A city in transition

A city in transition


Pune is not the place it once was. Over the years, it has welcomed change with open arms. However, the city has retained its old-world charm and the quaint characteristics of the Maratha days, making every Punekar proud. Sudarshan Purohit captures the essence of the diverse city.

Shaniwarwada, the fort palace built by the Peshwas. Photo by Shruti Padsalgikar

Pune, Queen of the Deccan. Years ago, the British would retire from the heat and dust of Bombay to the pleasant climes of this small town amidst the Sahyadris. They set up their army cantonment to the north-east of the old town in 1817, renamed the place ‘Poona’, invented a game that was initially called Poona (and later renamed Badminton), set up a rail link between Bombay and Poona so they could get there faster, and probably thought they’d finally ‘civilised’ it.

But Pune was already an old town when they arrived. Historical records show there was a settlement at the junction of the Mula and Mutha rivers as far back as 1000 AD, although it was much smaller then. It really shot into prominence when it became the capital of the Peshwas (the prime ministers appointed by Shivaji to manage his kingdom), in 1730. As the Maratha kingdom expanded to cover most of India, Pune became its de facto capital. The British arrived only in 1817, so they were really latecomers.

By the time they left, Pune had become a thriving city. The cantonment areas were taken over by the Indian Armed Forces, and the civilians continued to live in the peths — that is, the neighbourhoods and market areas of the old town. They had already seen a fair amount of history here. Bal Gangadhar Tilak had taken the ten-day Ganesh festival celebration and turned it into a huge, community event as a way of getting his countrymen together and subverting the laws against assembly.

Gandhiji had been under house arrest at the Aga Khan Palace for several years, and had seen his wife and secretary expire there. Punekars had suffered a horrific Bubonic plague epidemic at the end of the 19th century, and had witnessed the eventual murder of the British administrator, W C Rand, who had come in and controlled the epidemic using military force. All over the town there were monuments with connections to Shivaji and to the later Peshwas.

All these events continue to have their impact to the present day, as history is wont to do. The Aga Khan Palace eventually became a Gandhi Memorial Museum, the Rand murder was immortalised in film (the film was called 22 June 1896), and the Ganesh Festival — well, it still remains the most popular festival in Pune, and has only gotten bigger and better.

During the ten days of Ganeshotsav, as it’s locally known, every neighbourhood hosts its own pandal (a stage technically featuring an idol of Ganesh, but also depicting scenes from myth or current affairs). The more ambitious pandal organisers also host concerts, competitions, plays, et al. It becomes a hobby for Punekars and tourists alike to tour the pandals and ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at the scenes depicted.

Even for the rest of the year, there are enough scenic and popular Ganesh temples to visit: The Dagdu Sheth Temple in the heart of the town, founded by a sweetmeat merchant in the late 19th century, and now managed by one of the largest charitable trusts in Maharashtra. The Sarasbaug Temple, set in the middle of a beautiful park (which used to be the city dump before the idol was discovered). The Kasba Ganpati Temple, considered the gram devta.

Scenes and sights

All this is not to say that Pune only has Ganesh temples to see — there’s a good variety of interesting spots. The heart of the city is the Shaniwarwada — the fort-palace built by the Peshwas. Besides all the history associated with the place, there’s also a ghost story. Apparently, at nights in the fort, you can sometimes here a young girl’s voice shouting out: “Kaka, malaa vaachwa!” (Uncle, save me!).

There’s the Pataleshwar Temple of Shiva — an underground temple that’s entirely carved out of a single stone. And, right next to it is an old temple dedicated to a saint named ‘Jangli Maharaj’, or the ‘Wild King’. There is, of course, the Osho Ashram, magnet for spiritually minded westerners for two generations, once the centre of controversy, but now peace has been made on both sides. The Pune University campus is sprawling and beautiful, and the central administrative building is British-era. It plays host to horticultural and other shows several times a year.

Other attractions in the city are popular with enthusiasts of the most popular outdoor activity here: trekking. The Chaturshringi Temple, Parvati, the Vetal Tekdi, and Hanuman Tekdi are all situated on hills, necessitating small treks.

For those who want longer treks, there are a large variety of trekking destinations all around. Not surprising, considering that Pune is nestled in the Sahyadri range. Shivaji and other Maratha kings built hundreds of forts on hilltops all around Maharashtra, and these serve as readymade targets.

The most popular of these for Punekars (but definitely not the easiest!) is the close-by Sinhagad Fort, reachable over a motorable road if you want to get there quick, and a three-kilometer steep climb upwards if you want the exercise.

On weekends, you’ll find hordes of enthusiasts climbing up, and enterprising villagers of the area selling steaming hot jowar rotis, peethla and cool curd in makeshift stalls. The interesting thing about trekking in Pune is that it’s most popular during the monsoons — there’s a special thrill to getting soaked as you walk, and enjoying the lush greenery all around.

Culinary delights

Tired of walking around? Then it’s time to enjoy Pune’s culinary specialities. There are, of course, myriad restaurants serving typical, wholesome, Maharastrian food in thalis — Shreyas and Sharvaree near Fergusson College Road are among the most popular. More specialised cuisines of the state are also available — seafood from the coastal Konkan areas, and fiery non-vegetarian food from the Kolhapuri area.

