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Sarover Zaidi, who has been associated with the ETIC project for a while now, hosted an unusual discussion in Room 003, School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU. For once, I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The first part of a series of ‘Happenings’ under the rubric of the Love in the Time of Choleric Capital (LITTOCC) exhibition, ‘Working with Language and Architecture’ offered a refreshing view of the city. Zaidi led with a question that I am sure many of us have wistfully considered and resignedly let go: where do lovers go in a city–in this case, Delhi.

The panel was formed by an interesting mix of people. Zaidi has been writing on architecture and the city for a while now. Her focuses lie at the intersections of material and visual cultures, texts, aesthetics and religion. Briana Blasko, Zaidi’s partner on a recent project, made her presence felt through her photographs taken around Delhi, especially in the Lodi Gardens. She has done very interesting work with textile.

To share their experiences from daily and literary lives, were Mohammad Sayeed, a sociologist and anthropoligist based in Delhi, who has worked on congested areas in the Batla House neighbourhood. And finally, to charm with his reckless love for Urdu poetry was Saif Mahmood, lawyer by day, and “a late 18th century Urdu poet, walking the streets of Delhi” generally.

As the audience trickled into the room they saw on the screen the results of Zaidi’s Google search for places for young couples in Delhi. She described how she and Briana had embarked on a project to document these spaces. Exploring certain parts of the Lodi Garden, of instance, they had photographed and spoken to couples wscreenshot-29ho were spending some private time there. Needless to say, the photographs were taken with permission, and in a few cases at least, the participants in the study had requested to be photographed with their faces turned away. Zaidi clarified in response to a question from the audience that although the focus of the few photographs that were shared was on heterosexual love, that was only a partial representation of their intention. They had spoken to groups who identified as queer, but so far they had not expressed desire to be caught on camera. Perhaps as the project evolves and grows in size, it will come to represent a more inclusive range of sexualities.

Sayeed offered us three stories–anecdotes, notes from fieldwork, call it what you will–through which he tried to convey the kinds of encounter that couples in urban spaces have to engage in. He spoke of his uncle who had come to visit Delhi and appeared to be unaware of the specific urban codes of conduct that govern each city. While this appeared to cause Sayeed some embarrassment on occasion, until he caused the story-teller even more embarrassment by getting involved in a fight between a guard at the Purana Qila and a couple who were enjoying a moment of privacy in the premises. While recalling the story, Sayeed did of course question his immediate response to this intervention, and his narration of the story was evidently tinged with a kind of grudging admiration for his uncle.

He also recalled the time when during one of his field surveys conducted in the congested and densely populated locality near Batla House, one of the residents, who had reason to fear for his life, had shared a story of voluntarily disappearance at night. The person he was dating had told him that her parents were away for the night, and what is a young couple to do? When he did not return till late, his friends searched for him, and as will be known to anyone who followed the series of incidents, it was not a safe time for the residents there. He came back much later only to reveal that he had not been to his partner’s house at all, but had spent their night on the streets of Delhi, because the anonymity was a greater source of comfort and security than any home.

For the next half hour Saif Mahmood mesmerized the audience by travelling back and forth in time, not simply reciting shayaris, but in fact speaking in and through them. Mahmood, who is working on a book on Urdu poets in Delhi, displayed an astonishing familiarity with his favourite poets–starting with the earliest laments for the changing nature of the city of Delhi to the most recent ones–still, lamenting the changing nature of the city. Weaving beautifully in and out of monuments, present and absent, verbal and marmoreal, Mahmood brought out the nuances in the range of expressions of love in Urdu–going so far as to cheekily claim that it is difficult to think of another language where one can express these emotions.

A point that Zaidi made initially was borne out by the discussions–the confusing interface of history (architectural or verbal) as carefully preserved past, and usable present. How do we read acts of inscribing sweet nothings or emphatic declarations of love on historic monuments, for instance? How do we justify the appropriation of our built environment by agents of historic preservation in favour of their use by citizens. This is a phenomenon that is observable in cities around the world, whenever there is shortage of private spaces for the couples. And this is not restricted to young couples–or indeed limited to couples only. Zaidi spoke of an elderly lady who had volunteered to be photographed near Lodi Garden, who would visit these places on family picnics but find for herself quiet benches and shades.

http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/other/019wdz000003239u00000000.html

Marianne North, The Kutub (1878), Courtesy of the British Library

One of the audience members also pertinently observed that these spaces–gardens, premises surrounding historic monuments–could also be read as constructions based on aesthetic negotiations. The lines of sight or placement of foliage would in the past be determined by movements such as the picturesque. The question is whether such choices are informed by principles in art today, and if so, how this added layer of meaning being imposed upon a space negotiates with the existing tussle between history, memory and private use of public space.

