Rapid urbanization in India in the last 25 years has led scholars to focus on cities. Key parameters of urbanization are being debated anew: migration, employment and infrastructure which include housing, water, electricity, health, transport. Environment is another matter of growing concern: especially its close links with industry and atmospheric pollution. But can a mere study of urbanization help us to grapple with the nature of cities? What makes urban spaces distinctive? How does one explore urbanity, the way people feel at home in the city?
These are some of the themes that this seminar hopes to address. The focus will be on the long-term growth and evolution of the cities and towns in India, to which historians, geographers, demographers, sociologists, anthropologists, architects, planners, art historians and literary critics can offer valuable inputs.
On 9th and 10th of June, twenty four scholars came together to present papers on the theme ‘Urban Spaces in India’. There was a mix of senior scholars, teachers from universities, colleges, professional institutes and independent researchers. The participants ranged the disciplines of literature, sociology, anthropology, social theory, history, political science, medicine, architecture, town planning and art history. The Concept Note, published on the IIAS website, had invited scholars to debate and rethink urban studies, and drew attention to themes which needed to be addressed - which included a new look at modern urban institutions, spaces, politics and gender. The response was significant - an overwhelming number showed an interest in contemporary rather than the historic cities.
On the basis of the abstracts selected, the two-day Seminar was grouped around the following themes: ‘The imprint of the past’, ‘The spectre of planning’, ‘The logic of change’, ‘Informal spaces’, ‘View from the street’ and ‘Everyday’. The papers presented, as well as the debates and discussions qualified and expanded these themes, and could be regrouped under four broad heads :
Chetan Singh, Director, IIAS (and a historian) welcomed the participants. In his brief opening remarks he drew attention to the theoretical implications of studying spaces and places, and to identifying how individuals and communities made the city their own, quoting the shairi of Delhi’s poets as illustration.
Narayani Gupta, historian, and convenor of the seminar, began by remembering two scholars on urban India who had passed away recently. K.C.Sivaramakrishnan, pioneer in the development of local self-government and deeply perceptive scholar of urbanisation, and Christopher Bayly, historian, who had moved from research on a single city to a path-breaking book on early modern urbanism in north India. Professor Gupta described the formation of the multi-disciplinary group that constituted themselves as the ‘Urban History Association of India’ in 1978, and hoped this Seminar might mark a continuity with that initiative. It was vitally important to study towns individually or in terms of regions – all-India analyses flattened out the very marked regional differences in the characteristics of urbanisation. She suggested that we need to look at the implications of some terms which are in common use – ‘heritage cities’, ‘stakeholders’, ‘planning’ as seen as being in opposition to ‘informal spaces’ (‘basti-fication’), and the assumption that ‘the past is a foreign country’. She also urged that studying the city be done with empathy, a sense of humour and a sense of joy.
The Keynote Address was by Sukanto Chaudhuri, scholar of literature and Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University. He drew attention to the state of towns and cities, especially the overwhelming nature of the challenges faced by urban dwellers in post-Independence India. Calcutta, deluged by refugees after Partition,
had received little by the way of state assistance to accommodate large numbers of people. Interestingly, Calcutta was also one of the first cities in post-Independence India to be addressed by planners. But the Basic Development Plan (1966) which predictably followed outdated Western models, proved inadequate, the needs of the city-dwellers outstripping the vision of the planners. Industrial townships were more of a success-story. An important point made was that formal spaces be distinguished from unformalised (NOT ‘informal’) spaces – the former invariably had a built-in hierarchical character, while the latter were collective spaces.
Because people who designed their own spaces were not consulted by planners, measures like the relocation of pavement ‘hawkers’ in the multi-storeyed Gariahat Market in Kolkata were a failure. Kolkata’s many problems could be seen as those of a typical Third World primate city.
