Cantonment's early Tamil settlers have lent their name to schools, roads and businesses in the area

Walk down the narrow, noisy streets of Tasker Town and you will be mesmerised by the constant buzz of commercial and religious activity, the merging smells of street food, and above all, the stories lurking in every building and around every street corner. While the Bangalore Cantonment, formed in 1806, is linked to a sizable share of stories, perhaps the most fascinating relate to some of the Cantonment’s first settlers — the Tamil-speaking migrants who travelled along with the British army from the Madras Presidency. Be it the Labbe masjid on Ebrahim Sahib Street or the shrine of the sari-clad Arokiamariamma in St. Mary’s Basilica, some of the markers of Tamil culture in the area offer a tantalising window into Bangalore’s rich history

Tasker Town, according to researcher and historian Arun Prasad — founder of Discover Bengaluru, an NGO that documents the city’s heritage — was formed with land set aside by the military for those who were hired the army for tasks such as carpentry, housekeeping and gardening.

Waves of migration

Those who came to the Cantonment were by no means the first Tamil-speaking settlers in Bangalore. Anthropologist Smriti Srinivas, in her book Landscapes of Urban Memory: the Sacred and the Civic in India's High-tech City, suggests that the first wave of migration to the city by Tamil-speaking people took place in the period after the 10th century, while the second took place during the Vijayanagar period, and the third, in the 18th century.

With the expansion of the Cantonment came the growth of commerce. The fortunes of many were tied to the British presence; chief among them were the Mudaliars, who were mainly involved in construction and trade. The most prominent of them was Arcot Narrainswamy Mudaliar (b. 1827), the “Merchant Prince of Bangalore”, best remembered for the Rai Bahadur Arcot Narrainswamy Mudaliar’s (RBANM’s) educational institutions, including a school for girls started in 1886 and a school exclusively for the children of ‘untouchables’ started in 1883. Today, the Dharmarathnakara Rai Bahadur Arcot Narrainswamy Mudaliar’s Educational Charities Trust, located in Sivanchetti Gardens and currently headed by T.V. Annaswamy, runs 14 educational institutions.

Ties to the locality

On his family’s affiliation with the area, Annaswamy, a descendent of Arcot Narrainswamy Mudaliar, says, “We’ve been living here for so long we just don’t feel like leaving.” Not everyone, however, shares his sentiment; the alarming increase in traffic and overcrowding of the area have been viewed by some with dismay. Eighty-nine-year old V.L. Theagaraj — the son of V.S. Loganathan Mudaliar, who set up the pharmacy V.L. Nathan and Co. in 1928; an alumnus of RBANM’s institutions and a former resident of Tasker Town for around 40 years — remembers the area as a much quieter one in the 1970s, with several old Mudaliar families living there. While the Tamil Mudaliar influence is still evident in Tasker Town and Sivanchetti Gardens in the names of their streets, families like Theagaraj’s have chosen to move elsewhere. But that’s not all that’s changed: “These days, many of the younger members [of Mudaliar families] are not in business anymore,” he says, pointing out that some remain landlords in the area, sustained by the land their families were granted under British rule.

Influential role

The Mudaliar Sangam, established in 1929, holds programmes and get-togethers for members of the community on its premises on Osborne Road, but it is the Bangalore Tamil Sangam, formed in 1950 and situated on Annaswamy Mudaliar Road, that plays an influential role in the city’s Tamil community. With yoga lessons, medical check-ups and programmes involving scholars and religious leaders among its activities, the sangam, which has over 6,000 members, also holds Kannada classes, and its premises command a stunning view of Ulsoor Lake.

Poignantly, the Thiruvalluvar statue installed by the Bangalore Tamil Sangam at Neelakantan circle, a symbol of cultural exchange between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, has also come to serve as a flashpoint in times of conflict.