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.

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Source: http://www.madhusreedutta.com/

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.

Standing on the Esplanade crossing, looking down Lenin Sarani with the “Tipu Sultan” mosque on our left, Kawshik Aki pressed his shutter. Bringing his camera down from his eyes he looked at the preview, shook his head, took a step to the left and clicked again.dharamtola_smallMeanwhile I stood facing the opposite direction trying to ensure that bus-drivers (who had little patience for a couple of people standing in the middle of the road photographing a notoriously chaotic crossing of no apparent photographic value) did not run us over. I passed the Samsung tablet to him and we compared the shots. It was not exact but it was close enough. The precarious geo-coordinates were recorded, and we hastily exited the scene. The photograph we took could never be exact because Frederic Fiebig, who had shot and carefully hand-tinted the original from the 1850s, did not have to dodge irate vehicles and could stroll into positions on the roads that spell certain death today.

Not all the locations were this hazardous, but replicating the old positions of the photographers was often excitingly challenging. The accuracy of the geo-coordinates is essential for the ‘Timescape: Kolkata’ app to function satisfactorily. The idea initially was that the Layar App would help the phone recognize the location using two sets of data—image recognition and global positioning system. (The former has not been as successful as we’d like it to be, but I’ll get to that later.) The app identifies where the user is on the streets of Kolkata and shows points of interest within a user-defined radius.

The size of the images that appear on the phone are distance-sensitive. For instance, if the user is standing in front of the Calcutta High Court, the nineteenth century photograph of the High Court will appear largest. Along with it, they will see buildings in the vicinity, such as the Town Hall or the Raj Bhavan in varying sizes depending on their proximity. A tap on the image will reveal information on the building, and there is the possibility of adding various layers of information and multimedia.

 Gathering geo-coordinates meant having to trace the footsteps of the nineteenth century photographers whose images were made available by the British Library. Photographs by W.G. Stretton, Frederick Fiebig and Bourne and Shepherd constitute the greatest share of images. This was a fascinating task for several reasons. First of all there is the antiquarian’s curiosity—could we retrace the exact routes that these men took? If we did get close to their positions, would we see what they did? How have the scenes been altered—or do the points from which they took the photographs still exist?

The first site we chose brought home many of these difficulties, but it also gave us some cues about how we could continue to work things out. The Calcutta High Court had obviously been photographed from somewhere along the Strand. A number of tall buildings have all but obscured the view of Walter Granville’s grand Gothic edifice. A sliver of the steeple inspired by the Ypres Cloth Hall could be seen from a particular angle. It seemed to fit in because it was directly in line with Chandpaul Ghat, one of the popular landing ghats in colonial Calcutta—logical that the photographers would want to stand in the shade while assembling their heavy photographic equipment and tripod.

While photographing the Writer’s Building we saw that the photographer’s point of view was at an elevation. The only building that looked as old was the one that houses the West Bengal Khadi and Village Industries Board (diagonally across St. Andrew’s Church). Getting permission to get in wasn’t easy, but it provided an instance of a yet un-chartable aspect of mapping—the altitude. But the strange thing is that the number of trees at least in front of these buildings seem to have increased, even though it is an easy bet that the overall greenery in the city has gone down drastically.

Speaking of trees, one of the happiest realizations came when Aki and I were trying to replicate the photograph of the Town Hall. The exact position is beyond reach now because it is part of an enclosed space right now. There are two trees, however, in that older photograph that exist to this day! Perhaps we need to make a public note of this.

For each difference that comes to light, there is also a startling continuity between the old and new Calcutta/Kolkata. The Chitpur Bridge photograph initially seemed like a challenge. There seemed to be no access along the nullah. On getting on the bridge, however, we found an apparently abandoned platform a few meters to the left of the bridge. We managed to scramble through some garbage and dust and upon reaching the platform realized immediately that we had found the one which was used for the older photograph by Frederick Fiebig.

The challenges were mostly technical, although in some cases where buildings had disappeared altogether, a fair amount of research went into establishing the contexts for the buildings in order to understand which direction it faced or the angle from which the photograph had been taken. The process of testing involved a trial-and-error method. We tried to report back to Martin Winchester of the University of Liverpool the problems we were facing, trying hard to communicate the exact nature of the particular glitch. With great patience, he awaited each report and tweaked the programming according to every minor problem. The glitches are often site-specific. The slightly unreliable service of the satellites above the city of Kolkata may also have something to do with this. But hopefully as time goes by, and more people use the app and offer feedback, we will be able to keep modifying the app and work towards a perfect model.

