One of the charms of shopping in an old market in the age of malls and supermarkets is sauntering around taking in the sights and smells of vegetables, fruits, flowers, meat, and fish produce while the hawkers call out for attention to their wares with on-the-spot discounts.
Nestled in the heart of Bengaluru, Russell Market is one such place. It began as an open marketplace in the 1820s for the sale of fresh farm produce and has been around for more than 200 years.
Named after a British municipal commissioner of Bengaluru who built it in 1927 along with a local philanthropist Sir Haji Ismail Sait, Russell Market retains an old world charm of local markets from a bygone era and transports visitors back in time.
A clock tower in the market centre dates back to 1820 and it was the location of market festivals in the 1800s, say local traders aware of the history of the place. The market also has a well, which was constructed in 1818 and a source of water earlier.
A British steel and engineering firm Dorman Long built Russell Market and the pillars of the market have seals and emblems saying “Made in England”. Mohammed Idrees Chaudhry, a dry fruit seller and the secretary of the Russell Market Traders Association, says a market in London is similar in structure to Russell Market.
The market is warm in winter and cool in summer on account of a water lock below its surface, according to traders. It has endured its fair share of ups and downs – a fire in 2012, lack of electricity for nearly a year after the fire, lack of sanitation and upkeep by civic authorities, efforts to evict the traditional traders to create a new complex, and the recent Covid epidemic.
With the redevelopment of the area around the market in Shivajinagar through a Smart City project, traders at Russell Market are looking at a possible turn in their fortunes from 2023 after suffering for several years due to changes in retail shopping practices in Bengaluru and the Covid epidemic in the last two years.
Traders are, in fact, planning the revival of an annual vegetable and fruit product show held around Christmas time, which was discontinued in 1983. The show involved traders competing with each other for prizes from the Bengaluru civic authorities for the best produce on sale.
For many old Bengalureans, living in east Bengaluru and its surrounding region, Russell Market remains the go-to destination for shopping on festival days and big occasions like weddings and parties. The market, considered a “mother market” for all other markets in the city, is also where big and small hotels and companies source their produce.
Between 5 am and 8.30 am every day, the place is a wholesale market where farmers bring their produce and sell it to buyers. After the early hours, the market transforms into a retail market.
“These types of markets do not exist anymore. These are the treasures of the city. We want to revive the old charm. We are struggling to do business here because there is no good sanitation, no proper toilets, and a water problem. We have not given up. We are able to manage small repairs,” says Chaudhry.
“Markets are meant for the public. As traders, we are only facilitating their living. If they go to malls, there are huge costs involved. If someone comes with Rs 10 or Rs 20, they can buy something at Russell Market. For farmers also, it is a key centre as they bring their produce here for sale from Kolar, Sholapur, Chikaballapur, and other places,” he adds.
Russell Market is often a spot for foreign visitors to experience a traditional Indian market. A few years ago, the prime minister of Portugal, the Indian-origin Antonio Costa, turned up informally at Russell Market during a visit to Bengaluru, according to the secretary of the Russell Market Traders Association.
“The customers at Russell Market are people who have been shopping here for many years. They come here because they get parking and the rates are low. They get good quality products and all kinds of produce. The PM of Portugal visited the market when he was in Bengaluru. He came without any protocol. He came with his family,” Chaudhry says.
The market is spread across two floors – the ground floor is where the traders are located while the first floor is a storage facility. There are nearly 475 shops in the market with fruit, flower, and vegetable vendors at the front, and meat and fish vendors at the back.
The vendors have, however, seen a downturn in fortunes in recent years – especially after the 2012 fire which is considered by some to be an act of arson to evict the market for its real estate value. The market on the inside is dilapidated – although the exterior has received a spruce-up in recent months and traders are hoping for more.
Changes in shopping patterns with the traditional shoppers at Russell Market growing old and a new generation preferring the ease of supermarkets and malls located in every locality has affected the volume of trade here.
“Now every area in Bangalore has supermarkets and markets selling produce and this has affected business which is only 50 per cent of what it was earlier. Covid has also caused disruption but now we are limping back to normalcy,” says Abdul Latif, a fruit merchant hailing from Thrissur in Kerala, who has been at the market for 30 years.
`”The BBMP has not bothered about the market and has been taking no action to maintain the market for many decades. We do not want to lose this market. There are many malls and many shopping complexes but these types of old markets are treasures of Bengaluru,” says Chaudhry, who has been at the market for 40 years.
“During the Covid period, the market was shut for two years. Many traders moved out of the market complex to trade in the open. The total market was under a loss. The market is full of small traders – flower sellers, meat sellers, and the sellers of fruits. We have seen horrible days in the last seven to eight years,” he says.
“There was a huge fire in 2012 and the government wanted us to vacate the market and come out but without any proper planning or clues. They never specified the alternatives for the legal shop license holders. They just asked us to come out of the market saying it is not fit. There was some game that was happening at the time. Due to the grace of the almighty, the traders were protected and the market was safe,” he adds.
“We survived a period when there was no power in the market after the fire. We bought 23 generators and we were running the generators with kerosene and diesel. The daily expenditure around 10 years ago was Rs 4,700 to Rs 5,000 per day. It was a huge amount for the traders. We never gave up,” Chaudhry says.
“With our own money, we carried out repairs while the government was saying that the market cannot be used to conduct business. In two months, we rebuilt the interiors of the market that had been damaged by the fire. The structure of the market is quite strong and it only requires some repairs. It can survive for another 200 years,” he says.
More than 50 per cent of shops in Russell Market have been closed since the Covid period and plans are afoot to carry out repairs of the interiors and bring all traders back to their stores. “We have made plans to revive the shops. We have held meetings and asked all the owners to come back to the market. We have said that we will revive the market with renovation and painting,” Chaudhry says.
The traders association has been receiving support from local MLA Rizwan Arshad for the revival of the market and traders are hoping that the BBMP will pitch in as well.
“BBMP should show interest in running the market as well. BBMP is the owner of the market. Russell Market is the mother market of all markets in Bengaluru. The shops are under license and it is like ownership and monthly rent is given,” Chaudhry says.
The Russell Market Traders Association is considering reviving its annual market show that was halted in 1982. Initially, the association proposed holding the show on the traditional dates – December 24 and 25 – when the market area is festive but has now deferred the plan.
“We were planning to revive the Christmas fruit and vegetable show which has not been held since 1982. However, the Smart City work around the market is set to conclude. On January 15, the smart city work will be inaugurated by the CM. City officials are of the view that a function can be organised on that day or after that in 2023,” Chaudhry says.