City in a bottle: How Bangalore’s liquor industry has shaped its destiny

Raghu Karnad in The Caravan:

Long before information technology made Bangalore famous, alcohol was the city’s defining industry—shaping its identity for outsiders as well as residents. Though Bangalore is often called India’s “Pub Capital”, the pubs are just the frothy head on the pour.

Alcohol printed the city’s newspapers, produced its movies, put down hospitals and schools and sports teams—and ruled the men who ruled its people. It caused the worst medical emergencies, sweetened the long evenings and created the brands to which Bangaloreans feel truest loyalty. Yet Bangalore’s identity as a liquor city has always stayed in the realm of folklore. It has never been recognised in urban histories, only in jokes and in its hazy self-image as a town of “guzzlers”.

The city of Bangalore was born divided, as a colonial Cantonment and a native city, white and black twins. From the start, they had a divided drinking culture, of “foreign” and “country” liquor; alcohol has helped define the city’s split identity ever since. After the British left, the two halves of Bangalore were merged. They came together like two strangers with their backs to each other, not knowing whether to embrace or wrestle. As the two cities grappled, so did the two liquor industries.

This is the story of how beer, arrack, rum and whiskey—and the companies that made them—irrigated the growth of Bangalore from a quaint colonial outpost to a regional capital, and onwards to the promised land of the globalisation era. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, country liquor reigned, and its profits patronised a surge of cultural pride in the capital of a newly unified linguistic state. In the 1980s, beer and foreign liquor broke the ranks of country liquor, pouring out across the city from the former Cantonment. As a new consumer economy arose in the 1990s, foreign liquor seized the chance to name and claim city institutions. The battle of booze made the city, and today we drink inside the victor’s castle.

Right here is where the story begins. The ground now pressed under the mass of UB City was once the site of the Bangalore Brewery, which opened to ease the thirsty work of maintaining the British Raj from a remote, inland hold. In 1807, a small imperial garrison near the native pete (settlement) of Bangalore was expanded into a full Civil and Military Station. Similar cantonments were being built across the subcontinent, but the Bangalore Station was an especially powerful symbol, built on the site of a major battle, very soon after the defeat of a defiant ruler, Tipu Sultan.

The native “City”, to the west, was a dense, unplanned commercial cluster, filled with the clatter of silk and cotton looms and the vapours of cowdung. The “Cantt”, to the east, was a wide, spacious sprawl of parade grounds, church spires, barracks and bungalows, with great spaces given over to equine sports, like the racecourse and polo grounds. But Cantt and City were not only different, they were strictly separate. The border between them was topographic, administrative and, obviously, ethnic. The British troops, settlers, Anglo-Indians and Eurasians in the Cantt were served by an imported population of Tamilians and Telugu-speakers. To avoid being dependent on the native population, labour was never sought from the City. So the two areas remained aloof and mutually suspicious, until long past the end of British rule. More:

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