Meeting Places: The City as a Space of Cross-Cultural Encounter
Envisioning the Indian City: Spaces of Encounter, UGC-UKIERI Project, University of Liverpool and Jadavpur University International Conference
12 and 13 September 2014
School of the Arts
19 Abercromby Square
University of Liverpool
Day 1: Friday, 12 September 2014
The first day of the ETIC Conference, “Meeting Places: The City as a Space of Cross-Cultural Encounter” coincided with the second and last day of the Port City Lives Conference, “Vectors: Port Cities as Gateways, Channels and Conduits” (11 and 12 September). Professor Nandini Das opened the inaugural session of the ETIC Conference by briefly introducing the project and describing its relationship with the Port City Lives Conference and how the two joined hands for the day’s sessions. She drew attention to a series of posters presenting research by Dr Iain Jackson, Dr Ian Magadera and Cleo Roberts, exhibited in the Old Library. Dr Andrew Popp, who had attended one of the ETIC Reading Group Seminars at Liverpool a few months back, spoke on the idea behind the Port City Lives series, and the importance of bringing in scholars from varied disciplines and of creating a common forum for all, in our attempt to understand cities and ports.
Session I: India
Jessica Hanser’s ‘Canton Connection: Debts Crisis in Britain’s Burgeoning Asian Empire’ was the first paper to be read at the Conference. Hanser is in the process of turning her dissertation into book-form, Mr. Smith Goes to China. Her paper looked at the conflicts that were taking place in the Madras and China in the second half of the 18th century between the British and the ‘native’ rulers and traders. Tracing the career of Mohammad Ali Khan Walla Jah (1717-1795), who became Nawab of Arcot, Hanser drew attention to the enormous amounts of debt that he had accumulated. An ally of the British East India Company, he relied on the latter for financial support to enable him to collect taxes. A large number of individuals also got involved in the giving and taking of loans, and through these we can note a shift in the power equation. On the other hand, in China, Hanser explained, the situation was somewhat different. Here the loans—short or long term—were taken by traders. A number of traders and middlemen had trickled into China around the 1750s and 60s from India. The rulers did not intervene even when the debts had reached staggering proportions. While on the one hand in India the loans that were offered by the British helped in sustaining local kingdoms, in China they supported a global trade. The paper mapped an interesting series of flows of money and shed light on a chapter that is not often discussed.
Catherine Eagleton of the British Library followed with her paper, ‘Currency Flows and Trade Routes: Connections and Disconnections between Port Cities in the Western Indian Ocean, 1825-1875’. Eagleton had previously spoken at an ETIC Reading Group Seminar at the University of Liverpool. Her paper looked principally at two locations, Zanzibar and Mauritius. Most of the ports in the Western Indian Ocean, she pointed out were using the rupee in the period under discussion. Neither France nor Britain were sure of paper currency and the constant flow of Indian currency made life difficult for them. Coins tended to leave with traders while paper money remained. Attempts were made to stabilize the exchange rate and a Bank was started. London wanted to replace the Indian currency with the Sterling. Interestingly, the flow, when it did start, came through Australian trade in Mauritius. Zanzibar, which was part of a Sultanate, underwent a split in terms of its currency around the middle of the 19th century, between European and American traders. The Indian merchants, who made money on foreign exchange, did not want the money to circulate in Zanzibar and this created a conflict of interests. While the British failed to forcibly circulate the sterling in Mauritius, things flipped with the advent of the American Civil War and the manner in which it affected global trade routes.
Nilanjana Deb (Jadavpur University) presented her paper on ‘“The Tide of Migration Ebbs and Flows”: Labour Migration from the Colonial Port of Calcutta’. Following the abolition of slavery on plantations, the system of indenture became popular among the colonial traders. The indentured labour was sourced mainly from China, India and Java. The Calcutta port served as a place from which such labour was shipped. Many who came in from places outside of the city also decided to stay on in places like Bhowanipore and Garden Reach. The Mauritius depot was located on the Tolly’s Nullah, while all other places were served from the Garden Reach port itself. Questions of caste came in, and for many this life on the ship and in a new place marked a kind of caste-erasure, which was seen as a liberation. For others, however, it also became difficult to return to their homes, having once crossed the kala pani. Many of the labourers had to coaxed and many men and women were kidnapped too. Deb further observed that one may perhaps see these labouring populations as India’s first world travellers.
Session II: Empires
Simon Mollan of the Management School, University of York, opened the session with his paper, ‘The Port of Suakin, Sudan, Entrepreneurialism, and the Imperial Gothic’. Raising interesting questions about the nature of interdisciplinary research, Mollan brought to our notice the history of the Port of Suakin, an important port of Sudan through the 19th century, serving the Ottomans via Egyptians. The paper sought to revise an Anglo-centric history which calls this a ‘period of anarchy’. Using the apparently contradictory ideologies of Darwinism along with its corollary theories of imperialism, and notions of the occult, Mollan tried to understand the principles that went into representations of these cultures. Citing works like H. Rider Haggard’s The Yellow God, and other key works of Gothic literature, he explained how the death of General Gordon (1885), a significant moment in Suakin’s history was represented through Gothic tropes. The idea of trading (and colonizing) as part of a civilization process ties up interestingly with a deep-rooted anxiety about the occult practices that European ideologies failed to understand.
