This book review appeared in slightly edited form as “Do Buildings Have Agency?” in Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), Vol XLVI No.30, 23 July 2011
Neera Adarkar, ed., The Chawls of Mumbai: Galleries of Life (Gurgaon: imprintOne, 2011)
Can built forms have their own subjectivity? Architects, geographers and urban planners would surely answer this question in the affirmative. By contrast, most historians and social scientists have long viewed all non-human artefacts as “socially constructed”, and the structure and agency of the physical environment has remained weakly conceptualised, even in urban studies. Given the number of published works on the deindustrialisation of Mumbai and the decline of its textile industry – including an award-winning oral history of mill workersi co-authored by the editor of this new anthology on chawls – it is significant that the most ubiquitous form of working-class housing in the Mumbai had not yet been studied in any depth until nowii. Galleries of Life is a salutary exploration of the history, architecture, culture and politics of chawls which creatively examines the tension between historical nostalgia and contemporary urban change in Mumbai.
Buildings can nurture, constrain, limit and transform those who inhabit or pass through them. Generic typologies mass produced on an industrial scale – apartments, tenements, chawls, skyscrapers and slums – are generative of their peculiar milieus and practices. Like other forms of housing, Mumbai’s iconic chawls are basically physical containers which give shelter and provide shape to social reproduction. But urban housing and the built environment can “act back” on communities and society. Housing as social space can signify a bundle of rights and claims, a locus of legal and property relations, a stage for politics and performance, and a set of resources for survival and mobility.
The essays in Galleries of Life study how chawls “have been agents of, and have acted as protagonists in, the city’s social reform [and] national movements, class struggles, and… social networks and institutions over the years” (17). For most of Mumbai’s modern history, the chawl or chaali was the flexible building typology around which most urban housing in the colonial and postcolonial city was constructed. Chawls were built by landlords and merchants in the colonial period to house members of their own caste and village communities; by textile mill owners to house their workers as Bombay’s industrialisation gathered pace; and by private builders and landlords, state improvement and housing boards to house the influx of migrant workers, salaried clerks, and government employees from the early to late twentieth century.
In 1911, the Census of India estimated that eighty percent of Bombay’s residents lived in chawls. The durability of the built form of the chawl contrasts remarkably with the mutability of the urban society which it sheltered and sustained for more than a century. The basic built form remained consistent – one or two-room tenements separated into living/sleeping and washing/bathing spaces, with a common corridor or gallery shared between floors, providing access to toilets and water taps shared by residents. Chawls were rarely if ever designed by professional architects. Chawls were built by contractors and engineers who improvised on this simple and flexible typology based on the limitations of physical site, the landlord’s budget, and construction materials.
While this basic form remained remarkably stable, the uses and meanings of the chawl space changed over time, as literal microcosms of the city’s social and industrial history. Early bachelor dormitories for rural migrants working on shifts in mills (gaala) and with shared eating spaces (khanaval) in the 19th century gave way to rooms occupied under protected tenancies by entire families (kholi) in the 20th century, which in turn gave way to a patchwork of residential, commercial and entrepreneurial uses in present-day chawls. The common toilets, taps and corridors of the early chawls were modified as the mori (or nahani) for washing and bathing was later interiorised for use by the entire family. In some chawls, further enclosures of corridors and balconies made for attached bathrooms (and in some cases, bedrooms), rendering chawl life almost as “self-contained” as upmarket “flats” in apartment buildings.