Voices Monday, August 11, 2014 - 05:30
Chitra Subramaniam In a recent past life, I was heading a market-research company in Switzerland. We worked with industry leaders in machine tools, manufacturing, aviation, banking, IT and pharmaceuticals. During a visit to Bangalore with the CEO of one of the European companies ten years ago, we called on a CEO in Bangalore. He had wanted to explore business opportunities. Over lunch we came around to talking about how parts of Bangalore had broad roads lined with flowering trees, beautiful avenues and splendid gardens. The European CEO said he was pleased as punch to notice how Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel, a botanist/architect from Dresden – which also happened to be his hometown – had dressed and decorated Bangalore. Our host cut him short saying he had been to Dresden and took my friend through a conducted tour of his city, once bombed to smithereens now beautifully restored. That evening, the Indian CEO called me to say and I quote “…this German fellow is a really arrogant Hitler, lecturing to me about Bangalore. I just hope he will give me some business.” It may appear to some as a detail, but it’s precisely this attention to detail that makes people and institutions real, robust and sustainable. I share this story now because Bangalore was a very cosmopolitan and international city at the dawn of Indian independence. The erstwhile State of Mysore had some visionary leaders, three Dewans among them, who at the turn of the 19th century invited not just some of the best minds in the world to the city, but also nurtured a culture of science and technology, engineering and geology. Bangalore was the first Indian city to have hydro-electricity at a time when there was no hydro-electric power in British India. Being international is an attitude, a culture of respecting diversity and difference, a way of seeking and sharing knowledge. Globalisation is a direction, a limited market-access terminology, made popular for a host of economic reasons after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the emergence of the third pillar of the Bretton-Woods agreement in the form of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which went from being a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) to a punishing and prying free-trade policeman. I will write about multilateral and bilateral trade and their impact on large developing countries like India another time. Suffice to say that the Uruguay Round (trade talks) and the establishment of the WTO did to nations India what gunboat diplomacy and flag-waving charges had in the 17th and 18th centuries Bangalore’s big international push forward came in 1909 when Sir Jamshedji Tata established the Indian Institute of Science (IISC, erstwhile Tata Institute) leading to further cultivation of the science and technology environment that the city is famous for. When Sir C.V. Raman, already a Nobel Laureate in Physics, was invited to head IISC in 1933, that vision got a shot in the arm. It was during a trip to Europe in 1921 that Raman had noticed the Mediterranean blue and the scattering of light. Details matter, detailing counts. Bangalore was never a large job-creator (large mills and foundries), but it was home to India’s pioneering efforts in automobiles, aeronautics, telecommunications, brewing, machine tools and electronics to name a few. It was also home to Indian first mental hospital, now called NIMHANS. The last is important to note in a country which even today refuses to recognize mental conditions as a curable disease in most cases. The State of Mysore, like any palace, courts and courtiers, was not bereft of intrigue, but three gentlemen – Dewan Seshadri Iyer, Dewan Mirza Ismail and Dewan Vishveshwaraiya – institutionalized change and progress. They understood the importance of building modernity, news ideas and new thought into existing systems, discarding the old and inviting challenge. They were ambitious for their state and fearless in their pursuits. Stories about how each took on the British and sometimes the Maharaja of Mysore is the stuff of legends. I pick two from my favourites for this piece. Mysore had wanted to manufacture Chrysler cars in Bangalore and Wallchand Hirachand were in negotiations. Dewan Mirza Ismail had identified land for the project and work had commenced. Getting wind of the advances that the southern state had made, the British Empire scuttled the project through a series of intrigues including setting the Maharaja against his own Dewan. They argued that the state did not have sufficient reserves to provide the sovereign guarantee that was being asked by the banks. This divide and rule worked and Mirza Ismail resigned on the issue, the car project fell through but the site and its facilities were used to service planes and spare parts during the wars. