Tejasvi vs Sowmya: Class, caste and counterculture in Bengaluru South

Bengaluru South is not just about IT parks, malls, and ‘pure veg’ food joints. Swanky glass-fronted buildings hide decades of social dominance and it has expanded to economic clout. Still, there’s a counterculture in the making.
Tejasvi vs Sowmya
Tejasvi vs Sowmya
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In a recent interview with a popular RJ, incumbent Bengaluru South MP Tejasvi Surya was asked to briefly describe something notable about each Assembly segment in the Parliamentary constituency. His description of the Basavanagudi Assembly seat was: “If Bengaluru is Karnataka’s capital, then south Bengaluru is the city’s cultural capital, and Basavanagudi is the crown, the sanctum sanctorum, of Bengaluru South.”

Surya’s answer is not surprising. His idea of “culture” is a euphemism for a Brahminical ethos and a consumerist culture propped up by the neo-liberal boom. It determines who lives where, in what conditions, and the economic prospects open to them due to their social identities. 

So, how did these elites come to define all of south Bengaluru?

Bengaluru South

One of the largest constituencies in terms of voters and geographical size, Bengaluru South has eight Assembly segments — Basavanagudi, BTM Layout, Bommanahalli, Chickpet, Govindraj Nagar, Jayanagar, Padmanabhanagar, and Vijayanagar. 

Although the BJP has won the seat since 1991, this time around, it is a battle of prestige for both BJP and the Congress given the current political scenario. Former MLA Sowmya Reddy lost the Jayanagar Assembly election last year by 16 votes, a seat which the Congress won five times since 1989. She has support in many parts of the constituency partly because she is seen as accessible and responsive even though she lost the election and partly because of the clout her father, Transport Minister B Ramalinga Reddy, wields in those areas.

Even a cursory look at Tejasvi and Sowmya’s campaigns on social media shows starkly different approaches. Tejasvi is often seen meeting people out on their morning walks at parks and meeting residents of large apartment complexes in Basavanagudi, Jayanagar, and Padmanabhanagar, all affluent neighbourhoods culturally and politically aligned towards the BJP.

Sowmya projects a different persona. She is seen meeting members of posh resident welfare associations, posing with the odd woman autorickshaw driver she meets on the street or has held meetings with residents of lower-middle class or poorer areas on the streets and in community halls. She also has a significant following among women in several areas. 

Bengaluru South is more than what the poll campaigns and political pundits will tell you. It comprises Chickpet, which dates back to Tipu Sultan’s time, and Basavanagudi, which the British built for the elites of the early 20th century. It also comprises villages swallowed up by an expanding city so that little trace remains of the people there before. Bommanahalli and BTM Layout, for instance, have swanky IT parks, upscale neighbourhoods where the software engineers live, as well as large areas of one-room houses that thousands of garment workers (mostly women) and waste pickers from across the country call home. Even these are generalisations that hide many of the city’s residents from view.

Amid this churn is a counterculture that not just exists but thrives.

Communities that eat together 

The palpable communal rhetoric — which Tejasvi Surya often repeats — that has gained public currency in the last few years does not find acceptance in many parts of Bengaluru South. Rather, relations between different castes and religious groups are close, and the festival season — Ugadi and Eid — were occasions to celebrate for everyone. 

Thirty-five-year-old Vijay Venkatesh, of Vivekananda Vasathi Sankeerana (VVS) in Jayanagar, says that when there is a festival, everyone turns up to help decorate and the food flows. Most of the residents of the slum eat meat, especially beef. 

In Muslim-dominated Tilaknagar too, the situation is similar. Syed Ahmed (37), who runs an auto parts shop, says that the communal atmosphere does have him worried, but there has been no trouble in his neighbourhood. “You saw the Mariamma temple when you came, right? On one side of that is a big mosque, and down the road in the opposite direction is the church. Everybody celebrates every festival here. Festivals are days of affection, days to enjoy food. We got so much obbattu (sweet flatbread) two days ago on Ugadi,” he says. 

On the day of our visit, he had drawn up two lists of his non-Muslim friends to invite for Eid lunch. “To my friends who eat meat, we will serve all the traditional Eid dishes. For the vegetarians, we have sweet boxes at home.”

Asked why he invites his non-Muslim friends for Eid, he quotes lines from Mohammed Iqbal’s famous poem, “Mazhab nahi sikhata, aapas me bair rakhna” (Religion does not teach you to hate another).

Counter culture

Southern Bengaluru, and Basavanagudi in particular, is definitely the “headquarters” of Indian classical music in the city, says Arun Sivag, a Bengaluru-based musician and founder of Global Kulture. A folk musician, he set up Global Kulture — in Basavanagudi — to create a space for musicians and artists to keep tribal and folk music traditions alive. In his experience, venues in this part of the city have little space for folk music, except as an opening act for a more prominent classical artiste or privately organised non-music events which invite folk musicians. “It’s hard for folk artistes to find affordable venues in these areas. It would be good if there were more venues for folk music here,” he says.