‘The Port of Carthage (Tunisia) as Symbol of Empire’ by Christine Atiyeh (Kutztown) and Alicia Walker (Bryn Mawr) was a presentation of the archeological work being done at the sites over the last fifteen years. Tracing a history of the port, the authors suggested that the this writing had been problematic. A monastic order, the White Fathers, arriving c.1870 had started an archive of the particular port. The person behind this was one Father Delattre. One of the principles governing most historical work or even works of visual representation is to see Carthage’s history as non-Arabic and non-Islamic. Keeping this in mind, the project has tried to rework the commonly held notions and support their claims through the archeological work on the site.
Edward Collins of University College, Dublin, drew upon a wide range of historic material to establish his thesis in ‘Knowledge Transmission and the Creation of Empire: The Role of Seville in Sixteenth-Century Spain’. Looking at the art of map-making and the history of technology—trades of making compasses and other nautical instruments, Collins traced the routes that knowledge took within Europe. Bringing in Portuguese experts and the entire trade in knowledge centred on Seville created international rivalries and gave rise to resistances to foreigners.
Session III: Hinterlands
Steven Gray of Warwick presented on ‘“A Mixture of Races, Customs, and Manners, such as can Scarcely be Found at any Other Place”: The Culture of a Victorian Coaling Station’. The paper drew attention to the significance of the coaling stations in a port city not only as spaces of labour exchange or of utility, but also as sites of leisure and recreational activities. Drawing upon a rich stock of photographs, theatre tickets, sporting competition schedules, Gray looked at a number of ports around the globe, and at how these spaces produced through trade have been used through time.
In ‘Shifting Relations Between Ports and Cities: The Postindustrial Maritime City’, Günter Warsewa offered an intriguing analysis of the afterlives of ports. Warsewa noted the relocation of contemporary ports outside cities and spoke about a possible regeneration or a reinvention of the notion of port cities, and the changing functional relationship between the two. How the culture of the port is made to survive in a city is also interesting—converting them into a heritage industry may be just one way to commemorate.
Dividing the port’s modern history into three main periods, 1830-1911, 1911-1930, 1930-2000, Gina Balta of the University of Greenwich presented her paper, ‘The Port of Piraeus and its Function as the Hub of the Greek Shipping Industry’. Looking at the period between 1950 and 1970 as a time of rapid economic growth, she sketched a history of the port and its contribution to Greek trade and commerce. Interesting links were also mapped between Chinese ports and the port of Piraeus in Athens.
Session IV: Cross-roads and Exchanges
Abhijit Gupta of Jadavpur University presented ‘A Note on Portuguese Print-house Personnel in Colonial Calcutta’. From a book-historian’s perspective, the paper painted a fascinating picture of the Calcutta printing houses. Printing had come to India through the Portuguese, and its history in Calcutta and its surrounding port cities like Serampore also has close Portuguese connections. The paper also raised questions about the definition of ‘Portuguese’ in Calcutta, and of certain terms that we find mentioned in this context, such as ‘keranee’ which have undergone great changes in meaning. Gupta also showed an electronic mapping tool which he had used to chart out the places where the Portuguese printers would work and stay, a navigable map with descriptions of the houses and their inhabitants. Further, he pointed to Graham Shaw’s SABTI resource, which is a rich index of individuals associated with book-printing in South Asia.
The final paper of the day was Sidh Losa Mendiratta’s ‘Framing Identity: Cityscapes and Architecture of Mumbai’s Catholic Communities (19th and the 20th centuries)’. Charting the arrival of the Portuguese in India, the paper looked at cartographic evidence, iconography, old photographs, printed matter and manuscripts to write a history of the present of the Catholic in Mumbai and its surrounding areas. There were three divisions that were noted among the Catholic population: Reinois which meant Europeans; Casados, which meant Indian born; and Naturais, that is a person who was converted but retained caste-awareness. The paper looked at places that were Catholic dominated and at how many of these have fallen into disrepair and ruin beyond recognition. Mendiratta showed a large number of cathedrals and churches that have interesting architectural histories and explained the significance of a few, including the Mandapeshwar caves in Borivali, which were forcibly taken over by Catholics and converted into a church.
