MacIver Town? Where’s that?” asks Sharath Maney on being quizzed about his neighbourhood. He’s lived on Lavelle Road in the heart of the city for thirty years — that’s all his life — but screws up his face in disbelief when told the answer. MacIver Town, or Shantala Nagar, as it’s now called (not that Sharath’s heard its current name either), envelops portions of the very heart of the city, with Kasturba Road, Lavelle Road and Vittal Mallya Road at its core.
Sharath isn’t the only one who’s never heard of MacIver Town; curiously, many Bangaloreans, have had the same reaction. The area is jinxed on that front: named after L.J. MacIver — who was Collector and president of the Municipal Commission of the Civil and Military Station between 1934 and 1937, and president of Bangalore Club in 1935-36 — MacIver Town has a rather amusing relationship with names. South Parade is now Mahatma Gandhi Road; Sydney Road, Kasturba Road; Grant Road, Vittal Mallya Road and Lavelle Road, M.L. Subbaraju Road, the last never having quite caught on.
Melting pot of cultures
As a BBMP ward, Shantala Nagar encompasses Bangalore’s central business district, and as a neighbourhood, these days, it is associated with a vibrant (and expensive) nightlife. But over half a century ago, and in a different way entirely, it was still an exciting place to be, says M. Bhaktavatsala, who moved to the Cantonment as a student in 1947.
“Jeeps would patrol places like South Parade and Brigade Road to make sure none of the soldiers had sneaked into the bars there.” Basco’s on Brigade Road was a favourite haunt, with ‘Gunboat’ Jack, the African boxer who had fought in World War II, recounting his stories to fellow patrons. “There were so many beautiful Eurasian women — all like Ava Gardner — but they all emigrated,” he says, half-joking.
Preserving the past
Bhaktavatsala, who was the first to contest the proposed demolition of the Attara Kacheri in a PIL in the ’70s, and later fought to preserve Bowring Institute, says he’s done more than anyone else in the city to “save old Bangalore”. He’s also been the president of Bangalore Club, an institution that preserves its colonial architecture and adheres to rules that may seem outdated to some, with its separate gentleman’s bar and dress code. “It’s only followed for its curiosity value, as a mark of tradition,” he says in its defence.
Before MacIver Town transformed into the shopping hub that it now is, it housed a number of tiny neighbourhoods right at its heart. Sophie D’Mello, a retired nurse, lived in a beautiful bungalow on Rest House Crescent Road for around 50 years after she was married in 1952. “You know, foreigners would come to take pictures of my house, and it was even featured in a book,” she says, referring to T.P. Issar’s The City Beautiful. After the house was sold, she says even passing by it was difficult — a block of apartments now stands in its place. While some old colonial-style bungalows still remain in parts of Shantala Nagar, most old houses have gone the way of Sophie’s, replaced by luxury apartments available for no small sum.
While a walk through Shantala Nagar can serve as a reminder of Bangalore’s colonial past, it also makes apparent the casual attitude of the city’s residents to its history. For better or for worse, commercial buildings now dominate its skyline, having edged out the monkey tops, bay windows and verandahs that characterised many of the older structures.
In The City Beautiful, Issar anticipated that many of the buildings featured in his book would soon fall victim to commercialisation, describing a house on Lavelle Road rather poignantly as “a doomed-looking but remarkable ground story bungalow set in a compound as neglected as the building”. Not all of the structures he wrote about in his 1988 book were similarly doomed-looking, but he was right; most of the ones in MacIver Town are gone. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that today, landmarks such as the theatres ‘Empire’ and ‘New Imperial’ exist only as photographs.