If classical music is one end of the musical spectrum, the other end comprises a vibrant nascent rap scene in the slums of Koramangala and Neelasandra in central Bengaluru

“We live in Rajendra Nagar, not Koramangala,” 21-year-old Surya John corrects us. 

For Surya, culture is rooted in his neighbourhood. “Culture includes everything. Fashion, music, food, hairstyle, hair colour. So much of the fashion you see in Bengaluru comes from the slums. A hairstyle that someone had in our slum two to three years ago, I see it now in my college,” Surya says. “The mainstream copies us in the name of fashion. Then they call it theirs.”

He is one of the 13 members of a band called the Big Bang. Aged between 16 and 23 years, the band’s members rap and sing oppari and gaana songs to the beats of the parai and djembe (percussion instruments). (Oppari is a form of mourning music, and gaana is a genre of Dalit urban folk songs sung in northern Chennai)

“We are not treated equally. Because of the one barrier of caste, an old friend distanced himself from me when he found out my caste. When people find out I eat beef, they judge me. They say ‘chee’.”

For Big Bang, art is not abstract. “It creates consciousness. Our music will help take the ideas of equality, fraternity and liberty to people,” Surya says.

The chosen few

Surya John’s experiences are the result of decades of policy designed to socially exclude people. Tejasvi’s description of Basavanagudi as “garbha gudi” (sanctum sanctorum) is accurate, but for very different reasons. The sanctum sanctorum is a place, which only the chosen few are allowed to enter. That was, in fact, the logic of Basavanagudi’s creation 100 years ago, and that exclusionary character has expanded to other areas today. 

Basavanagudi is widely believed to be one-half of the port-manteau Malgudi, the fictional town that RK Narayan, a Brahmin, created for his famous series of books called Malgudi Days. (The other half is Malleswaram, another Brahmin-dominated locality.)

Malleswaram and Basavanagudi were two of the earliest layouts developed by the British after the outbreak of plague in the old city area in August 1898. The class and caste elite of the old city wanted out, and demanded that the British create permanent housing outside the old city, historian Janaki Nair says in her book The Promise of the Metropolis: Bangalore’s Twentieth Century

“Within these layouts, hierarchies revolved around caste, and in effect class, so that the largest and best-placed sites were for the Brahmin community. There were villa sites intended for the very rich but most accommodating of social hierarchies were the ‘five principal divisions for the different castes… Muhammedans, Hindoos, Brahmins, Native Christians, and Lingayats’,” she notes in the book. 

Basavanagudi’s rectangular design allowed houses to be built “facing the cardinal points in accordance with ancient Hindu usage,” Janaki Nair says.
Basavanagudi’s rectangular design allowed houses to be built “facing the cardinal points in accordance with ancient Hindu usage,” Janaki Nair says. Discovering Bengaluru

Basavanagudi also had a Brahmanara Koota (Brahmins’ Club), called so because many of its members were Brahmins, according to the book Discovering Bengaluru, by Meera Iyer. Officially called the Basavanagudi Union and Service Club, it was started in 1901 and was also known as the Masti Club, after Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, a Brahmin writer.

Fast forward to the 1960s and 70s, when Basavanagudi’s Gandhi Bazaar became the intellectual centre of the city, much like Kolkata’s famed Coffee House. Unsurprisingly, it was dominated by Brahmins such as Masti, DV Gundappa, AR Krishna Shastri, AN Subba Rao, YN Krishnamurthy, Sumatheendra Nadig, NS Lakshminarayana Bhatta, Gopal Krishna Adiga, Gopalkrishna Pai, and others who gathered at places such as Vidyarthi Bhavan. Very few non-Brahmins were part of this intellectual club, such as journalist P Lankesh and the poet KS Nissar Ahmed. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s headquarters, Keshava Krupa, too is in Basavanagudi. 

Nothing screams caste as much as food and as if that weren’t enough, several eateries in Basavanagudi, Jayanagar, JP Nagar, and Banashankari advertise their Brahminness by mentioning the caste in the name of the eatery. 

One outlet that has received much coverage is Brahmin’s Coffee Bar in Shankarapuram. The postal department even released a postal cover to commemorate 55 years of its inception. Banashankari has a restaurant named Brahmana Prasadam, whose Instagram page has a video in which Tejasvi Surya is being served food. Possibly the only time the question of casteism was raised about these eateries was in July 2022, when a Twitter user (now X) sparked a debate when they posted images of such eateries in the city.

Other food joints too advertise their caste. Vijayanagar, for instance, has Lingayat khanavalis — which are vegetarian — complete with photos of 12th-century philosopher Basavanna, founder of the Lingayat faith. Vokkaliga food is also commonly found across Bengaluru South in eateries often named Donne Biryani and Gowdru Mane, which serve meat, including brain and liver dishes. 

Even though some of the more upscale restaurants have meat on the menu, you would be hard-pressed to find restaurants serving meat in localities where vegetarians – including Brahmins, Jains and Lingayats – live. 

