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The Cycle Moves On

The Story of Raja Cycle Mart

April 13, 2014




When Rajam Iyengar moved from Kumbakonam to Bangalore in the late 1890s it was penury and the search for a better living, as is the case with most migrations, that brought him here. He is understood to have taken up a job, unlikely for a Tamil Iyengar, in an English run abbatoir, separating flesh from carcasses. His English boss, noticing his dicomfiture and ineptitude, suggested that he consider learning another trade. Rajam entered the tutelage of his boss's wife, a seamstress, and is believed to have become a seamster of some repute himself, even stitching a ‘Diwan’s suit’ for Sir Mirza Ismail, the illustrious Prime Minister of Mysore whose countless achievements gave the then State of Mysore its modern character.

If you grew up, particularly on the ‘city’ side, of bipolar Bangalore, until perhaps as recently as in the 1990s, going to Raja Cycle Mart on NR (Narasimharaja) Road was akin to a rite of passage. You went with parents or wards to acquire your first instrument of autonomy. The selection was limited – Rally, Raleigh, Hero, Avon, Atlas, at one time, and then BSA and Hercules. There wasn’t much to choose between – the frames were all uniformly super weight, made of industrial steel pipes and, right up to the saddle, there were no options to exercise. Even the frame sizes were stodgy and limited, and there wasn’t much for the younger kids. Raleigh was the equivalent of a ‘Rolls Royce’ with a reputation that it would last a life time, or two. And you paid more for those, understandably. Yet the whole process of decision making, seeing, touching, buying and riding into a new world of quiet mobility involved this, almost ritual-like, visit to Raja Cycle Mart. And yes, you rode your new bicycle home from there.

In 1912, Raja Cycle Mart opened doors and operated out of rented premises, opposite the Jama Masjid near City Market, in a space that now houses the renowned, "Renowned Hotel" (the one that serves steaming biriyanis at midnight). Its second location was in the self-owned Raja Building across from the Town Hall (a Bangalore landmark that Sir Mirza Ismail was involved with the construction of)  where it operated from 1931 until 1986. It then moved to its last location next door to the Kamat Restaurant just a few doors down. This is the site where the family earlier operated a "Burmah-Shell" petrol bunk until they decided a commercial building made more sense to have. In its golden years, RCM even sold their own brands of cycles – made in Birmingham, England, no less – proudly stamped "Raja" and "Anjan" before Ludhiana took over the business.

As the cycling landscape of the city gave way to motorcycling and then to motoring, fortunes of cycle dealers transferred into the hands of children, more than adults, and inevitably the pride of being the premier cycle dealer in town frayed a little. After about 2000, Bangaloreans have scarcely been able to maintain any semblance of synchronicity with their own city, and its landmarks have steadily disappeared or become inconsequential. So along with the Golden Threshold, Elgin Four Mills, the Victoria Hotel, the Plaza theatre, the International Book House, Premier Bookshop, Minsk Square, MG Road itself, innumerable private houses and even as recent and nouveau an entrant as Casa Piccola, extinction is the fate of spaces and businesses that don’t anymore meet the city’s (or their owner’s) needs. Even the  new breed of ‘recreational’ cyclists in Bangalore, with new money and unforeseen budgets at hand, developed too late for RCM to get a piece of the action.

So, in April 2014, when we stopped by to chat with the recently bearded Rajagopal, we learned that the last stocks had been disposed-off at a fourth of their value and the staff had either left or been reinstituted elsewhere. The space that RCM occupied was an empty shell, receiving a fresh paint job. The sign board was to go down by the end of April 2014 and it would soon become a machinery dealership, blending into the character of the rest of NR road.  Bangalore’s famous 102-year-old ‘cycle shop’ was about to slip quietly into history.