It is clear that the heydays of Bengaluru’s Russell Market are behind it. But it exudes an old-world charm, despite the disrepair and the slump in business, says Ruth Dsouza Prabhu, part of The Locavore-led group that documented this market.
In a bustling city like Bengaluru, you might be forgiven for forgetting the art of being a customer in a market. But, its sights and sounds, the artistically arranged fruits and vegetables in a stall, the friendly haggling of loyal customers, proud vendors whispering conspiratorially that they have got that specific flower, vegetable or cut of meat you requested for are experiences that only a market can give you—the way Russell Market in Shivajinagar still does for a lot of people. Though, admittedly, vendors have been affected in many ways by the convenience that home delivery services offer their customers.
(For more on Russell Market’s vendors and the produce they bring to the table, read Beyond Transactions: People Hold This Market Together)
Russell Market has been a Bengaluru institution since it was inaugurated in 1933 (built in 1927). It was named after TB Russell, president of the Municipal Commission who initiated the creation of this market, which has, over the span of a century, become a landmark in the cantonment sector of the city. Within its labyrinthine corridors is a fruit, vegetable and flower section, a meat market and a fish market, with miscellaneous other stores selling dairy products, gardening supplies, and a few odds and ends.
(Shivani Unakar and Dhiraj Chilakapaty trace the planning and explore the design of the space in Built in 1820, an Old Clock Tower Forms the Nucleus of the Market)
The layout of the market is smart, characteristic of colonial-era constructions, from the access, logistics, and sequential shopping point of view. A separate building, a few metres away from the central one, houses the beef section. The outer structure of Russell Market, right from its arched entrances on either end and along its distinct axis, retains a majestic presence—perhaps, a bit dwarfed and dustier today, thanks to the development all around it—but beautiful nevertheless.
The presence of a mosque, a church, and a temple in the surrounding radius is a testimony to the diverse society that has thrived for generations around this market. As members of this very society—having visited the market, heard stories about it from old Bengalureans, and with a personal picture of it in our minds—our motley group met around eight in the morning for The Locavore’s first-ever collaborative attempt at documenting a city market.
On a cool December morning, we gathered at a spot across the market’s entrance, under shady trees of the recently made boulevard—part of the renovation plans for Russell Market. The Locavore had put out an open call for collaborators from different backgrounds to help document a local market in Bengaluru for its #MarketArchives series. The series aims at documenting markets across the country—highlighting local produce, gathering stories of vendors, and in essence, capturing the sights and scents of a variety of markets.
We were a mix of photographers, writers, architects, and chroniclers. A few minutes to discuss which sections different members of the group would head to (we were looking to cover various aspects: produce, people, structure, and so on), and off we went! The idea was to explore the market through the lens of our varied expertise, and put together our stories and observations of this market.
Right away, it is clear that the heydays of Russell Market are behind it. The busiest time is between 5:30 and 7:30 in the morning when produce is brought in; that’s when the wholesale market does the most business.
By the time we gathered—a little after eight—the last few vans were standing around, hoping to sell directly from their vehicles. It was clear: these folks were in direct competition with vendors who had spread their wares on tarpaulin sheets outside the market entrance. These ‘tarpaulin vendors’ are another reason business has slowed down for those on the inside as customers don’t need to set foot in the market to make a purchase. Half past seven onwards retailers come in, and transactions continue through the day, far more muted than a few years ago.
The main entrance to the flower market is flanked on either side by the fruit and vegetable vendors. The vibrant colours and the aromas of the produce change every few steps, all willing you to stop a bit and consider making a purchase.
Right at the back, within the complex, yet on the outside, you are hit by a multi-sensorial experience: the fish market. Walking through the narrow space between stalls, you see rows upon rows of fresh fish of all shapes, sizes, and varieties beckon, as do their vendors. Most of the displays spill out of shops, onto the streets— allocation of additional shops over the years, reducing space for everyone and the ongoing construction around cramping them further.
Being caught between a passing autorickshaw and one of these street displays tests your ability not to topple headfirst into the fish. We’re constantly told that these fish have arrived straight from the shores of Mangalore, Malpe, and other coastal regions. From everyday varieties like mackerel, seer, pomfret and catfish to the exotic like scampi, and tiger prawns all find their way not only to large and small restaurant kitchens, but also to homes of a handful of loyal customers of these stalls.
No matter the tough times Russell Market has seen, including a devastating fire, the people here—the market’s ever-beating heart—are still going strong.
Like the teenage Muskaan Khanam, whom you will find opposite the main gate of the market every day at nine in the morning, marinating six meaty bangdas, or mackerels, for lunch. These bangdas are earnings for her family of six—received in exchange for cleaning fish for customers.
Chat with Abdul at the mutton stalls, and he talks proudly of how this section is completely waste-free, and how people can customise their meat purchases down down to the last piece. None of that frozen stuff, thank you! If you are planning to try that delectable halwa served at Bengaluru Muslim weddings, then Mohammed Aneez of the BM Vegetables stall is the one who supplies ‘marrow’—the sweet’s core ingredient—in the city. Interestingly, what Mohammed calls ‘marrow’, we find out, is a winter melon-like gourd.
With the circular growth of Bengaluru, and with each locality becoming self-sufficient in everyday necessities, it is little wonder that Russell Market has lost some of that yesteryear charm. Nevertheless, it stands strong, and does have plenty of patrons, particularly from commercial kitchens, who continue to power it.
With growing interest in its revival, the hope is that the market sees a makeover, drawing more people into its gates. Until then, all we can ask is that you include it on your list of places to explore. From the stories we have heard, we can tell you to look for the Made in England emblems embossed on the pillars that hold up the market, most likely obscured under layers of dust. These emblems symbolise the colonial era origins of this market.
Russell Market has many stories to tell, some of which we have documented based on our visit last December—about its produce, people, structure, and how trade flows. Perhaps you, too, can add to this repository of stories around this landmark. Since we visited the market, there have been developments, and attempts at revival. While this could be a welcome change, given the state of the market just a few months ago, we really hope that these measures have been thought through, and that it is in the best interest of the market, and the people who inhabit it.
Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is an independent food writer and features journalist based in Bengaluru. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Al Jazeera, Fodor’s, The National, Whetstone SA and Good Beer Hunting. Top Indian publications like Mint Lounge, Travel and Leisure, and NatGeo Traveller have also picked up her pieces. You can follow her on Instagram @TheRDPLife.
Sanskriti Bist is a freelance food stylist, photographer and recipe developer living in Bangalore. She loves to cook everything from scratch and take photos of markets, food and her kitchen.
Vanmayi Shetty is a multidisciplinary visual artist and art director with a lens-based background in social documentary and storytelling. The narratives in her work stem from a people and planet perspective and flow through a wide range of media. See her work here.
With the intention of seeing a market through different eyes and perspectives, a group of us met at the end of 2022 to walk through Bengaluru’s Russell Market to document it. Other writers who have worked on this project are Amiya Chaudhuri, Dhiraj Chilakapaty, Pankhuri Agrawal, Shivani Unakar, and Sreepathy Paliath; also involved were Chef Thomas Zacharias, Chetana Divya, Shreshtha Chhabra, Takshama Pandit, Yamini Vijayan, and Zainab Kapadia from The Locavore.
Markets carry the pulse of the communities that they serve, and act as a window to diverse cultures. Market Archives aims to document as many markets from around India as possible—small, sprawling, vanishing, noisy, up a hill, tucked away in a corner of the city—every one of them. Join us as we speak to different sellers, see what’s in season across varied geographies, taste the familiar and unfamiliar, and soak in the sounds and scents that define each market.