Increasingly, Bangalore, now officially known as Bengaluru, is vexed by a singular question: Is it a world city? The way city officials regulate nightlife suggests one possible answer.
High above the otherwise modest skyline of the city centre in Bengaluru, India’s “hi-tech” city, a soaring steeple reaches into the sky. It crowns the city’s own replica of the Empire State Building and nestles amidst a cluster of high-end workplaces, international designer stores and elite bars and restaurants known as UB City Mall. In the shadow of these glassy buildings, one of Bengaluru’s newest nightspots, advertised as the city’s first craft brewery, is bristling with conversation over locally brewed beer. It is nine in the evening. In less than two hours, in adherence with state curfew laws for nightlife establishments, last orders will be called. Underlining the efforts of Bengaluru’s state officials to proclaim it an aspiring “world city” are the realities of everyday (and night) life in the local spaces of such an imaginary.
As patrons of the brewery reluctantly disperse at eleven, they will venture out onto streets laced with flimsy metal barricades to halt traffic. Policemen manning the barricades flag down cars as they approach. What follows is now familiar routine for many young professionals: An official detaches himself from the group and thrusts his face into the car. “Drinks kudidraa?” he enquires gruffly. Has anyone been drinking? “No.” He nods conspiratorially, declares the presence of “a smell” and says, “Uff madi.” Exhale deeply.
It is hard not to take this personally as a breath analyzer is thrust in your face. But there is little that appears personal about the large-scale efforts of Bengaluru’s police and excise officials—who often work at odds with each other, in competing circuits of bribery and patronage—to regulate the timings of bars and pubs, and the activities permissible within these spaces. Nightlife ends at eleven, live music is banned, and licenses to permit dancing or the use of dance floors are notoriously hard to obtain. The city’s current police commissioner assumed office last year only to declare that residents should be at home, indoors, by eleven.
Nightlife ends at 11 p.m.; live music is banned; licenses to permit dancing or the use of dance floors are notoriously hard to obtain
Over the last three decades Bengaluru has transformed from a slow and sleepy town proud of its solid public sector industries, agreeable weather and lush green cover into a somewhat manic metropolis claiming the status of a “world city”. The names by which it is popularly called have kept pace with the city’s movement. In the 1970s and 80s this south-Indian city was fondly known as “pensioner’s paradise” and “garden city”; in the 1990s it represented middle-class hopes and aspirations as the “IT city” and “India’s pub capital”; currently it is the dry but unmistakably dismal “ban-city”—or “Ban-galore” as some have dubbed it. The state government officially announced a change in the city’s name, from the anglicized Bangalore to the pre-colonial Bengaluru, in 2006. What can the shifting affective registers by which the city is popularly known tell us about lives lived amidst the backdrop of an unfolding global imaginary?
A recent history of Bengaluru’s “worlding” might reasonably begin in the mid-1980s when the first few international corporations began to consider Bangalore as a site for offshore information processing work. In many ways, this was the perfect city: as a former British cantonment, English was widely spoken; some of the country’s most valuable skilled professionals graduated from the many engineering colleges in the region; and successive governments had supported the growth of prominent large-scale public-sector industries. By the 1990s, Bangalore was known as India’s Silicon Valley, a leading international site for offshore work in information technology and biotechnology.
As the city moved from being a major public sector employer in the 1980s, to become a city identified with private employers in the 1990s, it wasn’t just the nature of workplaces that were transforming. In the mid-1980s, Ashok Sadhwani, a young entrepreneur travelling in the UK with his wife, was struck by the thriving pub culture he saw all around him, and decided to infuse the topography of his home city with some of this same spirit. Bangalore’s first “British-style pub”—it was simply named The Pub—soon opened on Church Street, a central street in the city. In a few years, the area was filled with a rash of pubs: they played Pink Floyd, offered draught beer, and seated scores of young male software engineers enjoying their beer in small groups. The inauguration of the new pubs was accompanied by another first: the introduction of bouncers to maintain the middle-class respectability of spaces that were soon increasingly filled by both young men and women enjoying their beer.