(Photographs: Amrita Dhar)
Day 2: Saturday, 13 September 2014
The key-note for the ‘Meeting Places: The City as a Space of Cross-cultural Encounter’ conference was delivered on the second day: Dr. Vikramāditya “Vikram” Prakash of the University of Washington spoke on ‘Deruralization: The Indian City in the Age of Globalization’. Prakash spoke about the Nehruvian ideal that the city of Chandigarh was meant to uphold, “unfettered from the past, a symbol of the nation’s faith in the future”, and discussed the very first plans that were laid out for the building of the city. Three of the most important administrative buildings, the Assembly Building, the Secretariat and the High Court had been designed, and over time the city itself was constructed keeping in mind its natural environment and the landscape upon which it had been built. As opposed to the term ‘urbanization’, Prakash suggested ‘deruralization’, keeping in mind the changes that the places adjacent to the city were undergoing, for the city grew not only within the centre, but outwards too—left, right and downwards. The city is bound by two rivers on either side and the Siwaliks can be seen in the north. The richly illustrative lecture touched upon the role played by construction companies who are deciding the future of the city more than anyone else, Jurong Consultants of Singapore being one of the key players. Besides, he argued, there were other companies who had been trying to build according to their own plans, spectacularly ignoring the city’s landscape and he discussed ways in which some have tried to stop this onslaught. Several ideas pertaining to modern day city planning were thrown up, such as “California Asia style”, and the “generic city”, or “cut-paste visions” of a city. Looking at images of night-time photography as maps of the urban-rural divide in India, Prakash offered staggering statistics about where the mega-cities and the very large cities (developing) will stand over the next few decades. Prakash also pointed out the fate of the beautifully designed modernist furniture that Le Corbusier and his colleagues had left behind, that is now being bought cheap and sold at extremely high prices as art furniture. Leaving the audience with several ideas to ponder over, Prakash brought to an end an invigorating key-note address.
Communities and exchange:
Iain Jackson (University of Liverpool) presented his paper on ‘Health, Hygiene and Sanitation in Colonial India’. Using a selection of guidebooks, pamphlets and government reports the paper discussed the tangible attempts to improve sanitation, hygiene and health for the British in Colonial India. Annual public sanitation reports for provinces in India were said to correlate disease, sanitation and city infrastructure. In particular, military mortality rates provoked concern. Alongside these governmental approaches which included designs for a sewerage system by engineer William Clarke, notions of British domesticity were tempered to suit Indian conditions. Health guidebooks frequently devoted chapters to the ‘home’. Working between these two extremes of scale, Jackson explored the connection between health and architecture in the tropics adding to his work on historical tropical architecture.
Sujaan Mukherjee’s paper on ‘The Jewish Community of Calcutta: Texts and Contexts’ introduced the Jewish Calcutta archive created by Jael Silliman in association with the School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University. After a brief survey of the origins of the Jewish communities in various parts of India, the paper went on to elaborate on the reasons why the community made the shift to Calcutta. A few of the spaces associated with Jewish life in the city were discussed, and the paper raised questions regarding the existence of multiple notions of time within a particular city.
In ‘European Objects within an Indian Space: Space, Object and Modernity in the Colonial Banik Community of Bengal’, Shinjini Chattopadhyay discussed the synthesis of objects that took place within the domestic spheres of the colonial banik community—a community that in their trade collaborated with the British. Chattopadhyay showed photographs of the interiors of the banik households such as the Marble Palace on Muktaram Babu Street, and spoke about the functions of objects such as the clock on the mantelpiece, that divided the time between the domestic (indicated and marked by religious observances) and city time (marked by public declarations of time) in 19th century Calcutta. She further discussed the place of other objects, such as sculptures, statues and smaller religious or mythical idols that decorate these homes and the social and cultural capital associated with these.
The Fabric of the City
Supriya Chaudhuri’s paper ‘Grey Town: East-West Encounters in Colonial Calcutta’. opened by discussing the work of Archana Hande, specifically Relics of Grey, which offered a glimpse into three lived experiences in Mumbai: the grand colonial buildings, the makeshift shacks, and the ‘grey’, or the in-between. This, as Chaudhuri notes, runs contrary to the white, grey and black town definitions as they are in Kolkata, where the black town is the old quarters of the comprador class, the white was for the colonial British, and grey town was for a vast number of largely Eurasian communities. Looking at maps and a history of urban studies of Calcutta, her paper tried to establish a history of the definition of ‘grey’ town and how the city divisions have changed with time.
The latter half of her paper took the audience on a photographic journey through the streets and lanes of Central Calcutta. The Grey Town institutions such as the Armenian Church, the Jewish synagogues, the Greek church, the mosque on Pollock Street belonging to the Bohra Muslims, were included in her survey, along with anecdotal and theoretical annotations for each. Chaudhuri spoke of the city as not being a static object but more as a process, ephemeral, and ever-changing.
In the final paper of the Conference, ‘The Future Two Steps Behind’, Missimo Vianello spoke of the challenges that come with the planning of urban architecture in the present day. In his paper he looked at the relations between town planning and architecture in modern cities especially in Andhra Pradesh. Recalling the arrival of Patrick Geddes in Madras about a century ago, Vianello called for rethinking about the relationship between man and nature, tied to which are questions of the vision that should govern the possible construction of a new capital that will both recapture a lost identity and look ahead. The idea of a looking ahead, he warns us, is not to be seen as a predominance of infrastructural development at the expense of a nuanced, organised structure of urban life.
(Photographs: Amrita Dhar)