Spaces carved out by Planners
Partho Datta, a historian, made a case for unpacking categories like ‘the planner’, ‘plan’ and ‘planning’ in the early twentieth century. This should draw on the chequered history of engagement with urban spaces in which both a range of professionals as well as the state participated. In the first three decades of the twentieth century, town-planning provoked a debate on the nature of political control, tradition and modernity, issues that could be analysed for the nineteenth century as well.
Hussain Indorewalla, a teacher of political and social theory, drew attention to the historic gains of the town planning movement in the West, closely tied as it was to social reform movements. He highlighted the lack of social inputs in urban projects and plans in India today which were more attuned to the needs of a liberalizing economy. The thoughtlessly expressed ‘goal’ o0f a ‘poverty-free India’ would imply 85 % of the population living in towns from which, at present, the desperate poor were kept out by high prices and by the police.
Pradipto Roy, a health professional, read a paper on hospitals in 18th and 19th century Calcutta; these were all on the periphery of the town, but the Calcutta Hospital attached to the Medical College was at the intersection of White and Black Town, blurring the distinctions between the two. It was a crucial agent of urbanization, since settlements of migrants were dictated by its location. Architects Anupam Bansal and Malini Kochupillai in a close study of two Delhi neighbourhoods, Khirki Village and Vasant Kunj, showed that their proximity to major arterial roads with constant traffic, was increasingly creating a grey area/nomansland between the private (the neighbourhoods) and the public (the thoroughfares) The sense of urbanity is palpable when streets pass through ‘unplanned’ areas, of which they become a part – which explains the raah-giri movement in Mehrauli. Arguing that a thoughtful local input from designers and planners could help sustain the vision of the larger master plan, they warned against the dangers of segregated neighbourhoods if master plans remained frozen.
Shweta Wagh, a teacher and an architect, explored how the relationship of nature and the commons in the city was undergoing a drastic change in Mumbai. With the pressures of burgeoning real estate, the sea- shore - Colaba, and forested areas – Borivali National Park - were being readjusted to the needs of middle class leisure and the housing boom, displacing and ghettoizing the indigenous inhabitants.
Snehanshu Mukherjee, a practising architect, focussed on the Master Plan in Indian cities particularly Delhi, pointing out how the lack of maintenance, proper design inputs and enforcement had made planning both moribund and redundant. In his provocative paper he called for a move to ‘unplan’ our cities. Such a perspective he argued would help citizens to recognize how much urban spaces were stymied by the needs of the propertied and the wealthy. Communities need to take ownership of their own areas. He also urged the need to pay more attention to non-metro cities.
Supriya Chaudhuri, literature scholar, and Professor Emerita, Jadavpur Univeristy, presented an illustrated talk on the ‘grey town’ in Calcutta/Kolkata (a term used by the late historian Pradip Sinha for the area between the ‘White’ and ‘Black’ Towns), an area she defined by flows – trade, movement of people, change, a zone of flux which migrants – Armenians, Jews, Bohras, Shias, Parsis had made home in the 18th and 19th centuries. Over time, these communities had in large part moved on, but the vibrant atmosphere is still in evidence in a wealth of small trading activities.
Dipti Bapat, anthropologist, followed the Waghris and Waddars, whom the state labels ‘Denotified Tribes’, thus marginalising them into non-citizens . But these enterprising nomadic communities depend for their income on urban dwellers, making a living out of buying and selling used clothes and discarded human hair, which then network into long-distance trade reaching out beyond national frontiers.
Bhushan Arekar, political scientist, presented a paper on Heterotopias, focussed on the empowerment of Dalits. On December 6th every year Dalits from all over Maharashtra and India gathered to celebrate Dr Ambedkar’s death anniversary in Shivaji Park, the heart of upper class Mumbai. Arekar highlighted how the Hindu upper caste/class neighbourhood was resentful of this intrusion and turned its back on the temporary gathering, while being tolerant and welcoming of traditional festivals like Ganesh Puja being celebrated in the Park.
