Old Library, 19 Abercromby Square
The inaugural Liverpool reading group for the ‘Envisioning The Indian City: Spaces of Encounter’ project met on 23 May 2013 for an afternoon of lively discussion on research methodology, the progress of the various strands of research and the critical and theoretical resources informing the research. In attendance were Supriya Chaudhuri (School of English, Jadavpur University), Tania Sengupta (School of Architecture, University College London), Nandini Das (School of English, University of Liverpool), Iain Jackson (School of Architecture, University of Liverpool), Ian Magedera (School of Modern Languages, University of Liverpool), Andy Davies (School of Geography, University of Liverpool), Steve Legg (School of Geography, University of Nottingham), Andrew Popp (School of Management, University of Liverpool), Chris Pearson (School of History, University of Liverpool), Alex Harris (School of English, University of Liverpool) and Emma Hayworth, Maria Shmygol and Jonathan Day, all thesis students in the School of English, University of Liverpool.
After introductions the event began with summaries from Nandini Das, Supriya Chaudhuri, Iain Jackson and Ian Magedera about the status and progress of their respective project strands. Nandini Das emphasised that although the project encompassed four Indian cities divided between four people, both the trans-national form of ‘Envisioning the Indian City’ and the nature of the research encouraged an interdisciplinary focus. Professor Das continued that her research interests concerned Goa as a site of European cultural translations outside of Europe from the late sixteenth century onwards. The Portuguese printing press was suggested as a potential sub-project both for its own sake and as a potential point of contact with the later Calcutta printing press, exemplifying the project’s focus upon links between Indian cities, whilst food, music and art were also suggested as useful subjects to consider as loci of cultural encounters linking Indian cities.
Supriya Chaudhuri emphasised the utility of the trans-national nature of ‘Envisioning the Indian City’, stating that although there is already a wealth of information on Calcutta, much of it is archival or contained in the works of senior city historians to which Jadavpur University has access. It was suggested that the research on Calcutta would take the form of vignettes, with separate projects on the area between Fort William and the river, the area around the Portuguese church and the drainage systems of Calcutta; by linking these the research would gain both specificity and breadth.
Iain Jackson discussed his research focus on health, hygiene, town planning and architectural design through the heuristic device of tropical architecture, noting both the interface of European-trained Indian architects and British Architects in Chandigarh and points of contact between West African architecture and Indian architecture. Developments such as examples of modern European, Bauhaus and Neo-Classical architecture in Chandigarh were also to be considered. As a further example of this diversity, Iain Jackson noted that there were over two hundred and fifty linked architects to be considered.
Ian Magedera discussed Pondicherry and Auroville, emphasising both the spatial and the psychological relationship between the old and the new through the concept of psychogeography. Both Tamil and French (particularly Neoclassical) influences are to be considered, leading to the creation of a sourcebook with a visual focus.
These summaries were followed by contributions from external speakers Steve Legg and Tania Sengupta. Steve Legg emphasised that the Indian diaspora spread to the Pacific and Singapore as well as Europe, and that this aspect should not be neglected, as well as noting that Indian cities often serve and have served historically as transition points (between the Indian countryside and the city and the city and migration) as well as fixed places. Steve Legg’s own research on prostitution in India led to a call for a similarly decentralised focus, as well as the necessity to focus upon the subaltern and subalternism rather than an over-reliance on archival materials. As a further example of the Indian city as a dynamic space Steve Legg discussed Delhi as an Indian city both confident and riven by anxieties of inadequacy with New Delhi serving in part to mark the boundaries of Old Delhi both spatially and socially. In discussing theory, it was suggested that theory take a secondary place to inform research rather than as a starting point and that participants in the project should actively seek theory with which they disagree in order to further inflect their thinking. Tania Sengupta also emphasised the importance of a distributed and decentralised approach. Her own research on provincial towns in Bengal, particularly Baharampur, provides an example of the unique features of the provincial, including unique forms of governance and the close links between the people and the government. The fixed architectural form and shifting social and political uses of buildings was also emphasised. The necessity of both translocalism and an empirically-driven approach to research were emphasised, whilst Lefebvre and Foucalt were suggested as useful theorists for the project.
