Audio-Visual Room, Department of English, Jadavpur University
Jadavpur University, Department of English, hosted the June session of the Reading Group Seminar for the “Envisioning the Indian City” project. It was held on the 27th of June, 2013, 2 pm onwards in the departmental Audio-Visual Room. Among those attending were Professor Supriya Chaudhuri, Professor Amlan Das Gupta, Professor Shubhrajit Das, Dr Abhijit Gupta, Sohini Banerjee, Sarbajaya Bhattacharya, Arshdeep Singh Brar, Pramantha Mohun Tagore, and Ankita Chakrabarti.
The meeting began with a brief recapitulation of the proceedings of the previous Reading Group Seminars. The work that has been accomplished thus far by the outgoing Post-Graduate research group, in conjunction with their Post-Colonial Studies course, was discussed. Newcomers to the group were given updates on the strands of research that have been considered, and on the basic aims of the project in the long run.
The Reading Group discussions were initiated by Professor Supriya Chaudhuri who introduced Rev. James Long’s book, Calcutta in the Olden Times: Its Localities and its Peoples. Dr Abhijit Gupta led the discussion. Divided into two long chapters, the book serves not just as an interesting record of, as the subtitle suggests, the places, spaces, and localities within the city and the various coexisting social groups of the time, but also as a record of Long’s unique research methodology and ethnography. Interestingly, the essay published originally in the Calcutta Review, Vol. XVIII in 1852, strikes a nostalgic note, as if the author makes it his goal to record for future generations an already disappearing view of the city. Long’s method of urban-reading seems to be one based on comparisons with European cities: he sees the city-scape changing, as it were, from resembling St Petersburg to resembling London. It cites several older publications that are now relatively more difficult to access, and often explains in footnotes to the ‘non-native’ reader anecdotes and ethnographic details that may appear incredible. A digital copy of the book has subsequently been made available online, for sharing among the group members.
Sarbajaya Bhattacharya and Sohini Banerjee screened the documentaries they had put together with brief introductions. Sarbajaya has been interested in indoor games within the city in literature from the 19th-20th century period and beyond. Her work so far has focused mainly on the games played by women, and how in literature and, later, in films depicting the period, they have been seen as a site of colonial encounter. While akharas (wrestling rings) were proliferating in the city and nationalist discourse was tied up with masculinity, the andarmahal (inner quarters of a house) and its activities serve as sites of resistance. In her documentary Sarbajaya turns to the streets of Kolkata where we find games being played in small huddles all through the city. Many of them belong to sports clubs that were formed in the city around the 1950s by the inhabitants of refugee colonies, who had been displaced from Bangladesh, and were looking to solidify their identities. The card games played are mostly of foreign origin, the Indian indigenous games all but forgotten. Besides card-games, members also use the facilities available at these clubs for physical exercise. Her work promises to extend itself to a comparative study of colonial and, so to speak, post-colonial club cultures: the Calcutta Club or the Dalhousie Institute on the one hand, and the Bengal Club or the smaller post-independence clubs like the ones she addresses in her documentary and paper.
Sohini Banerjee’s documentary, “The Cultural Production of Urban Space”, was a look at Sir Stuart Hogg’s New Market as a space of colonial encounter. Designed and built in the 1870s, the market was intended exclusively for the English. Interviews with people who have been associated with the market through generations revealed changes that had (or had not) come about with time. Opinions differed among the persons interviewed on various topics, ranging from comfort in trading matters to changes in clientele. Negotiations with the architecture of the market also differed from trader to trader. Sohini’s documentary focused, for instance, on difficulties faced by meat-market merchants in terms of sanitation and disintegrating walls and roofs. The silver-merchant, Mr V. Gulab commented on the aspects of natural lighting within the market building and the use of electric or backlit shop signs, as opposed to the old-fashioned beveled or relief sign-boards. Much of the footage Sohini had captured could not however be fitted within the scope of the documentary.
The screenings were followed by an interactive session, in which their work was discussed at length both in terms of their cinematic quality and contents. Professor Amlan Das Gupta suggested that we could profitably look other markets as well, which may or may not have been constructed by the British. He also suggested that we look at architecture of these markets as possible sites of colonial encounter – and extend that to studies of the architecture of public buildings. He also spoke about the architecture of the Calcutta High Court, which shows Gothic influences and has a remarkable history.
The final presentation for the day was a “photo-essay” by Pramantha M. Tagore (presently in PG I), who has been working on patrons of classical music among the families of North Calcutta, centering especially on the Pathuriaghata area. His presentation titled “Centers of Patronage” covered the career of Bhupendra Krishna Ghosh, who had remained an influential patron of the arts between the 1890s and the 1930s. Among other things, he was also responsible for the inauguration of the All Bengal Music Conference in 1934, a project which did its bit to democratize classical music in the city. It was revived five years back on its 75th anniversary.
Arshdeep Singh Brar spoke on his area of interest, that is, the Barabazar area. Professor Supriya Chaudhuri suggested that we follow up on the work of Patrick Geddes, whose plan for the improvement of Barabazar, drawn in 1919, had contributed significantly to the area’s development. Arshdeep’s research interest lies in the exploration of the changing market scenario with new constructions coming up. Ankita Chakrabarti also pitched her idea of working on a history of the schools that were set up by the English for English education in Calcutta.
(This report was compiled from notes made by Arshdeep Singh Brar)