When a well-oiled system came to a halt

The last of the manual oil presses in Ganigarpet in the old city fell into disuse nearly half a century ago

December 19, 2012 03:25 pm | Updated 03:25 pm IST

Lone symbol: An old stone oil press outside the Chennakeshava temple is the only indication of the trade once practised in Ganigarpet. Photo: Bhagya Prakash K

Lone symbol: An old stone oil press outside the Chennakeshava temple is the only indication of the trade once practised in Ganigarpet. Photo: Bhagya Prakash K

Walking in the bustling Ganigarpet with its ubiquitous wholesale steel shops, it is hard to imagine a time when the name of the area actually reflected its character. The area in the old Bangalore fort region may still be called the “market of the oil-pressers”, as the name literally translates to, but the last of the manual oil presses here fell into disuse nearly half a century ago.

What will make you stop short, notwithstanding the jumble of vehicles and pedestrians that propel you forward on the narrow roads, is a relic from another time in front of the Cheluvarayaswamy temple here: a huge stone oil press (“gana” in Kannada) daubed generously with turmeric.

Forty-eight-year-old Narayana Babu, born and brought up in the area, is one of the volunteers from the Ganiga community who puts flowers on the old oil press every day. While the stone base of the press exists, the wooden pestle and other apparatus are missing. He remembers that the last of the oil presses also stopped functioning when he was a boy of three or four.

Local oil varities

“The making of groundnut, coconut and other oils was fully mechanised in Bangalore by then already. They used to make the more local varieties like castor oil and sesame oil,” he recalls.

Mr. Babu claims that the oil press stationed in front of the temple belonged to the late Doddanna Setty, a prosperous oil merchant and a well-known philanthropist who got the title “Janopakari” from the Mysore Wadiyars. “We found it when they were digging the earth to construct that building,” he says, pointing to yet another structure in the vicinity that looks like a pile of match boxes and seems to defy every rule on building construction.

Now a haphazard urban cluster, Ganigarpet was once a commune of oil pressers and merchants. This was one of the many petes that came up around the Bangalore fort area to accommodate different professional communities such as potters, weavers, rice and pulse traders, merchants and others. The Mysore Census report of 1891 says that a nobleman, Mallaraje Arasu, settled the first set of Ganigas in the pete region, though the period of this settlement is not specified.

‘Decaying’ in 1928

However, mechanisation that started in the early part of 20th century gradually made this profession redundant. The Mysore Tribes and Castes by Diwan Bahadur L.K. Ananthakrishna Iyer, published in 1928, describes the profession as “decaying.” It documents in detail the cultural practices and economic status of the community, broadly divided into Hegganiga and Kiru Ganiga. The former used two bullocks to extract oil from stone presses, while the latter used one bullock and wooden presses.

With the death of the profession, most Ganigas (categorised as 2-A under Other Backward Classes) have moved out of the area to take up other jobs or businesses, says J.M. Rajanna Setty, a lawyer belonging to the community. He recalls the contribution of Doddanna Setty, who ensured that at least a section of the community was educated, by establishing the Sri Lakshmi Narayana Trust that runs hostels and other charities.

“Today it is mostly people of the Marwari community who live here and run businesses. They have either bought up or rented property,” says Mr. Babu. Ganigas scattered elsewhere in the city come here to visit the Cheluvarayaswamy (also called Chennakeshavaswamy), Jyoti Nagareshwara and Lakshminarayana temples.

Reverentially touching the oil press, an anachronism in the heart of a mechanised city, Mr. Babu says: “This is something that reminds us that the area once belonged to us.”

Bangaloreans owe their first film-viewing experience partly to a Ganiga merchant who was a philanthropist and a patron of arts. It was a building in the Kalasipalyam area owned by and named after Doddanna Setty, much respected by the community for his social welfare work, that was converted into Paramount Talkies in 1905. The first Kannada talkie, Sati Sulochana, was screened here in 1934.

The last of the manual oil presses in Ganigarpet in the old city fell into disuse nearly half a century ago.

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