Conference: Urban Futures and Urban Utopia in South Asian Megacities (25.07.16)

A one-day workshop titled ‘Urban Futures and Urban Utopia in South Asian Megacities: Narratives, Play, Planning’ was organized by Utrecht University, Netherlands, and the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata. Organized thanks to the combined efforts of Dr. Paola Monachesi, Prof. Achin Chakrabarty, and Dr. Barnita Bagchi, the workshop took place yesterday, July 25, 2016.

Researchers at the Institute of Development Studies may be used to their auditorium on the sixth floor, but as a first-timer in that room I was struck by the seriously informal setting. One of the walls carries colourful abstract graffiti and for the most part the seating arrangement comprises circular tables with chairs on all sides. It makes for much more multi-directional exchange of ideas, as paper presenters were allowed to sit in their places after reading their papers and respond to questions and comments.

One of the main ideas behind the multidisciplinary workshop was to ‘create an alternative, bottom up way of to achieve consensus in urban development, or literary and filmic utopian and dystopian narratives’, by considering Kolkata and Mumbai especially using ideas of utopian and dystopian thinking.

The first session, chaired by Professor Prasanta Ray, began a little after half-past ten, with Achin Chakraborty’s paper Planning Urban Future: From Normative to Positive Analytic. Tracing three major normative lines of thinking about the development of cities: the smart city; supporting medium sized cities with potential; and green cities. Policy makers often tend to ignore the fact that the three major concerns of urban planning (growth, sustainability, social justice) cannot be addressed uniformly at the same time and that conflicts of interest are bound to arise. Chakraborty discussed the formation of degenerated peripheries growing in proximity to Class I cities, and closed with musings on the reasons for failure in implementation of promising plans, such as Provision of Urban Amenities to Rural Areas (PURA), a plan suggested by former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

20160725_114812Jenia Mukherjee in a remarkably animated and engaging presentation spoke about the Blue Infrastructures of Kolkata. Pointing out the lack of critical evaluation of the notion of sustainability she spoke about the need to look closer at environmentalism of the poor rather than its more affluent definitions. Starting with Joseph Townsend’s measurements of the Hooghly river in the late seventeenth century, her account came down to the drying up of the Bidyadhari and the Kulti Outfall Scheme in 1943, as she emphasized the importance of the hydro-social aspects of town planning.

A team of researchers (Prerna Mandal and Dipanjan Nag) from IIT Kharagpur led by their supervisor, Joy Sen, spoke about the Role of Innovation Zones and IOT in Urban Futures, looking at three case studies, Evans, Denver; Delhi; and Hong Kong. Sen spoke of Utopic thinking as setting a yardstick against which one can measure the efforts that have been successful, and mentioned a number of innovative ways of conceptualizing cities, such as Madan Mohan Malavya’s plan based on the organization of people and movements in the Kumbh Mela. Arkopal K. Goswami who had made significant contributions to the paper, especially on the section on Transit Oriented Development was  unable to be present for the workshop, but his colleague and students dealt with the section efficiently.

Barnita Bagchi and Paola Monachesi’s paper City Utopias, City Futures: Narrative, Play, and Urbanism in the Context of two Asian Megacities focused mainly on the “ludic urban utopian imagination” in which social justice drives urbanization processes. Bagchi warned about the recent trend of forgetting history in a dangerous way and illustrated her point about a ‘layered non-reductive model’ citing instances from Aneek Dutta’s film Bhooter Bhabishyat (2012), where a property developer looking to replace an old mansion with a shopping mall meets unexpected opposition in the form of ghosts of Kolkata’s past. Monachesi spoke about her very interesting work on the game, YouPlaceIt! which hopes for conflict resolution between different stakeholders, based in Dharavi, Mumbai.

Nilanjana Deb opened her paper, The Tide of Migrants Ebbs and Flows: Envisioning Calcutta as a Born-again Cosmopolis, recalling her during her research for the paper the optimism about the city’s re-imagining had dwindled, leading her to suggest the title include the phrase ‘Failing to Envision’. Her paper raised the important question: how cosmopolitan is Calcutta–and, how cosmopolitan it has ever been. Deb’s paper focused on the Metia Bruz area where Wajid Ali Shah had settled and established a ‘chhota Lucknow’. The selective tolerance of Kolkata’s populace may not be a very recent phenomenon after all, as she suggested, by looking at the gradual desertion by the English of the Metia Bruz area after the Muslim migrant worker populace started settling down. She ended with David Harvey’s question: who can claim the ‘right to the city’?

In the post-lunch session Carla Danani gave an extremely lucid paper titled Utopia and a Rethinking of Public Space, where she distinguished between ‘utopic configurations’ and ‘utopian intentionality’. She elaborated on the notion of ‘public space’ referring to its physical characteristics while acknowledging how places have been made more complex with the advent of technology. Her attempt to develop a ‘utopian idea of public space’ takes into account that something “in common” must be built keeping intact the differences in spaces  and uses.

