Envisioning the Indian City: Spaces of Encounter – Jadavpur University Reading Group Seminar

Audio-Visual Room and Renaissance Resource Centre, Department of English, Jadavpur University

14.00 – 16.30


The August session of the Reading Group Seminar was held in the Audio-Visual Room, Department of English, Jadavpur University on 27 August 2013, between 2 pm and 4 pm. Among the attendees were Professor Supriya Chaudhuri, Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri, Professor Swapan Chakravorty, Professor Monideep Chatterjee, Professor Subhrajit Das, Professor Neeta Das, Dr. Abhijit Gupta, Dr. Nilanjana Deb, Sarbajit Mitra, Somak Mukherjee, Rudrani Gangopadhyay, Ankita Chakrabarti, Sujaan Mukherjee, Arshdeep Singh Brar, and Pramantha Mohun Tagore. The meeting had been thrown open to the general student body as the first segment – lectures on the history, planning, archival resources, and spaces – would have been of interest to most students and researchers, irrespective of their direct engagement with the project.

Professor Supriya Chaudhuri opened the session with a brief introduction of the project for the benefit of those who were attending the RGS for the first time or aren’t involved in the project.

Professor Monideep Chatterjee had been asked to speak on the planning of the city of Calcutta. Professor Chatterjee began at the beginning, so to speak, and raised several questions about the origin of the city: what prompted Job Charnock to settle in the place that would grow into Calcutta; whether we can accept 24 August 1690 as the city’s birthday; which other towns in the vicinity could have risen to eminence instead of Calcutta. He mentioned the importance of cities like Saptagram that had come under Portuguese occupation in the sixteenth century, Chuchura (occupied by the Dutch in 1625), Chandannagar (French settlement in 1688), Srirampur (Danes, 1755), and Baranagar (Dutch factory established in 1658). Chandannagar, for instance, would perhaps have risen to greater importance had Napoleon been successful in the Battle of Waterloo.

Professor Chatterjee gave us a brief history of the establishment of the earliest institutions by the British in the area covered by the villages of Sutanuti, Gobindapur and Kalikata. The Old Fort William, where the General Post Office stands today, was built in 1696 by the English East India Company. It was after Siraj-ud-Daulah’s siege in 1756 that the British decided to build the new Fort William (where we see it today) and shift base to the Maidan. The area, Professor Chatterjee pointed out, comprised little more than three villages with a few creeks (commemorated in the name of the street, “Creek Row”), which connected them to the Salt Lakes. He referred to the earliest maps: Foresti and Ollifres, 1742 (“plan of Calcutta and the adjacent country, by Foresti and Ollifres”), William Wells, 1753 (“plan of Fort William, and part of the city of Calcutta, with a project for the fortifying the Fort, surveyed and drawn by William Wells, Lieutenant of the Artillery Company in Bengal, in the year 1753”)[i], which serve as an interesting series from which we can get a visual impression of the development of the city-space. The early visualizations reveal only one axis, the Pilgrim’s Road, going through Chitpur to Kalighat. The East-West axis is marked by “the Avenue”, which is now Bow Bazar Street. He referred also to the construction of the Maratha Ditch, which would later be filled in to form Upper and Lower Circular Road (now A.J.C. Bose Road and A.P.C. Roy Road).

Professor Chatterjee argued that the British resorted to Classical architecture for all of their centres of administration in Calcutta because they saw it as a display of power and grandeur. The GPO has Corinthian pillars, the Senate Hall Ionic, and the Governor’s House Doric. The Marble Palace (1835) of Raja Rajendra Mullick was an answer to this tradition, although the Palace itself takes attributes from Greek architecture while retaining the Indian facade of rooms on the four sides of a (sometimes there would be more than one) central courtyard. He also pointed out the importance of looking at diseases as factors influencing urban development, beginning with the mid-nineteenth century Fever Hospital Committee Reports, the establishment of the Calcutta Improvement Trust, right down to 1962 when WHO decided to establish a Cholera Research Centre in Calcutta – and the preparation of a development plan in 1966 by the Calcutta Metropolitan Planning Organization. He briefly touched upon the work of the Lottery Committee in building the C.R. Avenue, which served as another North-South axis, of the drastic demographic changes occurring with the Partition of Bengal, and the hopes of marking Calcutta in terms of urban region, similar to the National Capital Region which centres around New Delhi.

Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri opened with a warning against focusing so narrowly on our respective research interests that we forget the macro levels of urban development, and pointed out the importance of contextualizing events. Taking off from where Sri Monideep Chatterjee had left, he spoke about the port areas and their development, touching upon the rise of Garden Reach, originally a site for luxurious British villas, and Khidderpur, which is now a depressed port. He also noted the fallacy of equating physical growth and economic growth, and the possibility of an economic situation where a stoppage in physical growth can lead to better financial condition.