But if we had to choose one special dish to represent Pune, it would be SPDP – the chaat that’s a mishmash of languages as well as flavours. It expands to ‘Shev Potato Dahi Puri’ – Marathi, Hindi and English all in the same name. It’s best served at the iconic Vaishali Restaurant, where everyone, from pensioners from nearby health clubs to freshly-minted college-goers, gather. A stage play set in Pune would probably be called ‘Everybody comes to Vaishali’.

There are other snack items that are treasured by Punekars, and ferried all over the world — the buttery, melt-in-your-mouth Shrewsbury biscuits from Kayani Bakery, the spicy, tangy bhakarwadi from Chitale Bandhu on Laxmi Road, the several bhel and chaat-walas spread throughout the old town, and of course, everyone has his favourite vada-pav wala and will swear that no one can match him (my personal favourite is the popular pushcart behind Aurora Towers).

Time for some culture. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly Pune’s culture and demographics are like, because they’ve been changing so often over time.

In the years after Independence, Pune’s pleasant climate and lush greenery made it a popular retirement town for Mumbai folks, and it became known as a ‘Pensioner’s Paradise’. The areas around the famous Deccan Gymkhana club were filled with bungalows and flats belonging to the new Punekars. Slowly, though, commercial activity began to pick up and the hubbub of heavy industry arrived — first at Pimpri and Chinchwad, two satellite towns, then in the outskirts of Pune.

Along with the industry, the educational institutions here began to acquire a reputation as well, in no small part due to both industrial collaboration, and partnerships with the various government research organisations in Pune. And thus Pune had another sobriquet — The Oxford of the East. This began to change the demographics of the town, tilting the balance in favour of young students from all over the world.

In the late eighties, the quiet software revolution swept India. Starting from Bangalore, entrepreneurs and engineers created tiny offices in flats, to take out outsourced software work from the US. Pune was not far behind, and it soon began to play host to large and small software companies. While these were predominantly service companies initially, recent years have seen the growth of small, spunky product companies planning to make their mark on the world.

And the rise of these companies has triggered the latest wave of settlers in Pune — the software engineers. Many of them, US or Europe returned, have brought back their culture of professionalism to the city. Pune is now ranked among the top IT hubs in India.

Through the years, through all these visitors, Pune has kept the things that make it special for everyone. It has assimilated all the influences and created a special culture ‘chaat’ from it. Old-timers may bemoan the young whippersnappers heading to discos, but the cultural institutions that defined Pune 50 years back are still going strong.

Take the city’s thriving Marathi theatre scene. One of the oldest theatre traditions in the country, the Marathi stage is a vibrant playground for some of the best actors in the country, and it draws its influences from everywhere — from myth to literature, from current affairs to social mores. The format of the plays has evolved over the years from music-and-dance-based-plays, to socially aware dramas by stalwarts such as Vijay Tendulkar, to the huge variety of forms in the current day.

I remember one of the plays in the early nineties was based on a horror novel by Stephen King! Several popular stage theatres attest to the perennial interest in plays — Bal Gandharva, Tilak Smarak, Nehru Memorial Hall. There are several Marathi play competitions at the college level in Pune. The oldest, called the Purushottam Karandak, has been around for nearly 50 years, and all of them attract tough competition and much innovation.

Or take the most prominent expression of the city’s interest in Indian classical music: The Sawai Gandharv Sangeet Mahotsav. This music festival, one of the largest in the country, was established by Pt. Bhimsen Joshi in 1953. It’s an annual open-air concert, usually held in December, and in its earlier days, late into the night. Stalwarts and debutants of classical music perform over several days before a huge, appreciative crowd, patiently seated in a school ground. The Ganpati festival, through the years, has also become a time for music and dance concerts, organised by the various pandals.

While the Marathi film industry is mostly centered in Mumbai now, Pune hosted one of the iconic film studios — V Shantaram’s Prabhat Film Company, which made several landmark films of its time, including India’s first colour film. The premises of the studio have now been converted into the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), training ground for some of the best actors in India.

Across the road is the National Film Archives of India (NFAI), which contains prints of notable and rare films from India and all over the world. The NFAI also hosts a film club where members can see a film from their collection weekly. The road leading to the FTII has been renamed Prabhat Road as a tribute.

Pune also boasts of the ‘Boat Club Quizzing Club’, an enthusiastic group of quizzers that punches much above its weight in national level quizzing. The members usually join in their college years and stay on to practice and set quizzes themselves. A few of them have gone on to become professional quizmasters.

Any mention of Pune would be incomplete without a reference to the numerous government institutions that made its reputation: The NDA at Khadakwasla, training ground of India’s military cadets; the ARDE, the government armament research labs, C-DAC, which gave India its first supercomputer, NCL, the premier research lab…

Over the past two decades, Pune, like most other Indian cities, has been in the grip of the real estate boom — it has doubled in size, spreading out in all directions, new housing societies springing up on previously uninhabited roads. This is exacerbated by the influx of residents from smaller towns, to work in all the new companies springing up. As expected, it has strained the civic facilities the most, and caused old timers to bemoan the state their beloved city is coming to.

The great writer Pu La Deshpande once (only half-jokingly) explained the most prominent characteristics of every Punekar: one, he must be full of pride for his city, and secondly, he must keep repeating the statement that “Pune isn’t what it used to be.”

But Pune’s done this before. It’s changed, expanded, accommodated, and somehow remained the same sleepy town it was during the Maratha days. How exactly it does it, no one quite knows. Perhaps it’s the famous Punekar pride that holds the city together.

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