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Is Bengaluru India’s new culture capital?

Culture in Bengaluru is edgy, experimental, underpinned by a sense of deep social responsibility. As exciting new projects break ground, Lounge finds out if the city can aspire to be India's new culture capital

Dancers from the Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts at the Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru
Dancers from the Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts at the Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru (Samuel Raj/Attakkalari)

Bengaluru loves hype. There is a certain fond, “only in Bangalore” belief in its exceptionalism among the city’s residents, which manifests most often in the form of Twitter threads about its tech-savviness, its coolness, its edginess, its youth, its appetite for innovation and its relentless drive to prove that it might have arrived late on the world stage as a megacity that matters but it is in a hurry to overtake the established ones.

In some cases, the hype is unrealistic. One only has to take a look at the city’s famously inadequate physical infrastructure to scoff at such pretensions—how can a city that can’t maintain its roads have any claim to urban greatness? And yet, often you come across narratives from the city that make you feel that the hype and sense of exceptionalism that surround Bengaluru and its cheerleaders are justified.

Bengaluru represents the future; it provides a new platform for the expression of ideas that would be shown the door in older, more established centres of the arts. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the cultural sphere, where the city has taken great strides in the past few years, building on a strong tradition of theatre and the performing arts. It is home to Ranga Shankara, one of the country’s premier theatre institutions, and Nrityagram, India’s first modern gurukul. It has always had a strong Carnatic music tradition and is a city of readers, as one can tell from the success of its independent book stores, perhaps the only Indian city where this is true.

Also read: What it takes to become a hub of culture

Today, there is a new energy in the air as Bengaluru grows in confidence and wealth.

“This is a unique project—not just in India but anywhere in the world, and it could have only happened here,” says Malini Goyal, founder of Unboxing Bangalore, a multi-media project involving technology, culture, innovation and history that aims to create a new narrative for Bengaluru—a city described variously as a “pensioner’s paradise”, “IT capital” and “pub city”—that encompasses all these identities and more. In the works are a book, co-written by Goyal, a former business journalist, and Prashanth Prakash, partner at the venture capital firm Accel and chairman of the project; a documentary series on Bengaluru; India’s first technology museum, showcasing the city’s journey as a tech hub; and a festival that celebrates various aspects of the city, from science to literature, art, design and even beer, along the lines of the Edinburgh festival, to be held later this year.

“Unlike a Delhi or a Mumbai, where there are established cultural institutions and traditions, tech hub Bengaluru is trying to build a vibrant cultural landscape and is nimble and flexible as it does so. The city’s rich, many of them first-generation entrepreneurs—not just established philanthropists like the Nilekanis, the Premjis, the Murthys or Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw but a younger generation of wealthy people too—are willing to contribute to building institutions,” says Goyal. The public-private collaboration for this sort of institution building is also strong in the city, she notes. The tech museum project initiated by Unboxing Bangalore, for instance, is coming up on government land that used to house the now defunct public sector enterprise New Government Electrical Factory.

The same model is being followed by Science Gallery Bengaluru (SGB), which will get its own campus in 2024 with support from the Karnataka government and three academic partners—Indian Institute of Science, National Centre for Biological Sciences and Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology—that are a mix of public and private institutions.

“The city’s image is predominantly one of bros and booze and our aim is to change that through public engagement with science,” says Jahnavi Phalkey, director, SGB, and a well-known historian of science. “There is scope for that in Bangalore and we embrace that as a larger social responsibility. The trajectory of personal growth is usually profession—career, vocation; we want to say that the journey to vocation can start where you are.”

This sense of “larger social responsibility” drives much of Bengaluru’s philanthropy and funding of causes that are not just dedicated to the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—still represented in India primarily by food safety, sanitation and education—but self-actualisation needs as well, represented by the understanding that humans (and nations) need culture to sustain themselves and grow in interesting ways.

Visitors at the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP)
Visitors at the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP)

The prime manifestation of this came earlier this year, with the opening of the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), a world-class museum that came together because of generous private funding from some of the city’s wealthiest and most committed givers—starting with MAP’s founders, long-time art patrons Abhishek and Radhika Poddar, who provided seed funding for the museum, purchased the land in the heart of the city on which it stands, and donated their private art collection to it. The list of MAP’s patrons and donors is long—it includes not just companies, established foundations such as the Infosys and Wipro Foundations, and philanthropists like Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, executive chairperson of Biocon Ltd, but also individuals, like startup founder Aprameya Radhakrishna and venture capitalist Vani Kola.

V. Ravichandar, honorary director of the Bangalore International Centre (BIC)—a cultural institution that came into its own in 2018 with the opening of a larger, graciously designed space and has proved to be something of a catalyst in the quickening of the city’s cultural life—calls this the “reclaiming of public space by private institutions”.

