A recent insightful article on Scroll which should be of interest to our readers, and those who share our preoccupation with ‘Envisioning the Indian City’
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The latest course, ‘Sustainable Cities’ should be of interest to those following ETIC. The course explores what Sustainable cities are all about. It examines how urban sustainability can be delivered: how cities function as systems of systems; how we can increase urban productivity and reduce urban poverty and inequality, enable urban inclusion and safety; provide universal basic services, housing and infrastructure; protect the urban environment, reduce risk and vulnerability . It further explores what actions need to be taken to improve urban governance and financing for sustainable development and key institutions and agents that can make this possible.
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Sarover Zaidi, who has been associated with the ETIC project for a while now, hosted an unusual discussion in Room 003, School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU. For once, I happened to be in the right place at the right time.
The first part of a series of ‘Happenings’ under the rubric of the Love in the Time of Choleric Capital (LITTOCC) exhibition, ‘Working with Language and Architecture’ offered a refreshing view of the city. Zaidi led with a question that I am sure many of us have wistfully considered and resignedly let go: where do lovers go in a city–in this case, Delhi.
The panel was formed by an interesting mix of people. Zaidi has been writing on architecture and the city for a while now. Her focuses lie at the intersections of material and visual cultures, texts, aesthetics and religion. Briana Blasko, Zaidi’s partner on a recent project, made her presence felt through her photographs taken around Delhi, especially in the Lodi Gardens. She has done very interesting work with textile.
To share their experiences from daily and literary lives, were Mohammad Sayeed, a sociologist and anthropoligist based in Delhi, who has worked on congested areas in the Batla House neighbourhood. And finally, to charm with his reckless love for Urdu poetry was Saif Mahmood, lawyer by day, and “a late 18th century Urdu poet, walking the streets of Delhi” generally.
As the audience trickled into the room they saw on the screen the results of Zaidi’s Google search for places for young couples in Delhi. She described how she and Briana had embarked on a project to document these spaces. Exploring certain parts of the Lodi Garden, of instance, they had photographed and spoken to couples who were spending some private time there. Needless to say, the photographs were taken with permission, and in a few cases at least, the participants in the study had requested to be photographed with their faces turned away. Zaidi clarified in response to a question from the audience that although the focus of the few photographs that were shared was on heterosexual love, that was only a partial representation of their intention. They had spoken to groups who identified as queer, but so far they had not expressed desire to be caught on camera. Perhaps as the project evolves and grows in size, it will come to represent a more inclusive range of sexualities.
Sayeed offered us three stories–anecdotes, notes from fieldwork, call it what you will–through which he tried to convey the kinds of encounter that couples in urban spaces have to engage in. He spoke of his uncle who had come to visit Delhi and appeared to be unaware of the specific urban codes of conduct that govern each city. While this appeared to cause Sayeed some embarrassment on occasion, until he caused the story-teller even more embarrassment by getting involved in a fight between a guard at the Purana Qila and a couple who were enjoying a moment of privacy in the premises. While recalling the story, Sayeed did of course question his immediate response to this intervention, and his narration of the story was evidently tinged with a kind of grudging admiration for his uncle.
He also recalled the time when during one of his field surveys conducted in the congested and densely populated locality near Batla House, one of the residents, who had reason to fear for his life, had shared a story of voluntarily disappearance at night. The person he was dating had told him that her parents were away for the night, and what is a young couple to do? When he did not return till late, his friends searched for him, and as will be known to anyone who followed the series of incidents, it was not a safe time for the residents there. He came back much later only to reveal that he had not been to his partner’s house at all, but had spent their night on the streets of Delhi, because the anonymity was a greater source of comfort and security than any home.
For the next half hour Saif Mahmood mesmerized the audience by travelling back and forth in time, not simply reciting shayaris, but in fact speaking in and through them. Mahmood, who is working on a book on Urdu poets in Delhi, displayed an astonishing familiarity with his favourite poets–starting with the earliest laments for the changing nature of the city of Delhi to the most recent ones–still, lamenting the changing nature of the city. Weaving beautifully in and out of monuments, present and absent, verbal and marmoreal, Mahmood brought out the nuances in the range of expressions of love in Urdu–going so far as to cheekily claim that it is difficult to think of another language where one can express these emotions.
A point that Zaidi made initially was borne out by the discussions–the confusing interface of history (architectural or verbal) as carefully preserved past, and usable present. How do we read acts of inscribing sweet nothings or emphatic declarations of love on historic monuments, for instance? How do we justify the appropriation of our built environment by agents of historic preservation in favour of their use by citizens. This is a phenomenon that is observable in cities around the world, whenever there is shortage of private spaces for the couples. And this is not restricted to young couples–or indeed limited to couples only. Zaidi spoke of an elderly lady who had volunteered to be photographed near Lodi Garden, who would visit these places on family picnics but find for herself quiet benches and shades.
