ashwin Mahesh, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) and a member of ABIDe, the state government has announced the establishment of a “heritage cell,” within the municipal corporation, that would look into three areas: built heritage, natural heritage and cultural heritage. Such a move would be lauded by Naturalists and ornithologists like M.B. Krishna.
Krishna, who also was involoved in Bangalore’s urban lakes conservation plan, says that one-third of the tree cover that earned Bangalore its moniker of ‘Garden City,’ as disappeared in the last three years, mostly to make way for development. The Bangalore Metro, a citywide train system is being built and naturalists are already up in arms about the number of trees that have been cut to accommadate trains and stations. “The largest land owner in Bangalore is the government; and thanks to poor governmental policy, we are losing a large number of old trees to road widening and other work,” says Krishna. “Why can’t we come up with common sense solutions? Why allow a multi storey building in place of a two-storey building? This automatically requires road widening and cutting down of trees.”
Bangalore is one of India’s few cities that has large lakes such as Ulsoor Lake and Hesarghatta Lake, where windsurfers throng during the season. If implemented, the government’s heritage cell will look to preserve not just old buildings but also Bangalore’s lakes; it traditional and scenic neighbourhoods such as Malleshwaram and Basavangudi; and its parks. Currently, Lalbagh and Cubbon Park are Bangalore’s two large green spaces. Designed by German horticulturist Gustav Krumbiegel under the auspices of the Mysore Maharajah, both parks are distinguished by their profusion of flowering trees such as the bright yellow Tabebuia, Millingtonia, Jacaranda, Laburnum and flaming red gul mohar. These serially flowering trees scent Bangalore’s boulevards and provide a feast for commuter’s eyes.
Krishna thinks that the way forward is to get multinationals involved in preserving Bangalore’s green heritage. “Companies like IBM, Bausch and Carrefour come into India and try to create the temperate landscapes that they are used to within their corporate campuses,” says Krishna. “Inside they could use native trees which would not only grow quickly and flourish in Bangalore’s climate but also reduce their landscaping costs as well. Carrying the argument further, they could try to incorporate architectural elements like cross ventilation and lattice-work that are more suited to a tropical climate instead of building glass-and-steel towers that use more energy and electricity.”
The good news for Bangalore is that a dedicated band of naturalists, architects, and civic planners are making a concerted effort to not only influence the government but also educate the public and gain its support. “The real challenge is to educate people that old buildings are not bad buildings and they just need some TLC,” says Naresh. “We need to come up with a way to make them relevant to modern use.”