Bangalore Talkies: Conservancies changed face of Malleshwaram

It is art that has drawn me to Malleshwaram several times during Covid. Walking through streets where the artists have painted an ode to their neighbourhood is nothing less than a joyous and healing experience

by Shoba Narayan

Art holds a dubious place in many circles. There are those who say self-righteously, “I just don’t understand this modern art.” There are economists and investors who put a price tag on this deep human instinct to paint and express — just visit the Bhimbetka caves in Madhya Pradesh to see early rock art. There is the art that is taught in schools but as children get older, it gets taken out in lieu of maths and science. Globally, art departments are suffering from funding-cuts, thanks to the pandemic. And then there is art that is inclusive, expansive, out on the streets. Never before have we wasted art more than during this pandemic when we all have been stuck at home.

You want proof? Come to Malleshwaram in Bengaluru and you will see a colourful, spirited and resounding defense to the question: of what value is art?

It is art that has drawn me to Malleshwaram several times during Covid. Walking through streets where the artists have painted an ode to their neighbourhood is nothing less than a joyous and healing experience. But let us begin from the beginning.

In early April, a group of artists got together to paint walls in different parts of Malleshwaram (and all across Bengaluru). There is Anpu Varkey’s mural of the white sari-clad feet of a woman near Seva Sadan. Round the corner in a tiny lane, Chandana B V has painted the champaka or sampige flowers that fill Malleshwaram with its fragrance. Diagonally across the road is a woman contemplating over a fresh cup of filter coffee, by artist Enoch Ebenezar. Artist Girija Hariharan has painted a lovely portrait of sari-clad women surrounded by marigolds in the lane just behind Veena Stores, known for its idlis. Spandana Vella has painted sparrows, beloved to Bangaloreans. Saksham Verma has created the title ‘Malleshwaram in many hues’ both in English and Kannada. There are other artists who came together to form Geechugalu, a collective that has painted these murals.

You can see the photos of their murals across Bengaluru on their website geechugalu.wordpress.com or on their Facebook page ‘Geechugalu’ or ‘Bengaluru Moving’ that are posted along with the hashtag #malleshwaramhogona or ‘let’s go to Malleshwaram’. As a friend Madhu Natraj says: “Do you need any more proof that Malleshwaram is the centre of the universe?”

But then, I knew that, Madhu. It was art that took me to Malleshwaram.

What is interesting though is the foundation upon which all this art flowered. A number of civic and government agencies have joined hands with passionate citizens to create these murals and street art.

Take ‘Bengaluru Moving’ for instance. It promotes a cause that is dear to all Indians: safe streets for walking. Bengaluru’s traffic is horrible. That we all agree, even those who love this city. The way forward is public transport like Namma Metro and pedestrian-friendly streets. The goal is to encourage more citizens to use “non-motorised transport” like bicycles or our own two feet. But how to walk in a city that is all dug up?

Enter the lanes that architect Suchitra Deep calls “conservancies”. Suchitra lives and works in Malleshwaram. As we walk together through the congested thoroughfares of Malleshwaram, Suchitra quickly turns into tiny lanes that run parallel to the main streets. These, she says, are “conservancies” that were used primarily for manual scavenging when Malleshwaram used to have large plots with several bungalows. Today, these tiny lanes have no traffic and are a pleasure to walk through. In fact, I couldn’t believe that they were right in the heart of the city. No horns, no scooters, just me and the art that lined the walls. Very civilised and healing.

Suchitra has been mapping the “conservancies” since 2013. A confluence of grants kick-started her idea to convert them into walking streets. The community group she is part of, Malleshwaram Social, collaborated with Sensing Local which is an “urban-living lab”, according to its website. Sensing Local works on a variety of issues to help create sustainable cities. Together, they created M-ULL (Malleshwaram Urban Living Lab) and won a grant from the Department of Urban Land Transport (DULT) as part of its Sustainable Urban Mobility Programme (SuMA). Sensing Local also got a grant from Purpose with the goal of improving walking and pedestrian-friendly streets. These grants brought in the artists. So there you go: a government department (DULT) helping a variety of urban initiatives to beautify streets. Thank you, DULT, SuMA, Sensing Local, Malleshwaram Social and Geechugalu. Today, about 160 people are working together on this project.

What is Suchitra’s learning from all this? “I had many ideas as an architect but my own limitations stopped me from going further. Each collaborator we brought on board gave us more reach, but still we needed funds. DULT stepping in helped us with that and involved the government. The Purpose grant helped bring in the artists. The moment you have artwork on this scale, it makes it pop. So it takes the coming together of many individuals and organisations to make change happen in the correct way.”

Shoba Narayan is waiting for the dust to clear as she kicks up some dirt, all while trying not to fall into the gutter