You can visit the project website for help with installation: http://www.time-scape.org/

Envisioning the Indian City: People, Places, Plans
UGC-UKIERI International Workshop
Centre of Advanced Study, Department of English, Jadavpur University
Monday 17th – Tuesday 18th August 2015
HL Roy Memorial Auditorium, near Gate No. 3, Jadavpur University, Kolkata

etic_conference_poster

Day 1: Monday, 17 August 2015

9.30 am: Registration

10 am: Inauguration by Professor Suranjan Das, Vice-Chancellor Jadavpur University

10.15 am – 11. 45 am Session 1: Chair: Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri
Narayani Gupta (Formerly Professor, Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia): The Denial of History
Monideep Chattopadhyay (Formerly Professor, Department of Architecture, Jadavpur University): Calcutta Planning: Its European Connections
Sujata Patel (Department of Sociology, School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad): Are smart cities smart solutions for the Indian context?

11.45 am – 12 noon: COFFEE

12 noon – 1 pm Session 2: Chair: Professor Iain Jackson
Madhavi and Miki Desai (Faculty of Architecture, CEPT Ahmedabad): The Bungalow in Indian Cities: Colonial Urban Legacy and Post-Colonial Impact
Anne-Katrin Fenk (MOD Institute Berlin/ Bengaluru) and Rachel Lee (Institute for Architecture, TU Berlin): Learning from Bangalore: From princely visions to urban resilience

LUNCH: 1 pm – 2 pm: University Guest House

2 pm – 3.30 pm: Session 3: Chair: Dr Nilanjana Deb
Parjanya Sen (Assistant Professor, Sonada Degree College, Darjeeling): Reviving a Lost Trace: the Buddhist Revival movement in the 19th century and its Calcutta Chapter
Mohit Ray (Environmental Activist and Consultant Engineer, Kolkata): Kolkata: water bodies, people and history
Cleo Roberts (PhD Scholar, ETIC Project, University of Liverpool): The River Ganges and Intellectual Exchange: A Liverpool-Calcutta Connection

3.30-3.45: TEA

3.45 – 5.15 Session 4: Chair: Professor Ananda Lal
Sujaan Mukherjee (PhD Scholar, Department of English/ Research Assistant, ETIC Project, Jadavpur University): A Second Look at the Calcutta High Court Capitals
Anubha Fatehpuria (Visiting Faculty, Department of Architecture, Jadavpur University): TBA
Shubhrajit Das (Professor, Department of Architecture, Jadavpur University): Spatial Vibrations in an Indian City

[Provisional]: Screening of Quarter No. 4/11 (Documentary Film by Ranu Ghosh,1 hr 46 mins), followed by Conference Dinner (for all speakers and chairs)

Day 2: Tuesday, 18 August 2015

10 am – 11.00 am: Session 1: Chair: Professor Shubhrajit Das
Iain Jackson (Professor, School of Architecture, University of Liverpool): Chandigarh Dwellings: Ghastly Good Taste or Flamboyant Modernism?
Melissa Smith (Banduksmith Studio/ Visiting Faculty, CEPT Ahmedabad): Chandigarh plans unplanned

 11 am – 11.15 am: COFFEE

11.15 am – 12.45 pm: Session 2: Chair: Professor Supriya Chaudhuri
Jonathan Gil Harris (Professor of English, Ashoka University): Goa and the Sixteenth-Century Judaeo-Muslim Nexus
Rochelle Pinto (Research Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi): Collective commerce – the city of Bombay, the village in Goa
Animesh Rai (Alliance Française de Pondicherry): To be, or not to be, French: the balancing act of Pondicherry

LUNCH: 1 pm – 2 pm: University Guest House

2 pm – 3.30 pm Session 3: Chair: Dr Samantak Das
Dhrubajyoti Ghosh (Special Advisor, Agricultural Ecosystems, Commission on Ecosystem Management, IUCN): My Tryst with Trash: A Community of the ‘Vandals’
Aditi Mukherjee (PhD Scholar, Leiden Institute for Area Studies (LIAS), Leiden University): Space, Place and Image: A Refugee Locality in Suburban Calcutta
Durgesh Solanki (M.Phil Scholar, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai): Cast(e)ing life: The Experience of Staying in a Caste Quarters

3.30 pm – 3.45 pm: TEA

3.45 pm – 4.45 pm: Session 4: Chair: Professor Amlan Das Gupta
Sarover Zaidi (PhD Scholar, Max Planck Institute, Department of Religious Diversity, Göttingen): Religious Moderns: architecture and selfhood in Bohra Shias of Bombay
Dalia Chakraborty, Anushka Sen, Nilanjana Gupta (Department of Sociology/ Department of English/ Acropolis Project, Jadavpur University): “Live in New York in New Town”: Kolkata’s own Global City 

