It is nigh impossible to think of Pune without words like ‘culture’, ‘heritage’ and ‘tradition’ popping up. Since it’s rather backwater beginnings in the early 1700s, Pune has always been associated with these words, clichéd as they may sound. Mention the aforementioned phrases in front of a true ‘Punekar’, and he will wax eloquent about the city, its rich history and magnificence before concluding with some very subtle and decidedly ‘Puneri’ comments about what he thinks of those who would doubt the greatness of his city.
Since the early 1700s, Pune has been a stronghold of Marathi. Tired of Mughal injustice, Marathi people from all over the state, notably Brahmins, flocked to Pune which was under the rule of Chhatrapati Shivaji and the Peshve dynasty. This concentration of Marathi-speaking intelligentsia has since resulted in tremendous development of theatre, literature and music, earning Pune the moniker of ‘Cultural Capital of Maharashtra’. As Marathi literary legend P.L.Deshpande once memorably said, “Leave a Marathi person without food or water, and he may survive. Deprive him of the opportunity to indulge his passion of the performing arts, and he will surely die.” Punekars love their ‘rangabhoomi’ and their ‘mehfil’, and even young children might astound one with a sagely opinion about the nuances of classical music.
After the decay of the Peshve dynasty, the city was annexed by the British, and became a cantonment town. The remnants of this era can be found in the Camp and Salisbury Park areas of the city, with several buildings displaying the distinctive architecture of the British era. The British brought modern education to Pune, precipitating the growth of numerous reputed educational institutes. Unexpectedly enough they also caused the development of one of the city’s largest phenomena, the Ganeshotsav. While it began as an attempt to unify the people against British rule, it has now evolved into an enormous yearly extravaganza of loud drums, louder music and another cultural wonder, the ‘Ganpati Dance’, which is a series of gyrations, contortions, and much jumping about, seemingly independent of music, rhythm or pattern.
All these influences over the years, most notably the Marathi and the British, have contributed immensely to modern Pune as we know it today. Also, with the growth of information technology, various industries and multinational organizations have mushroomed in and around the city, each bringing their own culture and way of life. Since then, Pune has been recognized as a metropolitan city, with a veritable cornucopia of sights, sounds, tastes and people. However, the city still remains remarkably same at heart, with the trademark Puneri swagger.
Before the IT boom, Pune was referred to as the ‘Pensioner’s Haven’. The ultimate ambition of any average worker was to retire with a decent pension to the quiet suburbs of Pune, and not without reason. The serenity and mild climate offered by Pune made it an ideal living place. Hordes of elderly people could and can be seen on the Parvati, the preferred haunt for those seeking a quiet walk. Even today, a bunch of really old guys hanging out at the tea shop, loudly swapping stories and haughtily staring at passers-by always makes a memorable sight. The pensioner, then, is not just any old man, but rather an integral part of the Puneri ecosystem; eager to give wisdom to supposedly young and naïve, and never caring whether said wisdom was sought or not; a relic of classic Pune as it used to be.
There weren’t very many places to go to, and “hanging out” was considered a waste of time in those blessed days. The plethora of eateries and restaurants did not exist, and Koregaon Park was just a hamlet with some trees. If at all one did get out of the house, the choice of places to go to was limited to the Mandai, Tulshibaag, and Saarasbaag. But all this changed if the theatres were showcasing works like ‘Saubhadra’ and ‘Sanshaykallol’. Thousands rushed to the theatres and waited for hours to witness performances by the likes of Keshavrao Bhosale and Narayanrao ‘Balgandharva’. Audiences went home blessing their stars to have witnessed an actual live performance by the greats. These were times when watching a cinema was considered to be a status symbol, and required good connections in the Cantonment area merely to get you a seat in a cinema hall.
But the most defining characteristic of Pune was the typical swagger, or ‘tora’ of its inhabitants. Over the years, many have tried and failed to decipher the cause of this rather curious trait of the Puneri person. The ability to pass one’s opinion without any knowledge as to its verity, or one’s own qualification to actually pass such an opinion is also a treasured habit of the classic Punekar. This is coupled with the burning pride that every Punekar seems to have for all things Pune, be it significant ones like the Shaniwarwada, or mere trifles, like Bedekar Misal. (Of course, don’t tell a Punekar that Bedekar Misal is a trifling matter. You probably won’t survive the speech that follows). Add all these ingredients to the rigid and unyielding adherence to seemingly ridiculous principles (also read: Chitale outlet closing times), and you have the make up of quintessential Pune.
Now, even with the almost rabid rate of development, Pune still maintains the core of its personality. Now, not only is it a pensioner’s city, but also a major student hub with students from all over the world. There are hotels and restaurants with a huge variety of cuisines from all over the world, but the chai-shops, known in Pune as ‘Amrut-tulya’, are still flourishing, enjoying the patronage of the young and old alike. The Parvati hill now enjoys the presence of the elderly come for a leisurely walk, as well students and athletes going for a run in the early morning. There are old music connoisseurs in attendance at classical music festivals, along with the younger generation, wanting to acquaint themselves with the music and maybe replicate it with guitars and drum-sets. It has become a fusion of both the old and the new. Gleaming new and modern on the outside, vintage at heart.