As private, often global, interests control land, resources and employment, in effect defining the grammar of ‘global’ living, it is in the sphere of local nightlife culture that state officials can offer a competing imagination of the city.
In the years since The Pub, public party culture in Bengaluru has included discotheques, a brief flirtation with karaoke bars, lounge bars, neighbourhood pubs and, more recently, the new craft beer breweries. Sadhwani’s early attention to the display and performance of public respectability resonated with the state’s own desire to craft a ‘respectable’ cosmopolitan and modern city modelled on Singapore. In 1999, the city’s then chief minister, SM Krishna, articulated his dream of turning Bangalore into a Singapore with the launch of a public-private partnership, the Bangalore Agenda Task Force. This taskforce announced the joint development of the city by state and corporate stakeholders, a strategy that, to quote city historian Janaki Nair, “placed the corporates in command”. Joint partnerships between public and private sectors in which cities leverage their urban infrastructure in order to attract foreign capital—part of what Michael Goldman terms “speculative urbanism”—has led to the city eagerly sequestering public agricultural land to facilitate IT corridors and other enclaves of neoliberal growth. While urban growth and infrastructural changes are fuelled by neoliberal logics, the realm of nightlife is left for government to regulate; it does this by relying on old colonial-style laws conceived for “public amusement” such as theatre and cricket matches.
In the 2000s, Bangalore’s nightlife industry was growing at a pace radically at odds with outdated legislation, which could not have imagined employees working across time zones and demanding restaurants and bars open throughout the night. Newer bars and clubs routinely flouted closing hours, staying open later than before and soon emerging in residential areas to cater to a young professional workforce. As the city grew, so too did the diversity of its nightlife, gradually straying from the expected standards of middle-class propriety. Each exhibition of excessive party culture was met with a strict, often violent, disciplining. Emergent conservative political groups took on the task of vigilantism, “busting” rave parties on the city’s outskirts, harassing party-goers and informing police officials who swept in to make dramatic arrests, all well-covered by local media. Media have consistently reported on the scandal of the city’s “dance-bars” whose main attraction is young women dressed in Indian ghagra cholis (skirt-blouses) dancing for male patrons who flamboyantly offer wads of Rupee notes in tips. In 2009, in a series of separate incidents, young middle-class women were attacked, ostensibly for being dressed in western clothes and out at night.
The state’s first right-wing government—the national Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP—was sworn in four years ago, and the consolidation of its power in the region suggests that Bengaluru might be the new “laboratory” for Hindu right-wing politics and springboard for the expansion of the BJP’s base into India’s southern states. The attacks on women in Bengaluru followed close on the heels of a more violent incident in nearby Mangalore, when members of a fringe right-wing group called the Sri Rama Sene (“Army of Lord Rama”) dragged young women out from a pub, beating them for being present in such a “western” space.
As police and right-wing vigilante groups aggressively curb a public culture of drinking, popular bars have opted to cover up in order to assume respectability and retreat from the gaze of the street. One well-known liquor store, which used to offer patrons a quick shot of whiskey on the sidewalk, is now covered from public view by a large blue tarpaulin sheet; similarly a thick crop of roof thatch now obscures a popular live-music venue.
While Bengaluru builds its multiple-lane highways, develops peri-urban areas into large gated housing communities and embraces neoliberal economic growth, its nightlife is managed Socialist-style: everything is tightly regulated and there is no excess. Licenses are hard to come by, except for five-star venues—it is believed they have the capacity to monitor their guests and prevent crime. For international media, the spectacle—or debacle—of an aspiring “world city” demurely shutting down its official nightlife at eleven has been a source of mild ridicule. Leading international newspapers frame this as a contradiction. “In India’s Silicon Valley, Partying Like it’s 1999”, read one recent headline, citing the rare case when someone danced at a bar as though it were still 1999, the wonder years before nightlife regulation became fanatic. However, the close state regulation (by excise and police departments) of nightlife has accompanied, not deviated from, the city’s transnational imaginary. As private, often global, interests control land, resources and employment, in effect defining the grammar of ‘global’ living, it is in the sphere of local nightlife culture that state officials can offer a competing imagination of the city.