4.45 pm – 6 pm: Session 5: Chair: Dr Abhijit Gupta
Abhishek Sarkar (Assistant Professor, Department of English, Jadavpur University): Crime and the City: Two Detective Officers in Nineteenth-Century Kolkata
Somak Mukherjee (PhD Scholar, Department of English/ Project Assistant, Project E-QUAL, Jadavpur University): Infernal Encounters: Streets and (Non)-Interpretation in Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta Quartet

Envisioning the Indian City: People, Places, Plans
International Workshop
Monday 17th – Tuesday 18th August 2015
Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India

Envisioning the Indian City (ETIC) is a UGC-UKIERI Thematic Partnership Project (2013-15) between the University of Liverpool, UK and Jadavpur University, India. The Project (seehttps://eticproject.wordpress.com/ ) studies Indian cities as crucibles of cross-cultural encounter, with special focus on Goa, Pondicherry, Kolkata, and Chandigarh. Over the past two years, with numerous seminars, research projects, lectures and presentations, and two International Workshops held in Kolkata and Liverpool, the Project has brought together a variety of interdisciplinary approaches to urban studies, cultural history, on-site research, archives, city planning, architecture, the city in art and representation, collective memory and communities in the city.

In the third of our International Workshops, to be held at Jadavpur University on 17-18 August 2015, we welcome presentations on urban encounters and exchanges through individual  and community histories and histories of objects (people and things), through city-spaces, buildings, streets, water-bodies, and their transformations (places) and through forms of ‘envisioning the city’ (plans). The Workshop will be open to reflections to other Indian cities in addition to our designated four in order to allow for comparative reflections and insights.

Themes for papers and panels may include, but are not restricted to, the following:

  • Individuals, objects, and communities in the city: traces, stories, anecdotes, histories, intercultural exchanges
  • Space and place in the city: localities, buildings, suburbia, streets, docks, water-bodies, representations
  • Planning the city: health, sanitation, garbage, networks, roads, the urban sprawl

Presenters are asked to focus particularly on cross-cultural encounters and exchanges between Europe and Asia in developing any of these or other topics, in keeping with the ETIC Project theme.

Please send abstracts (250 words for individual papers and 500 words for complete panels), a brief biographical statement (if proposing a panel, one for each participant), and contact details, to cleoetic@gmail.com or sujaanmukherjee@gmail.com by 10 July 2015.

Cleo Roberts presented her latest research at the Department of English, Jadavpur University, on 3 March 2015. The session was attended by several researchers of the ETIC project, as well as architecture students who were interested in histories of representing the Ganges in the visual arts. Adopting several methodologies, Roberts spoke not only of the aesthetics of representation in works such as Lambert and Scott’s View of Fort William (1731), but also looked at the circulation of these images and the position they held with respect to political power. Her research took into account a wide variety of texts—varied not only in their nature but also in their time-frame—starting with one the illustrations of the Cynocephali in Mandeville’s Travels (1482), right down to images painted in the 19th century, maps, photographs clicked by herself, and exciting field-research that Roberts has been undertaking over several weeks now.

(Courtesy: British Library Online Gallery. Reproduction of an image that was part of the visual presentation.)

(Courtesy: British Library Online Gallery. Reproduction of an image that was part of the visual presentation by Roberts.)

An image of The Modern Phaeton or The Hugely in Danger (1851) by Thomas Rowlandson in particular drew a lot of attention, with Roberts inviting people to help interpret the image along with her. (A mysterious tower with pendula hanging off it, positioned towards the right edge of the frame  is yet to be explained!) Taking off from that, Roberts pointed out the images of the crocodile and the vulture which take on iconic significance in these paintings. Roberts observed how, by and by, death becomes one of the predominant subjects of representation of the river. A number of paintings were used to illustrate this—featured were works by Mme. Belnos (around 1851), Captain Robert Smith, and Prince Alexis Soltykoff around the same time. Stylistically different were Marshall Claxton’s Scene at a Ghaut on the Banks of the Ganges, and an almost cartoon-like representation of The Death of Hindoos (with two vultures in the foreground) that came out in 1860. John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Nikolaus Pesvner’s The Geography of Art informed Roberts’ reading of her texts and served as a critique of the predominant, realistic mode of representation.

An engaging discussion ensued, where members of the audience posed questions for Roberts. Aritra Chakraborti, a PhD scholar at the Department of English, Jadavpur University, also made several pertinent observations about ‘alternative’ representations of the Ganges in contemporary pamphlets, where two ways of thinking about the river and indeed about the cities that it separates, and now connects, came into conflict with each other.