Beyond Colonial Urbanism: Cities in South Asia

This is a conference panel which I organised for the Urban History Association 4th Biennial Conference on “Shock Cities”: Urban Form in Historical Perspective, Houston, Texas, 6 November 2008.

Until recently, the historical study of cities in South Asia has had to contend with an anti-urban bias. If, as nationalists often asserted, “the real India” lived in its villages, the countryside was more deserving of scholarly inquiry than cities. When forced to confront rapid urbanization in recent decades, postcolonial planners viewed the city less as a ocial form than as a set of problems, an ahistorical object of state intervention and control. These biases have shaped modern scholarship on South Asia, where urban change has been submerged within the narrative frameworks of colonial power, resistance and identity – concerns which have dominated nationalist historiography and postwar area studies.

Recent urban “shocks” in South Asia – from communal violence and religious extremism to ecological crises and infrastructure collapse – have renewed the debate on the significance of urban form and governance in India and cities of the postcolonial world. New urban histories of South Asia have demonstrated that its cities were a key arena for the circulation of transnational ideas and technologies of sanitation, mass housing and town planning, as well as a site for the articulation of novel forms of modernity whose history is neither “colonial” nor “national”, but are part of global urban history.

Our panel includes historians of Bombay, Calcutta, Hyderabad and Lahore in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in an attempt to rethink urban change in colonial India beyond the nationalist framework of “impact” and “response”, and the dualism which structures most studies of colonial urbanism. While the great port cities and princely capitals of the subcontinent gave expression to the British Empire as paramount power in India, the colonial state was often most insecure in its urban seats of command and control. Rapid urbanization rendered the boundaries between colonial cantonments and native towns contested and porous, as Indian elites and masses confronted and appropriated “shocks” to the time, space, and built environment of the colonial city.

The subjects of the individual papers include battles over urban clocks and standard time between colonial scientists, municipal politicians and merchants in turn of the century Bombay; the cholera pandemics which shaped colonial Calcutta as a sanitary space through fever theory, colonial ethnology and free trade doctrine; contests over legal sovereignty and territorial control between the British imperial state and Muslim princely state in Hyderabad; and the innovation and rapid growth of the apartment building in late colonial Bombay as this type was shaped by colonial engineers, Indian architects, and middle-class apartment dwellers.

Ishita Pande is Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.

Eric Lewis Beverley is Assistant Professor in the Department of History, SUNY (State University of New York), Stony Brook.

Nikhil Rao is Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Wellesley College, Massachusetts.

William J. Glover is Associate Professor in the Taubmann College of Architecture and Planning and Director of South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

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