In 2006, police regulation of nightlife became particularly intolerable for the city’s middle-classes. They banded together to form a protest group, Bengaluru Bleeding, and occupied a traditional ‘protest venue’ in the city centre to demand their right to live music, dancing and other aspects of what one blogger termed “life in a cosmopolitan city”. If Bengaluru is to be Singapore, why can’t nightlife be similarly replicated according to a ‘global’ standard? Both the protests by citizens and the official association of restaurants and bars have been driven by this question. In 2009, nightlife owners submitted an official petition to the governor, demanding that “disreputable” dance-bars be regulated differently from the “respectable” lounge bars. As the city aspires to a global status, political claims are enabled via the rhetoric of “appropriate” globalization. Blog sites, Facebook groups, private media, citizens’ fora and formal associations representing nightlife have all berated the state government for being unable to alter its moral compass to keep up with Bengaluru’s ‘global aspirations’.
Depending on whom you ask, different locations mark the start of the dismal story in which a thriving city full of promises for an aspiring middle-class became “Ban-galore”. One account has it that city police began to enforce nightlife laws strictly when bars stayed open long enough to offer breakfast deals in the early morning. Another places the blame with the city’s hundreds of dance-bars, linked in the popular and media imagination with vice and crime. Explosive fight scenes and violence at dance-bars—which often feature live cabaret music—are believed to have worried state officials into enforcing strict laws regarding dancing and playing live music. Those rules then had to be applied across the board, pulling into their purview elite karaoke venues and city discotheques. Despite the varied origin stories explaining Bengaluru’s nightlife tragedy, there has been little unity in efforts to protest punitive state actions. Instead class and the imaginary of cosmopolitan respectability has split public protests: middle-classes want to distance themselves from ‘disreputable’ dance-bars, and dance bar owners offer a provincial vision of ‘traditional’ enjoyment, marking their venues apart from the moral excesses perceived to be integral to elite bars.
While Bengaluru builds its multiple-lane highways…and embraces neoliberal economic growth, its nightlife is managed Socialist-style
As Bengaluru’s efforts to become a “world city” have been articulated in terms of neoliberal economic growth, the archive of official discourse around nightlife regulation too privileges issues of neighbourhood zoning, law and order, and debates over appropriate decibel levels. Some years ago, a police commissioner described to me the efforts of his force to close down nightlife at eleven. He cited the complaints of residents: noise, parking chaos, crowded sidewalks. He denied that the police ever considered dance-bars as inappropriate to an aspiring world city. By the end of our conversation, he offered the first indication that there might be a moral economy of anxieties, conflicts and beliefs accompanying the sanitised neoliberal growth discourse through which Bengaluru seeks to be global. “All these people from the north,” he said, referring to the professional immigrant labour-force in Bengaluru, “if they want to party till two, they can party, but they should do this at home.” The public spaces of the city would not be compromised to the party culture of a global workforce.
In the five years since that interview, as the policing of nightlife has gained increasing media attention and continues to mobilise citizen furore, the story that emerges is not simply one in which the cultural values of the “local” have sought to stave-off the onslaught of the economic and ideological restructuring that accompanies “world city” building. Instead, as the state officially hands over some economic power and decision-making to private bodies within the domains of land, employment and infrastructure, it is simultaneously participant in the crafting of a moral vision of the city, one that is undergirded by complex informal local economies. Thus, as the “world city” discourse heralds an imagination of the global, so too is it implicated in a moral vision of the local, making it possible, in Bengaluru today, for the maze of police barricades monitoring alcohol consumption to exist right in the shadow of UB City Mall, the city’s majestic paean to global consumption.