In Reimagining Mumbai from the Margins of the City Ratoola Kundu noted how in recent discourses the cities of the Global South are characterized by chaos and lacking infrastructure. She argued for the existence of many ‘subaltern urban imaginaries or visions’ of Utopias that resist broad metanarratives of urban Utopianism. Using case studies of Dharavi and Kamathipura, Kundu explored the relationship between the demography residing in these parts and their sense of possession and identity associated with the land. Suggesting that possible urban futures may be imagined from the margins, she asks what the centuries old existence of these ‘dystopic’ neighbourhoods tell us about visions and planning.

The last few minutes of Souvik Mukherjee’s paper went almost unheard as he unleashed a 3D viewer cardboard box showing views of different cities. His paper titled Gamifying Kolkata: A Ludic Approach to Viewing the City considered various computer games, augmented reality apps and the inaccurately named immersive experience games. Seeing Kolkata as a fundamentally ludic city (citing all kinds of makeshift street arrangement for games), Mukherjee’s paper lamented the absence of the cityscape in video games, but posited a number of exciting possibilities. The paper traced a brief history of games based on the city, bringing it down to video games, and finally to games such as PokémonGo which compel the player to explore the city in different ways while playing the game.


The final session opened with a fascinating account by Madhusree Dutta of Bombay cinema, which was based on her work in the city, featuring various experiments with the movie form and unexpected ways of installing them, such as at the ends of waterpipes at the Kalaghoda promenade. One of the things that the works aimed to highlight was cinema in Mumbai as labour-intensive industry. She took us through a wonderful series of slides showing the work that had been done to revitalise the movie archives, recreating posters and other film memorabilia. Finally she addressed the issue of the gradual fragmentation of the spaces of viewing. She cites the example of multiplexes, home viewing, and the most popular cheap forms of viewing–all of which she suggests are similar in their extreme exclusionary nature, however different in ambience.

Sujaan Mukherjee presented on spaces of dying in Kolkata addressing the question of public commemoration, historiography and the regenerative power that resides in such spaces, especially in the fiction of Nabarun Bhattacharya. The paper discussed briefly the emergence of the public sphere among the nationalist elite of Bengal before looking at the representation of burning ghats in Shakti Chattopadhyay and Allen Ginsberg. Kangal Malshat (2003) was seen in its Bakhtinian potency, and Mukherjee suggested that it is a mistake to look for the carnival in the events of the novel, but that the novel itself should be seen as a carnival. What the the insurgency that takes off from spaces of death (burning ghats and cemeteries) suggest about Nabarun’s perception of history and memory, as well as the power of representing bourgeois life as vulgar spectacle were teased out.

20160725_172005In the final paper of the day, Moinak Biswas offered an insightful history of the representation of space in Indian cinemas. He illustrated how the notion of space was value-laden from the onset in early mainstream cinema. The spaces were denominational and not in rationalized continuity. Gradually the change sets in and the city or the outdoor landscape begins to play a more important role. He cited the example of post-independence cinema which frequently feature outsiders who come to the city to become expert users of the city. Biswas spoke about the concept of ‘neighbourhood realism’, before going on to illustrate many of his points by taking the audience through a chase sequence from Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (2004), where the neighbourhoods through which the chase takes place ultimately modifies the relationship between police and fugitive.

The day closed with a viewing of Ranu Ghosh’s remarkable documentary, Quarter Number 4/11, but followers of the ETIC blog know all about the film by now! It is a ‘ground zero perspective of urban real estate development’, which uses innovative shooting methods to narrate the experience of ex-factory worker Shambhu Prasad Singh and his family to hold on to their rightful home as the South City residential complex and shopping mall take over the land. The director has previously spoken to the ETIC project group about her personal experiences while making the film and the methods she employed to get two perspectives within a single documentary.

With that a most enriching day’s conference featuring a mind-boggling array of approaches came to a close. Our sincerest thanks to Dr Paola Monachesi, Prof. Achin Chakraborty and Dr. Barnita Bagchi for taking the trouble of organizing an enthralling workshop.

  1. hello,how to know about these events beforehand if one is interested to attend?

    • sujaanmukherjee said:

      Hi. Good question! Different institutions organize these events, as a result there’s no one database that I can suggest that would contain notices for all the upcoming ones. When it’s something organized by the ETIC group we usually advertise it beforehand on the Blog itself. You could keep any eye on the Envisioning the Indian City Facebook page. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but it would make sense to put out notices/posters on the page for those interested in attending. Many conferences are also advertised on the National Library of India Facebook page as well. That’s another one you can keep your eyes on!
      Thanks for your interest.

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