You will rarely spot a vathara — a cluster of houses with a common courtyard — in the Bengaluru of today that is awash with apartments. Unless you are in Chamarajpet. The vathara s here have over time undergone a transformation, with one-storey tiled roof houses making way for match-box like buildings, but the central courtyards are still intact.
This ability to change but not beyond recognition is, arguably, the quintessential quality of Chamarajpet, the earliest planned locality of the city which completes 125 years this month. The locality continues to be a centre for classical music and Kannada activism, even as it grows congested with an ever-evolving demography. The all-pervasive traffic jams have not spared Chamarajpet, once known for its wide avenues.
Despite being the oldest locality in Bengaluru, the neighbourhood still carries a sense of being a planned layout, a vision that has lasted over a century. “The locality was designed on the lines of a chess board, with five main roads and nine cross roads, with an unlikely plot size of 30x108 feet, executed by the then Chief Executive Engineer of the Government of Mysore, Karpura Srinivasa Rayaru, who also later lived in there,” says M. Srinivasamurthy, honorary president, Celebration Committee of Chamarajpet-125.
Chamarajpet, built in 1892, derived its name from the then Maharaja Chamarajendra Wadiyar and was originally named Chamarajendra Pete; it was later shortened to Chamarajpet. “The only record of this date is in the Municipal Hand Book published in 1931,” says historian Vemagal B. Somashekar.
The area at one point in time was home to many literary luminaries, including Subodha Ramarayaru, T.P. Kailasam, Honnappa Bhagavatar, V. Seetharamaiah, M.R. Srinivasamurthy and Karpoora Srinivasarayaru. The great engineer and dewan of Mysore, Sir M. Visvesvaraya, also lived there for a while.
Old and going strong
The iconic landmarks still stand tall and provide a bulwark for old memories. Some of the old establishments — Prakash Cafe, Surya Book Depot, Chamundeshwari Coffee Works, Reddy Pharma, Vani Opticals and Vedanta Book House — continue to see thriving business and enjoy a cult following.
In fact, Kannada writer and IIM-B professor M.S. Sriram says he feels no nostalgia as there is a continuity in the social space and culture of the area. “I played in Makkala Koota and see our kids play on the same grounds. Relatively, Chamarajpet has changed little compared to say Basavanagudi, VV Puram or Malleswaram,” he says.
However, not all agree that Chamarajpet has changed little. “The street life was very vibrant here just 30 years ago. Today, [things have] become very impersonal, robbing the streets of their life,” says Prof. M. Sridhara Murthy, who has lived all his life in the locality. “Most of the old-timers have moved out of the locality, only to be replaced by a mercantile community that owns businesses in and around here,” says A. Manjunath, owner of Mahesh Tailors and a resident of 4th Main Road.
But what remains unmatched is a sense of homeliness that Chamarajpet invokes. “I spent some of my formative years in the locality and later lived in multiple cities before returning home. I now live in Whitefield. But I only feel at home when I go to Chamarajpet,” says R. Guruprasad, a techie.
With a temple on every street and being the seat of the oldest Sanskrit college in the city, the Chamarajendra Sanskrit College, as well as the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Chamarajpet is often identified as “Brahminical.”
However, Chamarajpet is probably the first ‘cosmopolitan’ locality in the city, with a mixed religion and language demography. The locality boasts of an equal number of mosques and churches, too, and has a sizeable population from these communities. Keshava Shilpa, the RSS headquarters and Idgah Maidan at either ends of the area, symbolising the diverse demography there.
“My father, an orthodox priest, used to wake us up with the azaan. As children, we often were taken to the Tawakkal Mastan Saab Dargah when we fell ill. Uttaradi Matha and the dargah at Royan Circle had a great relationship,” recalls Prof. M. Sridhara Murthy, a retired professor of psychology and a veteran resident of the area. Among the Hindus too, there is a mix of communities here and a mix of languages spoken.
However, Prof. Murthy says this cosmopolitanism has “degenerated” since the Idgah Maidan controversy in the late 1980s and the dispute over the broadcasting of Urdu news on television in 1994. Neelakanthaiah, a Sanskrit scholar and an old-time resident of the area, concurs as he says, “It seems to me the grip of right-wing politics has grown here.”
On a more positive note, Maqsood Imran Rashadi, Khateev and Imam of Chamarajpet Idgah, says the locality, despite a few disturbances, has essentially remained cosmopolitan where people of all faiths coexist peacefully.