The study of Kolkata will explore the city as a sedimented space of encounter: firstly in terms of built environment and urban geographies; secondly, in terms of human settlements, migration and population flows; and thirdly, in terms of the cultures that inhabit and give shape to the urban landscape. Kolkata, once held to have been founded in 1690 (but on the site of a flourishing religious and trading centre) might itself be seen as the product of a colonial encounter. Its history contains many other such meetings. The city has been home to many communities: Armenian, Jewish, Portuguese, Chinese, Burmese, British, and Indians of widely different linguistic, ethnic and religious persuasions. It has a richly documented history of urban planning and architectural improvement, yet its growth has also been unplanned and chaotic. It is celebrated as the cultural capital of India, but more attention needs to be paid to the many distinctive local cultures that have flourished in its urban spaces.
There is a wealth of material on the history of Kolkata. Instead of attempting to reproduce existing scholarship, the research will focus on ‘encounter’ as a category determining the experience of a city space, and look at the sedimentation of space, history and culture. We will take distinctive urban landmarks, like a road (such as the Cornwallis Street-College Street axis, or Chitpur (Rabindra Sarani), or Park Street), an area (such as the Brabourne Road-Old Chinabazar-Portuguese Church quarter, or the open space of the Maidan, or the docklands, or a ‘refugee colony’ in the south), or a system (such as the city’s sewers and its drainage system). The object will be to produce a set of closely researched case studies which will work together to ‘envision’ the city as existing in both space and time, in physical structures and in cultural production, in spatial layers and in human memory.
The research will draw upon the work of town planners and architects, of historians and social scientists, of historian of print culture and of literary scholars. It will use archives in the possession of the National Library, the State Archives, the Victoria Memorial Hall, and the KMDA (Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority) as well as at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, the School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University, and other academic and private collections. It will seek particularly to draw out threads of connection between Kolkata and the other city-spaces in our larger study: with Goa in terms of print culture, with Pondicherry in terms of French influence in neighbouring Chandannagar and cultural exchanges, and with Chandigarh in terms of human settlements and architectural conversations in modern India.