“This kind of institution building in Bengaluru has been a response to shrinking public spaces and the need to foster the kind of conversations and connections that make real change and innovation possible,” says Ravichandar. He has been involved in civic issues in the city for over two decades and does see BIC as a game changer in the cultural sphere, largely owing to its dense programming—it hosts 325-350 programmes every year, one for practically every day of the year, ranging from talks, lectures, book releases and discussions to exhibitions and cultural performances.

Each programme is free for anyone to attend. “In our imagination, we want the vegetable vendor next door to come and attend the programmes,” says Ravichandar, noting that they actively encourage drivers and chauffeurs parked inside and outside the building to come in and explore the space and attend performances.

Besides founding donors like the Nilekani Foundation, BIC is run largely thanks to its members, who pay a one-time fee to join—unlike institutions like the India International Centre in Delhi, however, membership to BIC does not confer any special benefits, notes Ravichandar with some pride. “We are very clear about this—if you become a member, it’s not as if you are granted any special, exclusive rights or privileges; everything is open and accessible to anyone who comes to BIC, from the shows in the auditorium to the library and café. What you are doing with the money you pay to become a member is supporting the arts in the city,” he says. This unique model has the support of 1,100 individuals from Bengaluru and other cities.

It’s difficult to overstate the kind of impact institutions like MAP and BIC have had on the cultural life of the city—they don’t just operate in silos but create an environment in which collaboration, connections and ideas are fostered. In a city like Bengaluru, which is still in many ways a smaller, more compact urban centre than, say, Delhi or Mumbai, this is invaluable.

“It’s not a stretch to say that Bengaluru is India’s culture capital—I think it’s time we laid a claim to that identity,” says Arundhati Ghosh, who has been a cultural practitioner and curator in the city for over 20 years and was, till recently, executive director of the India Foundation for the Arts, a Bengaluru-based cultural and grant-making organisation that has worked to create alternate narratives of Bengaluru through its Project 560 programme.

“Bangalore has always been the experimental, maverick cultural space, from long before it became fashionable to speak in terms of cultural spaces,” says Ghosh. “While Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai are all rooted in a cultural heritage, Bangalore was new and old at the same time. It became an important platform for experimental visual arts at a time when the market for visual arts was still undeveloped, and so it grew in Bangalore in a way not shaped or pressurised by the market,” says Ghosh.

She refers to the many intersections of theatre, art, design, and the reclaiming of public spaces through art, that have been catalysed in the city—from Ranga Shankara, the city’s premier theatre space and cultural centre, to the work of visual artist Baadal Nanjundaswamy, whose street art capturing the inadequacies of Bengaluru’s infrastructure has received international attention.

“Bangalore’s uniqueness comes from a confluence of artists with imagination, platforms and institutions that foster this, and an audience that actively participates in this and is willing to go on this journey with them,” says Ghosh. “It is an imagination of the future.”

Subcultures and community

There’s barely a month to go for the Bengaluru Poetry Festival (BPF), which returns to the city in its sixth edition on 5-6 August. Subodh Shankar, co-founder of the performance space Atta Galatta and the poetry festival, is in the midst of raising funds for the marquee event.

This is not always an easy task despite the festival’s popularity, especially among young people, but organising it every year, says Shankar, is motivated by “a sense of personal pride and commitment to the people who have supported it all these years”. Along with the annual Bangalore Literature Festival (BLF), in which Shankar is also involved, it is community-funded. In fact, BLF is arguably the only large literature festival in India that does not depend on corporate sponsorship.

While Bengaluru has had mainstream festivals such as the annual art fair Chitra Santhe, organised by the government’s Chitrakala Parishath, Echoes of Earth Music Festival and the Bangalore International Film Festival (Biffes), the last decade has seen the emergence of newer community festivals that celebrate vibrant subcultures. There’s Gender Bender, which celebrates questions and fresh perspectives on gender; the Experimenta Film Festival, an international biennial that celebrates experimental film and moving image art; the Bangalore Queer Film Festival, an annual event that screens queer films from the world over; and the Bangalore International Short Film Festival (BISFF), which is officially accredited as an Academy Awards-qualifying festival.

In a city perpetually on the hunt for identity and aware of its inherent dichotomies, there’s the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS), which organises two festivals each year: The Urban Lens Festival, focused on cinema and the urban experience, and City Scripts, a literature festival that spotlights writing that dissects the city.

The second edition of FutureFantastic, the largest tech-art festival in India, took place over three days at multiple venues across Bengaluru in March. The theme was “Contemplating Climate Change Through AI and Art” and the programming included installations, performances, dialogues, workshops, film screenings and artist interactions—over 50 artists from across India and the world working at the cutting edge of AI art participated.

