On average, our roads, streets, sidewalks, and alleys occupy between 25-30% of our urban land, which is approximately one third of the city’s usable space, and accounts for eight tenths of the time we spend outdoors.

As Arjun Appudarai observes in his article, ‘Street Culture’ – “They are often seen as the nerves of a city life, and in many ways they are. They formulate a dynamic, socio-cultural and economically binding entity which is continuously evolving and reinventing itself with time - reflecting the growth of a city, perhaps.

The streets, and their culture lie at the heart of public life in contemporary India. While constantly evolving, they formulate an image of the city with dynamic colours and textures, compelling visuals, unheard stories, glimpses into the future and histories waiting to be unearthed. Amidst, the complexity of  these spaces and the everyday hustle, we often overlook the nuances of a street.  

In Kannada, the words, oni, beedhi, sandhi and rasthe are colloquial terms to reference street hierarchy. Through this article, we aim to observe the characteristics of these spatial entities using Banu (sky), emarathu (edifice), neralu (shadow), and jana (people) as subjects of the narrative.

Fast paced footsteps, I run down the stairs and grab my bag. Racing across the front door, I pass my mother on the verandah abutting our oni – holding my infant brother close. She gives me a familiar pat on my head – good bye, as I look up. What do I see? 

| Banu | 

It’s astounding how well we know our way through the streets, almost subconsciously, never pausing to look up and catch a glimpse of the sky. Banu, in Kannada translates to the term “welkin” in English, which essentially means the vault of the sky. 

Although a constant presence, the visual volume of the sky that is conceivable by us is the inverse of the built volume. Often a navigation tool for the maze of streets, Banu acts as an endless embodiment to the built fabric – a yin to the yang.  

On close scrutiny of our everyday  streets, we witness the patterns of the sky almost evolve organically, unknowingly behest – with entangled wires across, birds flocking, past the jet trails beyond, serving as a wavering canvas. Often, the passage of time dawns onto us through the changing hues of the sky – from dawn to dusk. Kids rush indoors, traffic grows, shops bustle with activity and the street lights illuminate with the setting sun.


I  wave her a quick goodbye, before I step into the beedhi – still holding my bag, as I stop at the corner before taking a sharp right, I quickly pace across Krishnan’s house – almost missing my step over the potholes, still swiftly making my way past Bittoo Anna’s isthri gaadi – while he reminds me to pick my ironed clothes on my way back. I look along, nodding. What do I see?

| Emarathu | 

It is quite interesting, how our built fabric cohesively controls the character of a street, while each entity brings a distinctive character of it’s own.

Emarathu, in kannada translates to “building” – one of the most fundamental element that shapes the street. The nature of the edifice determines its relationship to the street by allowing and creating spaces of interaction, engagement, and familiarity. However, the sense of informality between our emarathu and the streets fade as we transition across them – gradually dissipating, while the invisible division between private and public space intensifies altogether, as we move up the hierarchy.

The scale, function, and typology of the ediface  plays a vital role in determining the function of streets. The verandah’s and jagli’s open onto our streets, as the narrow staircases wind through them. Shops stagger across and balconies overlook, as the makeshift markets perch onto the overcrowded streets. The temples and mosques are accentuated with their gopurams and qubb meeting the street with a flight of steps – some without. An incisive way of humanizing streets as our public spaces, perhaps.

Almost instantaneously, I reach out to my pocket – running my fingers through the change – It had become a daily routine now. Everyday I would buy either hot bajjis or occasionally some churmuri from the lady who sets up her bundi – below the corner house in the pakkad sandhi. The one with the Ganesha temple that ajji visits every evening. I spot the bundi – in it’s usual place, kerbed. I race towards it, eager to buy some thindi as she gives me a plain nod – knowing. I look across! What do I see?  

| Neralu | 

Shadows play a very perceptible role in controlling the micro-climate of our streets – they ebb and flow and are in a constant state of change across the day.

Neralu, in Kannada translates to “shadow” or “shade” – which is an effect of interception of sunlight or any other perceptible form of light. The extent of the shadows along the edifice largely control the immediate street activity, allowing and accommodating the flexibility required for the informality of streets, fairly depleting in coverage as you progress towards wider streets.

On a hot sunlit day, the entire morphology of the street adapts to suit the same – our street vendors and hawkers are ubiquitous, thriving on the streets for their source of livelihood – some settled under the shade of trees and extended chajjas of bigger shops, while others perspire in the heat. Communal interactions sheltered by the frontage of the house or a temple; old men reading their newspaper settled under the awnings of a chai stall – greeting you as people walk by. Vehicles are parked along the shade of much taller buildings, while kids play in the distance finding balance between the heat and shade.

I wrap up the last three bajjis for Ramu, as I make my way towards the Someshwara guddi rasthe. I spot him at the distance, standing outside the locally famous Guru Sweets Angadi, watching; as people flocked their way in and out of the shop, some with kids and some with their friends-eager. I quickly hop on-to the footpath, carefully avoiding any run-ins with the fast-moving vehicles. I wave my hands in motion-almost barging into a stranger swiftly walking beside me, completely aware that my voice would prove inefficient against the shrill blares from the vehicles and vendors. I look around! What do I see?

| Jana | 

Streets shape the character of our public spaces, and likewise people shape the character of the streets. They bring the element of viability to the streets-hustling. Signs of an active street is a reflection of it’s inhabitants, indeed.

Jana, is an ancient word of Sanskrit origin which means a common “person”, man or living being. Here, it personifies the inhabitants, traders, pedestrians and other users.

The socio-cultural element of a street is immensely dependent on its Jana. They fill the urban gaps with life, embracing them with congeniality.

If we were to imagine the street as a play, a theatrical piece, perhaps – then the elements like Banu, Emarathu and Neralu create the stage, while the Jana is the actor – bringing all the elements together, united and cohesive. A microcosm of sorts? Growing and evolving with time and need.

A sense of customary between the people – a friendly greeting, a familiar voice; a sense of belonging – routine amidst the hustle. Residents, picking up their groceries while returning home from an evening walk, as strangers drive by the narrow roads – cutting through the traffic past a group of older people – huddled closely as they catch up on an entire day’s proceedings – not far, as the priest commences the evening Pooja, while kids race across playing a game of gully cricket, as people, residents and others –  move hurriedly across the bustling streets – past the hawkers as they endlessly persuade reluctant customers into purchasing something.

All encompassing.

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