Meeting Places: The City as a Space of Cross-cultural Encounter, Day 2

Day 2: Saturday, 13 September 2014

Key-note Lecture

Dr Vikramaāditya Prakash, delivering the key-note

Dr Vikramāditya Prakash, delivering the key-note

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:

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Dr. Iain Jackson on Sanitation in Colonial India

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

Prof. Supriya Chaudhuri on the 'Grey town'

Prof. Supriya Chaudhuri on the ‘Grey town’

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)

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