Sarbani Sharma, sociologist, presented an ethnography of the Maisuma neighbourhood, the historic core of Srinagar, Kashmir, an area celebrated for its cultural diversity and coexistence. This image is still present, but is becoming increasinglt hollow as the mohalla gets swamped by the politics of the region and the terrible natural disaster of the floods in 2014. What is the meaning of ‘Azaadi’ in the daily life of the residents in an area which is constantly under siege by the state ?
Historian Devesh Vijay’s study of the slum colony of Aradhaknagar contrasted the macro-data on slums with the micro profile of the ethnologist. Vijay argued that material prosperity had made some inroads into the slum and had opened avenues for social mobility for a few. More apparent was inequality, and the terrible lack of privacy in domestic space which the paper highlighted through a mapping of lived spaces and testimonies.
Mohammad Sayeed, a sociologist, addressed the issue of congestion, how its material reality and its reproduction in everyday life . With reference to the Turkman Gate demolitions in Delhi in 1976, and the growth of Jamianagar, he highlighted how a community with a common religion is generated chiefly because of insensitive government action.
A Srivatsan, architect, called attention to the persistence of form in Madras/Chennai. The spread of the city has been remarkably consistent on the five major historic thoroughfares which emanated from the old fort area. While the areas between the ‘five fingers’ showed mixed development, it was along the old axes that urbanization and modernization manifested itself most dramatically.
Reshaping City Spaces
Malavika Kasturi, a historian, had as her theme the generation of city spaces controlled by a cult. Her study of the Goraknath Matha in the historic city of Gorakhpur showed how institutions based on religion could affect urbanization. In this case the Matha was closely connected to the politics of urban real estate; the Matha and the power of the Mahant enmeshed in the politics of Hindu revivalism extended the determined the social modification of Gorakhpur town.
Garima Dhabhai, political scientist, used her research on Jaipur to highlight how notions of historic geography can affect development in the city. ‘Heritage’ conscience-keepers have helped revive 3-centuries-old waterbodies. In a more questionable development, a small creek buried under urban debris has been resurrected as Dravyawati, a ‘ lost river’ and the full weight of history invested in its conservation. Dhabhai’s paper hinted at the irony of this new-found enthusiasm for the city’s past with all its troubled implications of real-estate exploitation of these sentiments.
Rohit Gulati, a practising architect, highlighted the importance of nodal spaces in the city and the need to make them habitable and safe for citizens. Airports, shopping arcades, coffee shops, and plazas were important factors in making people feel at home in the city and for that reason friendly design was necessary – with inputs from not only engineers, architects and bureaucrats but also writers, and historians. In re-shaping city spaces, their “local soul” must be taken into account
P.Arun, political scientist, focused on how modern official surveillance had legitimised itself. Its historic roots could be said to have been the census. Today, it is justified and accepted not only when it is by state agencies but also private institutions, even homes, because of paranoia about security. It is curious that city-dwellers take this for granted, and never stop to wonder WHO is the person behind the transmitting screen.
Representations of City Spaces
Saba Mahmood Bashir, teacher of English Literature, read a paper on the city – here Bombay/Mumbai in Hindi films, from the 1950s to the present day. She focussed on the alienation of the migrant and problem of housing highlighting how the struggle over intimate spaces formed an important part of the experience of the urban.
Ella Datta, art historian and curator, spoke about representations of the city in modern Indian painting and her illustrations ranged from Abanindranath Tagore, Somnath Hore, Krishen Khanna to contemporary artists like Sheba Chhachi and Arpita Singh. These highlighted the sense of alienation, strife, horror and decay in the city, and also its “edgy, raw energy”.
Swathi Shivanand, researcher in history, spoke on the unique institution of an Urban Art Commission in Delhi (DUAC) . Concentrating on the 1970s, its early years, she indicated its unenviable role of trying to infuse a modicum of aesthetics in the built form of Delhi. Shivanand argued that the DUAC was often a victim of developmentalist agendas that sat uneasily with aesthetic regulation.
The Seminar ended with a vote of thanks by convenors Narayani Gupta and Partho Datta
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