One of the audience members also pertinently observed that these spaces–gardens, premises surrounding historic monuments–could also be read as constructions based on aesthetic negotiations. The lines of sight or placement of foliage would in the past be determined by movements such as the picturesque. The question is whether such choices are informed by principles in art today, and if so, how this added layer of meaning being imposed upon a space negotiates with the existing tussle between history, memory and private use of public space.
Joshua Ehrlich has written an exceptionally entertaining piece for The Public Domain Review which sheds light on a little known Calcuttan Society…
Sarover, whom we were lucky to have at the third ETIC conference (second at Jadavpur) back in August 2015, writes a guest post for Ajam Media Collective on life and architecture in and around the ‘native town’ of Bombay/Mumbai.
A one-day workshop titled ‘Urban Futures and Urban Utopia in South Asian Megacities: Narratives, Play, Planning’ was organized by Utrecht University, Netherlands, and the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata. Organized thanks to the combined efforts of Dr. Paola Monachesi, Prof. Achin Chakrabarty, and Dr. Barnita Bagchi, the workshop took place yesterday, July 25, 2016.
Researchers at the Institute of Development Studies may be used to their auditorium on the sixth floor, but as a first-timer in that room I was struck by the seriously informal setting. One of the walls carries colourful abstract graffiti and for the most part the seating arrangement comprises circular tables with chairs on all sides. It makes for much more multi-directional exchange of ideas, as paper presenters were allowed to sit in their places after reading their papers and respond to questions and comments.
One of the main ideas behind the multidisciplinary workshop was to ‘create an alternative, bottom up way of to achieve consensus in urban development, or literary and filmic utopian and dystopian narratives’, by considering Kolkata and Mumbai especially using ideas of utopian and dystopian thinking.
The first session, chaired by Professor Prasanta Ray, began a little after half-past ten, with Achin Chakraborty’s paper Planning Urban Future: From Normative to Positive Analytic. Tracing three major normative lines of thinking about the development of cities: the smart city; supporting medium sized cities with potential; and green cities. Policy makers often tend to ignore the fact that the three major concerns of urban planning (growth, sustainability, social justice) cannot be addressed uniformly at the same time and that conflicts of interest are bound to arise. Chakraborty discussed the formation of degenerated peripheries growing in proximity to Class I cities, and closed with musings on the reasons for failure in implementation of promising plans, such as Provision of Urban Amenities to Rural Areas (PURA), a plan suggested by former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.
Jenia Mukherjee in a remarkably animated and engaging presentation spoke about the Blue Infrastructures of Kolkata. Pointing out the lack of critical evaluation of the notion of sustainability she spoke about the need to look closer at environmentalism of the poor rather than its more affluent definitions. Starting with Joseph Townsend’s measurements of the Hooghly river in the late seventeenth century, her account came down to the drying up of the Bidyadhari and the Kulti Outfall Scheme in 1943, as she emphasized the importance of the hydro-social aspects of town planning.
A team of researchers (Prerna Mandal and Dipanjan Nag) from IIT Kharagpur led by their supervisor, Joy Sen, spoke about the Role of Innovation Zones and IOT in Urban Futures, looking at three case studies, Evans, Denver; Delhi; and Hong Kong. Sen spoke of Utopic thinking as setting a yardstick against which one can measure the efforts that have been successful, and mentioned a number of innovative ways of conceptualizing cities, such as Madan Mohan Malavya’s plan based on the organization of people and movements in the Kumbh Mela. Arkopal K. Goswami who had made significant contributions to the paper, especially on the section on Transit Oriented Development was unable to be present for the workshop, but his colleague and students dealt with the section efficiently.
Barnita Bagchi and Paola Monachesi’s paper City Utopias, City Futures: Narrative, Play, and Urbanism in the Context of two Asian Megacities focused mainly on the “ludic urban utopian imagination” in which social justice drives urbanization processes. Bagchi warned about the recent trend of forgetting history in a dangerous way and illustrated her point about a ‘layered non-reductive model’ citing instances from Aneek Dutta’s film Bhooter Bhabishyat (2012), where a property developer looking to replace an old mansion with a shopping mall meets unexpected opposition in the form of ghosts of Kolkata’s past. Monachesi spoke about her very interesting work on the game, YouPlaceIt! which hopes for conflict resolution between different stakeholders, based in Dharavi, Mumbai.
Nilanjana Deb opened her paper, The Tide of Migrants Ebbs and Flows: Envisioning Calcutta as a Born-again Cosmopolis, recalling her during her research for the paper the optimism about the city’s re-imagining had dwindled, leading her to suggest the title include the phrase ‘Failing to Envision’. Her paper raised the important question: how cosmopolitan is Calcutta–and, how cosmopolitan it has ever been. Deb’s paper focused on the Metia Bruz area where Wajid Ali Shah had settled and established a ‘chhota Lucknow’. The selective tolerance of Kolkata’s populace may not be a very recent phenomenon after all, as she suggested, by looking at the gradual desertion by the English of the Metia Bruz area after the Muslim migrant worker populace started settling down. She ended with David Harvey’s question: who can claim the ‘right to the city’?
