On Tuesday 15th October in the School of Arts Library at University of Liverpool, between 4-5pm, Dr Nilanjana Deb (Assistant Professor, English Department, Jadavpur University) presented her paper, ‘Nabobs, Coolies and ‘Our Ganga of Calcutta’: Towards a Spatial History of Calcutta’s Waterfront’.
Following an introduction to the ETIC project by Professor Nandini Das (University of Liverpool), Dr Deb was welcomed to the University of Liverpool and introduced her research interests to the group of scholars. She spoke of her postdoctoral work on the narrative of movement with focus on the vast machinery that brought coolies to Calcutta for subsequent export to the sugar colonies in the nineteenth century. In considering the adaption of the waterfront to these flows, Dr Deb explored the Garden Reach area of the River Hooghly as favoured by the European community.
The topography of the river rendered the site desirable and ideal for the building of palatial European homes planned within tight confines to inhibit the spread of disease. Dr Deb discussed this architectural feature as impetus for the river becoming a public space. As a site for the community; the water was animated with promenading and from 1840 bathing site for those contained in the coolie depots. Reading this urban change as sedimentation, attention was drawn to the layers of the city underneath the colonial; the unexpected and new populations that moved the area from European suburb to belonging to the city. The fluidity of these urban transitions was emphasized and the metaphor of sedimentation preferenced over readings of static palimpsest. Each community left its traces and imbued the area with its frenetic characteristics.
The social spatial growth detailed by Dr Deb was of great interest to the audience. Lively discussions ensued. Dr Andy Davies (University of Liverpool) and Dr Chris Pearson (University of Liverpool) spoke of the work being done on water by environmental historians and geographers such as Professor Erik Swyngedouw (University of Manchester). Deleuzian rhizomatic structures were referenced as a means to understand the networks of actors in the area. Dr Deana Heath (University of Liverpool), in light of her current research on torture, spoke of the objects that came in from the sea and reading the Hooghly as a dangerous place, a site of fear in the context of a port city. The ETIC group concluded that following the Port Cities Conference this was a fertile area for research which was part of the ongoing project.