FutureFantastic Festival at the Bangalore International Centre (BIC) earlier this year
FutureFantastic Festival at the Bangalore International Centre (BIC) earlier this year (BeFantastic)

“We felt compelled by the need to get the creative and technology talents in the city to come together,” says Kamya Ramachandran, festival director of FutureFantastic. An architect and designer, Ramachandran is the founder-director of the culture collective BeFantastic, which emerged from Jaaga, a cultural space created by arts practitioner Archana Prasad and technologist Freeman Murray in 2009.

“As a society, we tend to silo folks into brackets like ‘artist’ and ‘tech person’ and one of our aims with this festival was to break those silos. There are a lot of people working on technology in Bangalore but they are what you may think of as ‘typical techies’—people working 9-5 jobs in large corporates. But there are poets and artists among them—people who not only work with technology but think deeply about it. We asked ourself how we could include them,” says Ramachandran. Take Blessin Varkey, who participated in FutureFantastic as a performer with the showcase ClimateProv, an interactive improv theatre experience. An AI specialist at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Varkey is a theatre artist who uses his work as a techie to inform his work as an actor.

Incubator environment

Bengaluru’s cultural climate encourages young artists, irrespective of their backgrounds and identities, to create and experiment. It has emerged as an artistic incubator of sorts that attracts talent from across India because the city’s institutions, festivals and communities are curious and eager to platform voices, art and performances that are alternative, abstract and don’t adhere to the mainstream formula.

“The city is welcoming and allows new things to happen,” says contemporary dance practitioner Jayachandran Palazhy, talking about the beginnings of the bi-annual contemporary movement arts festival, Attakkalari India Biennial (AIB), in 2001. Dedicated to contemporary movement and digital arts, the dance biennial has brought the best of contemporary world dance to the city.

Held over 10 days, usually in early February, it has treated Bengaluru audiences to cutting-edge choreographic works from international dance companies from Switzerland, South Africa, Finland, Canada and South Korea, among others. Over the years, the festival has also emerged as a platform for upcoming Indian dancers to showcase their work, many of them seamlessly moving between classical and contemporary dance forms.

Besides community festivals, the experimental nature of the city also comes through in the projects undertaken by individual artists. If artist Indu Antony’s bold works tackle class dynamics, gender and mental health, dancers like Rukmini Vijayakumar and Parshwanath Upadhye have been experimenting within the classical format of Bharatanatyam. In the early aughts, years before Gully Boy made Indian rap mainstream in 2019, Bengaluru boys like Brodha V and Smokey the Ghost were cutting their teeth in the form. The only inspiration they had in those early 2000s were American rap and hip hop stars. “There was no blueprint on how one had to go about making a name in the indie scene. I had to literally start from scratch,” says Vignesh Shivanand, aka Brodha V, while talking about how he got his career rolling.

“Daring ithiya? is a very Bengaluru slang and has an extra connotation beyond the English word ‘daring’. But that’s the best way to describe the attitude of young artists here,” says Nimi Ravindran, co-founder of the Sandbox Collective and Gender Bender.

A decade ago, while starting the Sandbox Collective, she and co-founder Shiva Pathak chose Bengaluru as their base because the city “was the most perfect space” for the non-mainstream, art on the margins work they wanted to create and showcase.

“Delhi and Mumbai may have the money but Bengaluru is the city that allows you to experiment without the fear of failure. It’s the place with a spirit that says ‘this is what I want to do and goes ahead and does it’,” she says. Artist and arts manager Masoom Parmar also believes that what strengthens the city’s artist incubator image is the healthy camaraderie in the artist community. “Bangalore’s dance community is very collaborative. I have seen how people promote each other’s shows. This attitude is encouraging because it’s good to share something together in this (creative) journey we have chosen,” says Parmar.

There’s no doubt that Bengaluru’s culture scene is busy but to truly own the tag of being a “culture capital”, these spaces and organisers have to engage with the wider city and be inclusive as well.

Recently, at a small open-air amphitheatre in the old commercial hub of Chickpet called Samsa Bayalu Ranga Mandira, we attended a show called Taala Tamate, a debut production by dancer Akhilesh Dayanand featuring an ensemble of transgender artists, parai drummers and contemporary dancers. The theme of the show was unfamiliar, the production quality less than sophisticated, and it did not feature seasoned artists. But that evening, as the performers stepped on stage, an almost full house watched the show in rapt attention—all while it rained.

Shankar believes that it is this generosity of spirit that gives Bengaluru its distinctive identity as a cultural nerve centre. “The city gently nurtures you without mocking at your failures. Bengaluru will allow those who are starting off on their own, without any connections, to come on stage and will them to succeed. And if they fail, it will hold their hand,” he says.

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