In fast-changing India, preserving what came before

Courtesy of Janakiraman family - This photo from 1938 shows Mr. Nagarathnam (center), who was originally from Madras but moved to Burma during World War I. His family members believe that one day, when Nagarathnam was traveling via train, he choked on a piece of guava and had to be rushed to the hospital. He died the very next day after this photograph was taken.

Bangalore, India — The main thoroughfare in the information technology city of Bangalore seems to change every day.

Glass-fronted malls and multi-level stores have replaced old family-owned shops. A chaotic rush of traffic chokes the street, which was calm and orderly two decades ago. On the former site of a 90-year-old movie hall, a giant hole is being readied for construction.

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“I wanted my city to grow and prosper, but I did not realize that my quiet garden city would explode like this,” said Bhoopalam Srinath, 54, whose clothing store on Mahatma Gandhi Road faces a new Metro station. “The boulevard was the heart of the city. It has gone now.”

Gone, and soon forgotten, many fear.

As the frenetic pace of India’s economic transition reshapes landscapes and lives, people in cities across the country are grappling with feelings of loss and anxieties about what might replace their old ways. Social historians say they are trying to collect and archive stories about what is disappearing before Indian cities and culture become unrecognizable.

Some historians are recording people’s memories of old neighborhoods, cultural institutions, political events and struggles. Others are helping businesses preserve their archives, or using crowd-sourcing Web sites to gather people’s recollections.

“We are in the throes of change. Everybody is trying to cope with it in different ways,” said Indira Chowdhury, who heads the Center for Public History at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, which is recording the oral histories of residents who live and work along Bangalore’s new Metro route.

“People often begin with the framework of ‘everything was better earlier, things are worse now.’ They speak about loss. But in recalling an earlier era, people begin talking about the other cycles of change that the city has embraced in the past. That helps them cope with the present turmoil and not fear change.”

Srinath took part in an urban oral history project in January conducted by Chowdhury’s department and spoke about the changes his 44-year-old store has seen. Another participant, a coffee shop owner who was facing closure, recalled supplying coffee to about 25,000 Italian prisoners of war who were kept in the city during World War II. Others remembered watching the Italians play soccer with local teams, and the proliferation of pizzerias in the city after the war ended.

In other cities, including Jamshedpur and Kolkata in eastern India, neighbors are getting together to record their memories and preserve photographs of their changing neighborhoods. A few big businesses have hired historians and archivists to capture and preserve their early beginnings and their role in nation-building soon after India attained independence in 1947 from British colonial rule.

Just over a decade ago, Bangalore was the model of India’s success story — a center for outsourced jobs and a launching pad for IT entrepreneurs, with a young, educated workforce. Its promise drew hundreds of international high-tech companies.

Bangalore also became a microcosm of India’s challenges. The population nearly doubled in 10 years, to more than 9.5 million people. Poor infrastructure, inefficient governance, and higher incomes and rising expectations created chaos.

As a result of the growth, Bangalore, like many cities, is playing catch-up. Now, torn up roads, the destruction of landmark buildings, inadequate public transport, pollution, traffic jams and construction zones seem to define it.

Anusha Yadav, a documentary photographer who started a crowd-sourcing visual memory portal called the Indian Memory Project, said that despite rising incomes, Indians have squandered the chance to improve the quality of their lives and cities and are looking to the past as an escape.

The Web site has become a collection of family photographs and stories that chronicle fading rituals, sari fashion, war, marriage, migration, railroads and freedom movements.

“So much wealth and growth came so suddenly that there was no time for it to happen properly and with planning,” said Yadav, 37. “We wanted to quickly move to bigger cars, bigger homes, bigger malls and bigger cities. Now there is no rule of law, so much corruption. Our cities are choked with cars but have not enough water or electricity. We have made a mess, so people are digging up the memory of an older era for solace.”

Anupam Mukerji, 36, the founder of a cricket Web site, recently uploaded a 1970 picture of a family gathering at his grandfather’s home in Kolkata .

“It depicts a time when things were unhurried, life was simpler and people were content. Look what we have become now,” Mukerji said. “Every time I go for a walk, I see something familiar has gone missing because of new construction. I see road rage, people ready to pick up a fight everywhere. What you see in the rest of India, you see it fast-forwarded here in Bangalore.”

For many residents of Bangalore, the greatest sense of loss came when the city began digging up the central boulevard for the Metro line, which opened last October. Residents said the tree-lined boulevard had been a place where residents walked, sang and played chess. Many older residents recall seeing British couples walk holding hands before independence, a time when Indians shunned public display of affection. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was seen as the cosmopolitan heart of the city. Later, it became the site of the city’s annual art festival.

In May, historians from across India gathered in Bangalore to form India’s first oral history association, which aims to promote initiatives nationwide that record people’s contemporary experiences. Next year, they plan to showcase the oral histories at a national conference in the northern city of Lucknow.

One recent project conducted by Chowdhury’s students was “Lake Stories,” which recorded residents talking about their changing relationship with the city’s rapidly disappearing water bodies.

“In the last 30 years, we have lost more than 15 lakes forever because of neglect and construction,” recalled Machender Pishe, 72, who runs a store on the city’s central street. His father, who started the business 89 years ago, stitched uniforms for British troops and made gowns for British women. Now a glass-fronted three-floor store specializing in Western business suits, its past is preserved in photos on a wall at the entrance.

In June, Pishe and hundreds of others formed a human chain as part of a campaign to save the lakes.

“We litter, we ruin our lakes, we overtake from the left, right and center, jump lights, break rules. What is happening to us?” Pishe sighed. “We are losing our values. Why are we in this mad race? Where do we intend to go?”

 
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