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was born from this adventure. Dewan Seshadri had wanted to industrialise mining at the Kolar gold fields and a British Mining company John Taylor was brought in in 1890s. They wanted electricity, Karnataka had no coal, so it was decided that the city would explore hydroelecticity. But there was a problem. The British did not wish to over-taken by an Indian state in terms of technology given to their empire, so they tried to block that project. Dewan Seshadri brought in an American entity, produced hydroelectricity at Shivasamudram and supplied it for mining in Kolar and general consumption to the city of Bangalore. Any number of industries were brought in and encouraged by Dewan Vishweshwaraiya – paper, steel, porcelain, soaps and banking. They added value to the environment of knowledge, creating space for science and technology, sanctioning lands for public institutions, inviting excellence so the city could grow and prosper, building parks and avenues, lakes and libraries. Delhi’s streets didn’t have flowering trees till very recently. Details – it’s the detail that shows the direction. It’s the detail that shows the depth of knowledge. There were not many zamindars in Mysore State which was a middle class state. It had only two Jagirs – Sringeri established by Adi Shankaracharya and the Yallandur Jagir which was given by away by Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan as a going-away gift to one of their key ministers Dewan Poornaiah who had wanted to pass on his Dewanship to his son! A city is not global because the lights are on at night. It is not international because people speak English. The Bangalore of today is stuck between international and global, between reality and neon when there is electricity, like many parts of India. This is not a wistful recounting of what was and what is. If the city’s roads, drainage, hospitals and the myriad places of worship and congregation are in need of urgent repair and rethink, it is because the city has gone backwards in its search of a mindless and faceless globalization that is market-cap and stock-market driven. Globalisation shorn of fanciful words is about production and production capacities. Goods, currency, people and services do not circulate freely as this model of globalisation claims to do. Visionaries are cut from a different cloth. They take risks, real risks – they leap without nets. That’s what made California, that’s what made Silicon Valley, Bangalore’s temples of today. The American dream was not dreamt-up to play out as a nightmare elsewhere. It was hard-earned, it was innovative, new thinking, new frontiers. The next google will not come from India – it may come from a person of Indian origin. That’s the difference between international and global. The international anywhere in the world is quiet. The globalized, by definition has to shine. What the latter misses is what it compares itself to – a direction or an idea, a system or a process – all? Some even think Bangalore is India’s Silicon Valley (California) following the thrust of IT companies in the city in the 1990s. The other day I saw a hoarding announcing Palo Alto Heights in Bangalore. That is like finding a locality called Ganapathi-agraharam in Manhattan. Globalisation should have resulted in resources and massive job-creation in the former Soviet bloc when check-point Charlie disappeared. The current Crimean crisis is old fear in new strategy. The globe has a history including an economic history it doesn’t start when a handful of people decide it does or cherry-pick the flavor of the day. History matters, not the one written by victors and peddled by the vanquished, but the history of a people seen through their eyes. The globalized world may have discovered Bangalore at the turn of the last century, but the story of Bangalore and its quest for knowledge and adventure started a 100 years before that, if not earlier. Despite protests from British residents in Mysore, the botanist from Dresden – whose training also included architecture – was made architectural consultant by the then Dewan on Mysore. During the World War, Germans in India had been declared as enemies and Krumbiegel was among other Germans who were imprisoned in Bangalore. Italian prisoners of war were interned in the city too and they played volleyball to kill time. After reading this piece if you conclude that Bangalore had the technology and science to send an Chandrama ki Khoj Mein to the moon before Apollo 11, then I suggest you invest in Mountain View, stay home and don’t vote – exactly like you did in Election 2014. Postscript: A Bangalore-global was recently seen agitating and complaining in a shop in Switzerland that the clothes on the hangers had no price tags. Even in Bangalore we have bar codes on dresses and pant-suits, she remarked. A harassed member of the sales staff struggled for a bit and blurted out in broken in English that if the Bangalore-global was asking the price, it mean she couldn’t afford it. Damn – details are such nuisance!