Vegetarians have also been known to force meatarian eateries to close down. Muruga, a 35-year-old resident of VVS in Jayanagar, recounted the experience of a friend who started a roadside meatarian eatery. VVS has around 1,500 Dalit and Muslim houses, surrounded by mostly Lingayats. “They objected. We know they’re Lingayats and that they don’t like the smell. Finally, we convinced the friend to close the eatery because we did not want to cause trouble,” Muruga says. 

Research shows that caste-based spatial segregation continues to this day. Bengaluru-based researcher Sumanto Mondal’s study titled Caste Lines in Bengaluru: Settled Outside the Pecking Order shows the existence of the casteist ooru-keri division across Bengaluru. Ooru in Kannada means village, and keri refers to the Dalit areas which are outside the village. This structure of the village was designed to provide labourers – Dalits – to the caste village. Sumanto’s study shows that many affluent areas of the city are located at a high elevation, and the slums – where the residents are mostly SCs and STs – are located in adjacent low-lying areas. 

While Sumanto’s study has only included slums declared as such by the government, he points out that when one looks at the topographic maps, the slums, whether officially recognised or not, are clearly visible. The neat grid lines of the fancier localities peppered with parks turn into a maze of houses packed close together, right where the elevation decreases.

One of the clearest examples of this, Sumanto’s data shows, is Basavanagudi, whose original rectangular layout designed 100 years ago, is still visible, unchanged. Nearby is a government-declared slum.

The area highlighted in red shows the planned streets of Basavanagudi on Google Earth. The blue area on the left is a government-declared slum, with buildings tightly packed together.
The area highlighted in red shows the planned streets of Basavanagudi on Google Earth. The blue area on the left is a government-declared slum, with buildings tightly packed together.

IT city and Reddy Rajya

From Tipu Sultan’s time to the colonial period, Bengaluru’s economy was largely fuelled by trade in the old pete area, the gardens run or owned by the Tigalas, and factories set up by Tipu himself. By the 1960s and 70s, economic growth came from several public sector units. 

Closer to the present day, areas such as BTM Layout in Bengaluru South became part of the IT boom of the 1990s. Researchers have argued that the IT industry gets disproportionate investment in land and infrastructure, and although the sector has seen high growth rates, it does not provide the majority of jobs in the city. In contrast, there is little data about the contribution of other industries to the city’s economic growth. 

While the technocrats hog media attention, there are other important players whose control over the city’s economy is not so well-known. “Today, Bengaluru South is Reddy Rajya. When I came here in 1974, Neelasandra still had grape gardens. Back then, the land was mostly owned by Tigalas (gardening caste). But slowly, over the years, the Reddys control the vote,” says R Prabhakar, director of Maarga, an NGO based in Ejipura. 

Political observer and activist Shivasundar says that Reddys and Rajus (Kapus), who migrated from coastal Andhra Pradesh and Rayalseema exert substantial control over Bengaluru South’s economy. “From being land-owning castes, they slowly moved into trade and real estate. Reddys have most of the contracts for pourakarmikas and many of them have developed real estate here, including tech parks,” Shivasundar says. 

After the neo-liberal shift, caste and class have produced what Shivasundar calls “a leisure economy” and “a temple economy” in southern Bengaluru. “All the holiday expenditure is in the malls. Compare the number of malls in south Bengaluru with the number of malls in Peenya (northern Bengaluru), a manufacturing hub and a very lower middle class area.”

A significant number of the constituency’s residents are in real estate, software, industry, or have brought their rural affluence into the city. “Their natural political affiliation is with the BJP.”

Disenfranchised voters

The quality of life in the city’s slums is poor across indicators and is well-documented.

A study done in 2010-11 of 1,107 households in 36 slums in Bengaluru found that education was a high priority for the residents, but only 10% of the highest-earning families could afford to send their children to school. Only 13% of people had formal jobs, most slum residents were employed as domestic workers or manual labourers. Slum-based micro-enterprises could not access traditional financial institutions, the study found, and those who set up their businesses had to arrange for the capital themselves or borrow money from moneylenders or others.  

A quarter of those surveyed earned less than Rs 2,000 a month, 93% of which was spent on basic amenities. Three-fourths of respondents earned less than Rs 4,000 a month and spent 91% of it on basic amenities. 

About 49% of women were married before they reached the age of 17. The median age at which they had their first pregnancy was 18 years, which is much lower than 25 in non-slum houses, the study found. 

The social marginalisation is also the cause for their political marginalisation, says Prabhakar. “We are disenfranchised voters. Our votes are not counted (in the overall scheme of things).”

Even though Rajendra Nagar is a large slum, delimitation has split the area into two Assembly constituencies (BTM Layout and Shantinagar) and three wards at the BBMP level (Koramangala, Adugodi and Lakkasandra). 

“Because of delimitation, we are not a decisive vote. They will never allow it to be that way,” Prabhakar says. “What is the logic of delimitation? One road is split and falls under three different seats. The idea is that there should be some slum votes in all these seats.” 

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