ETIC Reading Group 29th January 2014

‘Encountering Pondicherry’

School of The Arts Library, 2-4pm 

Dr Tariq Jazeel (Department of Geography, UCL): ‘Architecture, Auroville and the spatial politics of utopian ‘city’ building in Southern India’

Dr Andy Davies (Department of Geography and Planning, University of Liverpool): ‘Exile in the homeland? French India, transnational revolutionaries and the life of Subramania Bharati’

Text: Preeti Chopra, ‘Pondicherry: A French Enclave in India’

The first RGS of the year was introduced by Dr Ian Magedera. After speaking about the recent ETIC workshop at Jadavpur University and the group’s fieldwork in Calcutta, Magedera introduced the speakers and their South Indian research funded by BASAS.

Dr Tariq Jazeel thanked the ETIC group for the opportunity to present his preliminary work on Auroville, a Unesco funded site 12km North of Pondicherry. Reading the site as an exceptional spatiality, he outlined his interest in its claims to city status and the perpetuation of this narrative. Derived from the visions of Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa (The Mother), Jazeel detailed the physical and conceptual construction of the space as a city of human unity inaugurated on 28 February 1968. Photographic documentation of the eclectic architecture of residents’ homes and the Matrimandir depicted the site as an experimental laboratory. Jazeel commented on the surprisingly dispersed population and scattered urban development which lacked an assumed social thickness.

From his one month research trip spent in the archives and interviewing residents, Jazeel introduced four emergent themes;

1. Education and learning

2. Diversity, Agonism, Experimentalism

3. Non-material architecture

4. The ‘City’ under erasure

Education and learning constituted a central tenet. Reports from the Committee d’Administration d’Auroville (1975) demonstrated the modelling of the city as ‘one huge school where learning is a continual process’. Analysis of the Auroville’s current textual field, its website and self-published literature, alluded to the continual civilisation discourse and utopian aspirations.

Following Jazeel’s presentation, discussion centred around the tension of this desire to be a unique city model despite conventional city zoning and large administrative buildings. The ideological portrayal of the city was considered in contrast to Auroville’s location in rural Tamil Nadu. Jazeel quoted material from his interviews which noted the performative articulations of Auroville as a ‘city’ distinct from the ‘villagers’ of Tamil Nadu.

SubramanyaBharathi

Dr Andrew Davies addressed Pondicherry as a nodal point in transnational politics and revolution. Concurrent with continuing research reading resistance practices as networks, his paper focused on a number of exiled revolutionaries; Subramania Bharati, VVS Aiyar, Srinivascharya and Sri Aurobindo Ghose, residing in Pondicherry between 1908-1918. Working from sources at the National Archives in Delhi, Davies spoke of his interest in the British records of urban life in this port city. Regarded as an ‘anarchist gang’, Davies recounted the complex network of political relations between the exiled, French and British administration. Particular attention was paid to Britain’s anxiety and deployment of 200 policemen to monitor Sri Aurobindo’s movements. The political climate was typified by heightened surveillance and circuits of informers eager to collude. Davies described the negotiations between the French and British stronghold in Madras constructing an impression of a highly efficient surveillance network.

The material ensured lively discussion. Comparisons were made between the two sites as sanctuaries where multiple national identities and affiliations could be negotiated. The group commented on the porous boundaries of the French enclave. This flexibility in contrast with the French city Chandannagar was considered as facilitating Sri Aurobindo’s transition from the political to the spiritual.

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