History & Culture

KGF: Memories of a mining town


This is the story of some of the world’s deepest mines at 11,000 feet, gold glinting off walls lit by carbide lamps; of a colonial enterprise that succeeded at an unimaginable cost; a story of a town whose heyday is revisited with nostalgia.

In Search of Gold, a 30-minute documentary directed by 38-year-old Basav Biradar in 2019 and released recently, traverses the history of the Kolar Gold Fields that produced 800 tonnes of gold, and its adjoining townships located 100 kilometres from Bengaluru, from its founding in the late 19th Century, closure in 2001 to now.

KGF: Memories of a mining town

Produced by Sahapedia with extraordinary camerawork by Tarun Saldanha, and still photography by Biradar and Venkatesan Perumal, the documentary opens with KM Divakaran, president, Bharat Gold Mines Limited (BGML)Industrial Employees Co-operative, presenting a case as to why the mines should be reopened, citing a 2013 Supreme Court order.

Biradar, a documentary filmmaker who also teaches Indian Cinema and Modern Indian Theatre at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, says, “I was drawn to KGF after visiting it. Even if the mines are not reopened, they should be preserved better as part of our industrial heritage and as a tribute to those who lived and died in it.”

The documentary portrays tranquil jade-green boulevards peppered with birdsong and gracious red-tiled buildings. It moves past rusting shafts such as Gifford and Edgar which went deep into the bowels of the earth, Victorian club houses with wooden bars and baize pool tables, now-deserted trade union offices, colonial bungalows, football fields bisected by meandering pathways, cyanide heaps and trains that pass through — a metaphor for the youth who have left KGF to the retirees and their memories.

KGF: Memories of a mining town

The documentary features Gayatri Chandrasekhar, author of Grit and Gold, who speaks on how John Warren and Michael Lavelle were the pioneers before John Taylor and Sons established a thriving company in the 1880s. By the late 1920s, there were five mines — Champion Reef, Nundydroog, Oorgaum, Mysore and Balaghat — employing nearly 35,000 people administered by the Mysore State.

Janaki Nair, historian and author of Miners and Millhands: Work Culture and Politics in Princely Mysore, says, “The company had absolute powers, expelling people from mines and the State. There was no Trade Union Act in Mysore till 1942 although it was passed in 1926 in British India.”

KGF: Memories of a mining town

Labour from the distressed districts of Salem and North Arcot in Madras Presidency was preferred, seen in photographs descending the depths using candles. Officials and engineers were European and supervisors and foremen were Anglo-Indians. KGF was also a study in caste and trade affiliations with the Communists, with the Self-Respect and Dravidian movements wielding their influence.

According to Samipillai and Chandran, mine workers with a legacy here, the sceptre of death followed the men everywhere. They died from rock bursts and exposure to dust, choked in the slush and fell into sinks, and sang songs that reflected a sense of the pit — ‘Yellow gold streaking through rocks is prised out by labouring lions’ and yet could not afford even a nose-pin for their women. One of the saddest scenes was the ignominy of the daily strip-search to ensure no one smuggled out gold. When it closed, 3,000 workers were on roll.

KGF: Memories of a mining town

The Anglo-Indians who lived in Robertsonpet, named for a British Resident of Mysore, look back at their days in KGF as a time tinted in gold. Well-known writer Bridget White Kumar and residents like Pamela Steiner speak of the good life filled with Christmas parties and band dances.

As the credits roll and the camera pans a town that is now a sepia-tinted memory, the song ‘If you ever go to Ireland...’ plays in the background.

Biradar asks Steiner what keeps her in KGF. “Memories,” she says.

For that rare sense of the old-world alone, this documentary should be watched.

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 4:23:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/kgf-memories-of-a-mining-town/article31406062.ece

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