Over refreshments the contributions of Steve Legg and Tania Sengupta were discussed by the reading group. The relationship of social and spatial geographies, human and animal geographies and the relationship between cities as spaces of transition and the rhythm of those transitions were the central issues engaged with. Nandini Das initiated the discussion of social and spatial geographies, noting that Steve Legg’s observations about the divisions of Delhi also hold true for Goa. Tania Sengupta continued the discussion, providing examples of the mutability of fixed architecture, noting both a case in which a hospital became a jail that became an insane asylum and also the shared architectural plans common to all three institutions in provincial Bengal. Steve Legg’s discussion of the role of the Indian jail as a place of short-term detention during periods of disorder initiated the discussion of rhythm. Tania Sengupta suggested a focus upon the structured but rhythmic lives of sailors and suggested Heidegger as a potential useful critical source for the project, to which Steve Legg added the example of Indian prostitutes measuring the duration of bans from cities before their return to the urban spaces. Chris Pearson introduced the notion of overlapping human and animal geographies, to which Steve Legg provided the example of the regulated and controlled movement of buffalo in New Delhi and Tania Sengupta cited the appearance of markets within former green spaces in Indian cities designed for grazing, and governmental attempts to block the markets by reference to former grazing rights.
The discussion then turned to Georg Simmel’s The Metropolis and Mental Life, introduced by Ian Magedera. Simmel’s text was generally considered as both Eurocentric and shaped by early twentieth century trends of teleological thinking in points raised by Tania Sengupta, Steve Legg and Chris Pearson, making Simmel’s text somewhat anachronistic for a discussion of the Indian city. Andrew Popp also noted the outmoded and overly rationalistic models of capitalism espoused in Simmel’s text. Simmel’s discussion of rhythm proved one point of contact with Indian cities, with Nandini Das discussing commuters and Ian Magedera and Andrew Popp covering professional travellers. Nandini Das and Tania Sengupta suggested the utility of Simmel as an abstract model to help avoid essentialist thinking about Indian cities and as a means for understanding European thinking about city spaces, to which Iain Jackson provided the example of European architects writing in reaction to Simmel. Steve Legg remarked that Simmel’s writing anticipated the development of the concept of cultural economy.
Nandini Das then introduced the discussion of Kevin Robins’ Managing Cities:The New Urban Context. Professor Das observed that whilst Simmel’s text separated the affective from the city space, Robin’s text showed the opposite trend, and Nandini Das recommended Robins’ discussion of the stranger and how the stranger ‘brings the outside in’ as a useful ‘trigger’ both for the group’s research and for the discussion. Steve Legg opined that Robins’ model of the stranger as an out-group was incomplete and gave the example of Derrida’s discussion of helping complete strangers. This proved an important observation with Supriya Chaudhuri discussing the benevolent treatment of strangers during flooding in Bombay and Andrew Popp noting the formation of self-organising collectives of strangers during blackouts in New York during the 1960s. The mutability of the concept of ‘strangeness’ and its association with the mutable city space was then covered. Chris Pearson enquired who gets to define strangeness – the police, officials, archives or other sources? Iain Jackson then introduced the notion of brackets of strangeness, marking the concept as capable of great nuance, to which Nandini Das provided the example of levels of strangeness in early modern Goa, with the Portuguese merchants seeming more strange to English sailors than the local people, an attitude shaped in part through social and cultural memory. Supriya Chaudhuri added to this focus upon memory and the overlap between physical and social geographies by noting that until very recently people would cite their district rather than their city when asked where they were from. Ian Magedera also noted the importance of memory to the Indian city, noting that the city could function as a diasaporic object that gains significance once left. The discussion of spatial, memorial and social geographies culminated in Nandini Das’ analysis of a spatial route through Goa between administrative buildings that allowed strangers to become familiar in both a social and physical sense. Andrew Davies noted that one of his graduate students was engaged in a project of interviewing people in Jodhpur travelling on buses, and the discussion moved to the student’s methodology as an example of empirical work conducted in an Indian city.
From this point the group turned a discussion of the methodology and the four main areas of inquiry for the ‘Envisioning the Indian City’ project. The group subdivided into two, with participants engaging in a round table discussion and making suggestions on post-it notes to attach to a printed copy of the ETIC methodology and research proposal, as well as noting potentially useful critical reading suggestions for the project. The groups also talked further about the discussions of a fruitful reading group.
— Jonathan Day, School of English, University of Liverpool.