Tuesday, 19 August 2014

GANDHI AT A 140-YEAR-OLD HERITAGE BUILDING IN BANGALORE

G for Gandhi at RBANMS 140-year-old heritage auditorium
“There’s a school teacher who has been painting his entire body with some kinda silver paint and transforms himself into a statue of Gandhi; and he’s been doing it for the last 14 years,” I was told. This was my introduction to Bagadehalli Basavaraju, a man I am yet to meet. That was story no.1

“It is one of the biggest institutions in the city. And do you know their annual cost of education per child is just Rs.800? That is way less than a meal for two at Koshys.” This was my introduction to RBANMS Trust of educational institutions. That was story no.2

I am a sucker for stories —  real stories, about real people. So when I was told that I had a chance of knowing more about story no.1 and story no.2 at one place — the RRBANMS Heritage auditorium — I didn’t think twice before driving to the venue.

It was over 7 pm on a weekday; there was a gentle drizzle and a nip in the air. I drove into the RBANMS compound — nobody would’ve suspected that a photography exhibition, G FOR GANDHI by Cop Shiva (yes, he’s a real cop), was happening at this place; it was quite and dark (the single tube light wasn’t of much help). Yet, I felt at ease; a comfort, which you find browsing through history books sitting in the cosy corner of your favourite room.


Beyond the gate and a lone security guard was the silent main building — it usually comes alive in the morning — and beyond this was an empty ground with a couple of old trees (ah, ample parking space, I thought; hey, don't judge. I'm Bangalorean) and at the end of it stood the 140-year-old heritage auditorium. Unpretentious. Serene. And wise — the way historical buildings usually are.

The tall-blue doors open into an unassuming hall —a simple school auditorium; you can almost feel the pleasant weight of memories of laughter of the children from a bygone era, on the walls, which has received a fresh coat of paint. High ceilings, well-lit, clean stone floors, a little wooden podium which must’ve witnessed little feet dancing, verses recited, plays enacted by children who now must be grandparents — there is ample character in the simple straight lines of the room; pregnant with reminiscences. After all it is 140 years old. The auditorium was here even before I was a tadpole in God’s Lily Pond. It did give me a pleasant chill to think that standing in the middle of the room.


I am told that in recent times the auditorium wasn’t in use as it was meant to be. Till RBANMS KALA RANGA and a bunch of artists and art lovers got together and gave the space a new lease of life — branching out like an old banyan tree to strike out fresh roots. For this auditorium it was turning itself into a gallery space. Overseeing this is Narrainswamy Mudaliar from a life-size gilded framed photograph on the wall.

T V Annaswamy, great-grand-nephew of Narrainsawmy Mudaliar, President of the RBANM’s Educational Charities had said in an interview with Deccan Herald: “They say his (Mudaliar’s)  spirit is still here. Perhaps that is why whenever we are in some great difficulty, it somehow gets resolved. I don’t take a single decision without looking at him (the photograph). He is a role model for most of his family members.”

Being a Bangalorean, I was aware of RBANMS educational institutions and the man who started it all  — Arcot Narrainsawmy Mudaliar. But never, until that evening, got a chance to enter one of the school premises and be introduced to the fascinating story of Mudaliar.

Narainswamy Mudaliar was a typical rags-to-riches story. He was born in an aristocratic family that had lost all its fortune by the time he was 10. He also lost his father at this time and being the eldest son, he was responsible for his widowed mother and younger siblings. In his early twenties he began trading in vegetables and salt between Bangalore and Madras. He became a successful businessman and like all good businessmen diversified into other businesses; he built the iconic Atta Katcheri building, which now houses the High Court in Bangalore. He was also a good man. He built free schools and choultries, temples and the now famous RBANMS educational institutions for girls and boys and for the underprivileged. He died in 1910 at age 83.


Cop Shiva with art historian Suresh Jayaram
That evening, the heritage auditorium was starting its next phase in this contemporary world as a gallery space. And its first exhibition was G is for Gandhi, which led me to the second story of the day.  Bagadehalli Basavaraj is a school teacher who morphs himself into Gandhi to inspire his students and Cop Shiva, the photographer, has been following Basavarajj for the last 3-4 years; he would spend months together at the house of the “Gandhi impersonator” — all this has resulted in a series of stunning black and white images; striking in its starkness and simplicity. Black and white has stripped the images of all colour only to highlight the raw emotions of the people frozen in the frames.

Apparently, Basavaraju has been doing his ‘Gandhi act’ for the last 14 years. “Rather than vociferous campaigns to advocate Gandhism, he took to a visually stunning act,” Shiva says.  Basavaraju a  believer in Gandhian ideas transforms himself into a stunning moving, talking statue of Gandhi — he paints himself silver and dresses in Gandhi’s fakir attire. “He uses visual imagery to make an impact,” Shiva says. Basavaraju is mostly met with curious stares. But he never ceases his act and his act never ceases to surprise his unsuspecting audience — school children and ordinary people in villages and small towns. Some dismiss him as a mad man, some think he is a beggar and throw some coins at him, but all are curious. And when they ask him about is strange passion is when he teaches them about Gandhi and Gandhism. “Basavaraju simply wants people to remember Gandhi,” says Shiva.


The images of Basavaraju dressed as Gandhi in the midst of school children, flock of sheep, in a classroom, and even the transformation of Basavaraju from an ordinary school teacher to Gandhi….can make you stop and think about the man and his mission. And about stories – of real people.

G FOR GANDHIVenue: RBANMS Heritage Auditorium, 32, Dickenson Road (Next to Jos Allukas), Bangalore 42.Contact: 8971832482/9845001168Date: till 25th August.Timings: Mon-Fri: 4 pm – 7 pm; Saturday & Sunday: 2 pm- 7 pm