Vishwaraj Mohan set out to create an alternative space, but why is his CounterCulture located squarely out of reach for much of the city? The city boy lets in on the story behind the space CounterCulture, and on what’s in store in the coming years
In August 2009, Vishwaraj Mohan returned from Mumbai to the city with a specific plan. He would set up a sprawling space in Bangalore for the arts. The pace at which shiny new buildings had sprung up had distressed him. “The glass buildings were going up, trees were going down,” says Vishwaraj, speaking over a howling blues record at CounterCulture, the “open space” he set up early last year. “The crassness with which the city was expanding was bothering the daylights out of me.”
Today, after almost two years of being open to the public, CounterCulture, located in an industrial part of Whitefield, has become known as an interesting venue for live events, besides its food and drink offerings. Vishwaraj sees the venue primarily as an “alternative” space, not a restaurant or a bar. He explained that the model he chose to structure the business around was a kind of Robin Hood model. The plan, he explains, was to use the food-and-beverage part of CounterCulture to make money that would fund “the arts”. In its first year, CounterCulture quickly established itself as a venue for live music particularly.
2011 saw performances by artists as diverse as Shaa’ir and Func, The Raghu Dixit Project, DJ Vachan, besides a full-blown blues festival, ‘Ode To The Blues’. Since December, in a deliberate bid to diversify, Vishwaraj began to “toy around” with the electronica. “It’s not techno or trance, nothing commercial. You can’t even dance to this stuff,” he points out, saying the focus is on experimentation. The electronic nights, called ‘0101’ in a binary language-nod to their digital nature, are held on Sundays.
‘Experimentation’ and a general sense of being ‘alternative’ was one of Vishwaraj’s self-imposed mandates; besides this, he had a fixed set of criteria when he started looking for a space in 2009. The chosen plot had to be large – at least 5,000 square feet. Space for cultivation was another requirement; Vishwaraj planned to grow produce. And because it would be a gig space, the area shouldn’t be residential (because neighbours could complain about loud music in the nights, he feared).
These requirements meant that he spent fully a whole year hunting for the perfect place. He was clear he wouldn’t pick a space in the savvy-but-saturated Indiranagar area; Vishwaraj was also reluctant about Koramangala, but did explore some of its industrial areas. “I didn’t want to be in some hyped-up joint, which has other market dynamics to work around,” he explained. He was out-bidded by IT companies for the spots in Koramangala that he did consider.
Making a choice
The space that he did pick, finally – the reconverted factory in the Dyavasandra industrial layout – is owned by a farmer’s son. “He still comes and fights with me. He says, ‘why are you eating my coconuts?’ I like that attitude… he really respects the plants.”
Pastoral remnants aside, isn’t Whitefield, too, quickly becoming an upmarket area, with shiny glass buildings round every corner? Did Vishwaraj foresee that? “We were recently called a ‘gourmet hub’ by an English dailythe Times of India,” he agrees. “It’s unavoidable. It’s because of the nouveau ew rich, the people who’ve bought houses on EMI. But I’ve blocked this space for nine 9 years, so at least for that period I’m here.”
Vishwaraj has been in the city since 2000, and studied Industrial Engineering in M.S. Ramaiah College. “If I have to call myself as being from any city in the country, I’ll say Bangalore.” The bar menu at CounterCulture is filled with subtle references to his favourite spots around the city, such as Tavern, Pecos and Dewars. Fittingly, then, it’s a particular ‘old Bangalore’ ethos – perhaps embodied by these spots – that drives Vishwaraj in his idea for CounterCulture. “The idea of having a greener space, not pretentious, a place where people can chill out…” he trails off.
During the months of his search, Vishwaraj conducted a hands-on form of market research: he would head out with a notebook in hand, spend all day at a restaurant, and count the number of customers.
When possible, he outsourced. “I would give the security man 200 bucks to tell me how many people came in today,” he said. He found that new venues tended to have a peak phase, after which it became difficult to sustain interest.
This strengthened his resolve to make the new venue primarily a place for music and performing arts. “If I spend x rupees on something, I don’t necessarily want to make 3x rupees off the event. If I recover the x, it’s fine. And sometimes even that doesn’t happen,” he said. “Sometimes we bring down artists even though we know they won’t be successful.”
That said, the gig calendar on a typical month at CounterCulture doesn’t necessarily read like a roster of avant-garde, experimental artists; it’s the popular, if independent, artists (such as Shaa’ir and Func) who tend to appear. “I’ve got to work with what we have,” acknowledges Vishwaraj.
But Vishwaraj’s personal agenda is also to move it beyond only being a gig space or some one-dimensional den of debauchery. “I wish to see ourselves closer to a Jaaga or a 1, Shanti Road. We’ll never do karaoke – we’re not a yuppy drinking spot.” On one wall hang newspaper clippings – not only coverage of CounterCulture, but general reading, as well; another wall, outdoors, is full of paintings by children; on another end of the outdoors compound is Gonzo, the gentle Rottweiler.
Clearly, there’s good reason for finding, on a quick search, references to the venue both on indie music website NH7 and a website called dogsandpups.net.
This month, a coincidental pitch of three tribute gigs led Vishwaraj to put together a month-long nostalgia trip. Time Capsule, in collaboration with Maraa, consists of tributes to The Chemical Brothers, Syd Barrett and Jamiroquai, to name a few. But they’re also revisiting Doordarshan, George Melies and the Mahabharata.
Visit counterculture.co.in for details of Time Capsule.