In the quiet, tree-lined residential neighbourhood of Domlur in Bengaluru, minutes away from the bustling shops and restaurants of Indiranagar, stands the stately new building of the Bangalore International Centre (BIC). Located around the corner from the premises of The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri), which hosted and incubated BIC since its inception in 2005 till it shifted earlier this year, this architecturally striking edifice is poised to become a major cultural hub in the heart of the city.

Modelled along the lines of the India International Centre (IIC) in Delhi, “BIC 2.0" (as V. Ravichandar, the honorary director and the main driving force behind its reincarnation, dubs it) aims to carve a distinct identity for itself. By organizing a range of events, from panel discussions to music performances to film screenings on a more ambitious scale than earlier, it hopes to become a cultural institution on par with Ranga Shankara and Jagriti Theatre, the other iconic establishments in the city. But the story of BIC, especially in its current avatar, is much bigger than the sum of such aspirations: It symbolizes the spirit of public-mindedness that Bengaluru is known for in comparison with other big cities in the country.

“BIC is a member- and donor-enabled public institution, aiming to provide a neutral platform for informed conversations about the arts and culture," Ravichandar says, defining its core values. Membership to BIC, unlike to IIC, doesn’t guarantee an array of exclusive rights. “In fact, while pitching it to potential members, I tend to de-sell it," he adds. “You get nothing, I tell those who want to join, apart from being part of an organization that has a higher public purpose. If the idea appeals to you, become a member, or else attend our events for free."

Seven years in the making, the new building cost 29 crore, including the land lease from the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA), and was funded entirely by donors and members. Rohini and Nandan Nilekani Philanthropies, which gave the highest amount, 7 crore, has its name inscribed on the building. Other donors include a mixed bag of corporate entities and individuals like Wipro Ltd, T.V. Mohandas and Kusumlata Pai, the Shibulal Family Philanthropic Initiatives, Thomas Kailath (an academic based in the Silicon Valley), Sukumar Srinivas, Parvathi Mirlay, and Afried and Aroon Raman.

On 24 February, a day-long festival was organized to mark the formal opening of the new building. Over 2,000 people attended the 30-odd programmes that unfolded during the day. The line-up of speakers featured economist Narendra Pani, architect Naresh Narasimhan, psychiatrist Sanjeev Jain and urban historian Maya Jayapal. Since then, BIC has hosted several successful events, including a screening of Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s controversial Malayalam movie S Durga, and is planning to have writer Ramachandra Guha, curator Mayank Mansingh Kaul and art historian Naman P. Ahuja speak in the coming weeks.

Humble origins

Around the turn of the century, when BIC was conceived, its aims weren’t radically different from its current principles. The economist and distinguished fellow emeritus at Teri, S.L. Rao, was one of the primary movers of the institution, along with J. Philip, founder and chairman of the Xavier Institute of Management and Entrepreneurship, and R.K. Pachauri, the former director general of Teri, among a handful of others.

Closely involved with IIC during his stay in Delhi, Rao was contemplating moving to Bengaluru after retirement, and wanted to create a space in the city that would become “a focus point for intellectual activity". “We didn’t want it to be an elite place that discouraged ordinary people from coming in," he says. “It was meant to be a platform for those interested in ideas and curious to learn."

Teri, which offered its premises to BIC, saw it thrive under its first director, P.R. Dasgupta, who had settled in Bengaluru after retiring from the Indian Administrative Service. “My mandate was to organize events that would draw in visitors," he says. “Our programming was focused on that goal."

Attendees of the Unbox Festival listening to a talk at the BIC library
Attendees of the Unbox Festival listening to a talk at the BIC library

From 2006, for instance, BIC began organizing a popular annual panel discussion to analyse the Union budget. An institution without any ideological leaning, it tried to put together panels that were balanced and representative of all points of view. In 2016, when journalist Rana Ayyub released her book Gujarat Files, which was stridently critical of Narendra Modi’s stint as chief minister of the state, BIC invited Tejaswi Surya, general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s state youth wing, to be on the panel.

While its limited funds didn’t often allow BIC to fly in speakers, it did tie up with other organizations that were hosting distinguished visitors. From writer William Dalrymple to musician Bombay Jayashri, a range of eminent personalities have spoken at BIC over the years. “I particularly remember the event from last December where Nandan Nilekani moderated a session with (the former chief economic adviser to the Union government) Arvind Subramanian," says Jayarao Gururaja, a long-term member of BIC. With not a square inch left free inside the Teri auditorium, the audience spilled over into the grounds in spite of the chilly weather.

It hasn’t been a smooth run all the way for BIC though. For several years, it was plagued by public interest litigation which challenged its right to BDA land. The case was decided in favour of BIC, both by the Karnataka high court and the Supreme Court. These proceedings, along with the belated discovery of a BDA sewage line running under the plot, slowed the construction of the new building. Eventually, the project took off under the aegis of the architectural firm Hundred Hands, directed by Bijoy Ramachandran and Sunitha Kondur, selected on the basis of a public competition.

New direction

In its design, too, the new BIC premises reflect its public ambitions. Its various levels are connected seamlessly, conveying a sense of openness. A green building aspiring for the highest green rating from Teri, it has a sewage treatment plant and groundwater recharge facilities. Ramachandran, influenced by the iconic architect B.V. Doshi, has combined an industrial warehouse aesthetic with clear lines to achieve a remarkable effect of luminosity and airiness.

While BIC isn’t planning residential facilities like the IIC, it has a bar and restaurant, a café, a 180-seater auditorium (along with two seminar rooms that can be used for smaller screenings), an art gallery and a library. The auditorium is named after the late Sarah Kailath, sister of veteran journalist T.J.S. George, and built with a generous donation from her husband, Thomas Kailath.

With a strength of 975 members (the number goes up to roughly 1,700 if spouses and family members are counted), BIC is looking to expand its base. The number of requests for membership has increased in the four months since the new building came up, says Ravichandar, but the aim is to bring in younger members, a concern that is reiterated by donors and regular speakers alike. In terms of representation, the board has capped the retirement age at 75 for its members, apart from striving for 50-50 representation vis-à-vis men and women.

“I hope BIC will help us imagine a better future for our city," says Rohini Nilekani, “and for that, I look forward to seeing an increased participation by young people." Historian Ramachandra Guha, who will be speaking at BIC on 6 April on 100 years of the Rowlatt Satyagraha, agrees. “BIC needs to reach out to academic institutions to get in more young people," he says. “It also needs to involve scholars of Kannada culture, literature and politics in its programming."

The tide seems to be turning, albeit slowly. Sridhar Poddar, 27, one of the youngest members to join BIC in December, says its versatile curation of events and speakers was a “unique value proposition" for him. “I joined because I wanted to contribute to a worthy cause as well," he adds. Hopefully, BIC 2.0 will be able to draw more like him into its fold.

SAVE THE DATE

Highlights from BIC’s April calendar

6 APRIL

“One Hundred Years Since the Rowlatt Satyagraha: How Gandhi Became An All-India Leader", a talk by Ramachandra Guha

17 APRIL

“Art And Archaeology Of Ancient India: Earliest Times To The Sixth Century", a lecture by Naman P. Ahuja, in collaboration with the Museum of Art and Photography

20 APRIL

Jazz By UNK: The Radha Thomas Ensemble

26 APRIL

Ritu Raga Rang, a Hindustani classical music performance by Nishant Panicker

The events start at 6.30pm.

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