In the post-lunch session Carla Danani gave an extremely lucid paper titled Utopia and a Rethinking of Public Space, where she distinguished between ‘utopic configurations’ and ‘utopian intentionality’. She elaborated on the notion of ‘public space’ referring to its physical characteristics while acknowledging how places have been made more complex with the advent of technology. Her attempt to develop a ‘utopian idea of public space’ takes into account that something “in common” must be built keeping intact the differences in spaces and uses.
In Reimagining Mumbai from the Margins of the City Ratoola Kundu noted how in recent discourses the cities of the Global South are characterized by chaos and lacking infrastructure. She argued for the existence of many ‘subaltern urban imaginaries or visions’ of Utopias that resist broad metanarratives of urban Utopianism. Using case studies of Dharavi and Kamathipura, Kundu explored the relationship between the demography residing in these parts and their sense of possession and identity associated with the land. Suggesting that possible urban futures may be imagined from the margins, she asks what the centuries old existence of these ‘dystopic’ neighbourhoods tell us about visions and planning.
The last few minutes of Souvik Mukherjee’s paper went almost unheard as he unleashed a 3D viewer cardboard box showing views of different cities. His paper titled Gamifying Kolkata: A Ludic Approach to Viewing the City considered various computer games, augmented reality apps and the inaccurately named immersive experience games. Seeing Kolkata as a fundamentally ludic city (citing all kinds of makeshift street arrangement for games), Mukherjee’s paper lamented the absence of the cityscape in video games, but posited a number of exciting possibilities. The paper traced a brief history of games based on the city, bringing it down to video games, and finally to games such as PokémonGo which compel the player to explore the city in different ways while playing the game.
The final session opened with a fascinating account by Madhusree Dutta of Bombay cinema, which was based on her work in the city, featuring various experiments with the movie form and unexpected ways of installing them, such as at the ends of waterpipes at the Kalaghoda promenade. One of the things that the works aimed to highlight was cinema in Mumbai as labour-intensive industry. She took us through a wonderful series of slides showing the work that had been done to revitalise the movie archives, recreating posters and other film memorabilia. Finally she addressed the issue of the gradual fragmentation of the spaces of viewing. She cites the example of multiplexes, home viewing, and the most popular cheap forms of viewing–all of which she suggests are similar in their extreme exclusionary nature, however different in ambience.
Sujaan Mukherjee presented on spaces of dying in Kolkata addressing the question of public commemoration, historiography and the regenerative power that resides in such spaces, especially in the fiction of Nabarun Bhattacharya. The paper discussed briefly the emergence of the public sphere among the nationalist elite of Bengal before looking at the representation of burning ghats in Shakti Chattopadhyay and Allen Ginsberg. Kangal Malshat (2003) was seen in its Bakhtinian potency, and Mukherjee suggested that it is a mistake to look for the carnival in the events of the novel, but that the novel itself should be seen as a carnival. What the the insurgency that takes off from spaces of death (burning ghats and cemeteries) suggest about Nabarun’s perception of history and memory, as well as the power of representing bourgeois life as vulgar spectacle were teased out.
In the final paper of the day, Moinak Biswas offered an insightful history of the representation of space in Indian cinemas. He illustrated how the notion of space was value-laden from the onset in early mainstream cinema. The spaces were denominational and not in rationalized continuity. Gradually the change sets in and the city or the outdoor landscape begins to play a more important role. He cited the example of post-independence cinema which frequently feature outsiders who come to the city to become expert users of the city. Biswas spoke about the concept of ‘neighbourhood realism’, before going on to illustrate many of his points by taking the audience through a chase sequence from Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (2004), where the neighbourhoods through which the chase takes place ultimately modifies the relationship between police and fugitive.
The day closed with a viewing of Ranu Ghosh’s remarkable documentary, Quarter Number 4/11, but followers of the ETIC blog know all about the film by now! It is a ‘ground zero perspective of urban real estate development’, which uses innovative shooting methods to narrate the experience of ex-factory worker Shambhu Prasad Singh and his family to hold on to their rightful home as the South City residential complex and shopping mall take over the land. The director has previously spoken to the ETIC project group about her personal experiences while making the film and the methods she employed to get two perspectives within a single documentary.
With that a most enriching day’s conference featuring a mind-boggling array of approaches came to a close. Our sincerest thanks to Dr Paola Monachesi, Prof. Achin Chakraborty and Dr. Barnita Bagchi for taking the trouble of organizing an enthralling workshop.