Professor Chaudhuri went on to speak on the unplanned development of Calcutta, and about the creation of roads such as B.K. Pal Avenue and Vivekananda Road, by the CIT, without which North Calcutta would have been choked by traffic. These efforts were rendered largely irrelevant as a result of the partition – by far the largest mass migration in recorded modern history. Prior to the partition the structure of the city comprised a ‘Black Town’ in the North and a ‘White Town’ in the Southern part, housing the centres of administration. Burrabazar served as the principal business centre. Comparing maps of the city before and after partition, Professor Chaudhuri demonstrated the expansion of the Calcutta Metropolitan area and the settlements that were formed along the river and on the outer fringes of the city. He observed the lack of communication mechanisms between the city of Calcutta and the municipalities that have grown, over time, along the river. Between the 1970s and ’90s several ‘secondary urban centres’ developed, creating new job opportunities around Calcutta. Professor Chaudhuri pointed out the failure to connect these centres by way of railway lines, and the virtual non-existence of an efficient network of roads.

Professor Subhrajit Das, who had been requested to speak on spaces in the city, commented on the inconsistencies that he finds, as an architect, in the urban development of the city: the arbitrariness of buildings, of footpath or park railings, of semi-permanent sheds. According to Professor Das, these add to the vibrancy of the city by not allowing a certain sterility that can be a result of extremely sanitized and planned city growth. He spoke of the various methods of creating space within the city, such as the umbrellas we use while walking, or the plastic sheds (or garden umbrellas) that mark the territory of hawkers on the pavements and streets, or the mosquito nets used by street-dwellers. Professor Das contested the claim that the city of Kolkata rarely opens on to the Hooghly river, by pointing out a number of ghats that allow one to do just that. He argued that one could find a similar feature in cities like Benares, where the view and physical traversal of space do not coincide, by which he meant that one might often have to take a meandering route to reach a point that is visually directly accessible. This, for him, is also directly connected with the ways of walking a city like Kolkata, where movement can rarely be in straight lines.

The availability of resources on urban history was the subject of Professor Swapan Chakravorty’s talk. He pointed out that we would be dealing with five or six kinds of documents, such as the printed books, maps, state records, manuscripts, photographs. He offered guidance on using the National Library and on how to access its various departments like the Maps and Prints Division and the Indian Official Documents section. The State Archives, he informed us, contain valuable resources on Armenians and Baghdadi Jews; and some of these reports may not be in English, Bengali or Hindi, and may require the services of a translator. Professor Chakravorty referred to two key publications celebrating the tercentenary of Calcutta – Calcutta: The Living City, in two volumes (ed. Sukanta Chaudhuri), and Calcutta Tercentenary Bibliography (ed. P. T. Nair), which is being brought out in revised form by the National Library of India (Kolkata) in two volumes, as Kolkata Heritage Bibliography. He gave us a list of key maps of the city of Calcutta, from the late 1700s to the early decades of the 20th century, including (among several others) the first Surveyor General’s map, the early 19th century road maps, 3 maps of the ports, and the map showing the earliest drainage plans. He informed us of the very useful catalogue of photographs of Kolkata available at the National Library, titled Index of Pictures on Calcutta (recently published by the National Library Employee’s Association), of the archives of the Victoria Memorial Hall, the Asiatic Society library, and the Calcutta Commercial Library.

Following a brief question-answer session, the discussion was moved into the Renaissance Resource Centre, Department of English. Students working on the project spoke of directions their research are taking. Dr Neeta Das, who was present through out, offered some valuable insights into what goes on behind the restoration of old buildings. She has worked on a number of prestigious projects herself and continues to do so.  She offered her help in our understanding of colonial architecture. Professor Subhrajit Das suggested that he could ask some of his students to accompany students working on the project to help them understand ground plans and draw them, if necessary. Dr Neeta Das also suggested possible ways of accessing and studying the work of Patrick Geddes, especially with relation to the Burrabazar area.

Professor Supriya Chaudhuri suggested that we decide on the areas we will be focusing on at the moment. The areas chosen for now are the bazars of Calcutta, the port area, the Chitpur road stretch, the Portuguese Church area, the College Street book-market and Cornwallis Street, and the Maidan. In the light of the talks delivered earlier, the methodology to be followed was briefly revised. Students have been asked to submit or present progress reports at the next RGS, which is in October. A fairly large body of essays and texts has also been circulated via Dropbox among the group-members, and a few maps ranging between the mid-1700s and 1900 have been uploaded as well.


[i] Catalogue of the Manuscript Maps, Charts, and Plans, and of the Topographical Drawings in the British Museum, Vol. III (London: The Trustees of the British Museum, 1962), 359. The National Library of India, Calcutta, has several eighteenth and nineteenth century maps in its ‘Maps and Prints Division’.


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