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Do Buildings Have Agency?

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.

The editor’s preliminary essay illuminates the anthology’s subtitle, Galleries of Life, describing how the chawl was more than just a “box” or container “because of the mobile character of its ever-changing facade. The continuous linear balcony popularly known as the chawl ‘gallery’… was the spine of the chawl’s existence… its changing forms and colours brought a spirit of buoyancy to the interface of the chawl and city, and diffused the boundaries between them… This compounded ethos, a fusion of the physical and social fabric, creatively transformed the built form into a vibrant theatre of life” (15). The adjacent neighbourhood clusters of central Mumbai – the upper-caste and merchant bastion of Girgaon and migrant and working-class mill areas known as “Girangaon” – were respectively white and blue collar, middle class and proletarian, but both of their communities lived in chawls. The variegated possibilities of the undulating spaces of the Mumbai chawl inscribed strong community solidarities, as well as distinct class identities and antagonisms.

This central concern with physical similarity amidst social difference, and with buildings as “actors” on the urban landscape, ranges across over twenty individual contributors from India and abroad on the chawl as social space, physical artefact, and lived experience. Galleries of Life is grouped into five sections, on history, ethnography, architecture and image, community and identity, and personal narratives of chawl life. These essays are interwoven with drawings, photography and a pictorial screenplay. The editor, an engaged architect and cultural activist in Mumbai, has assembled an impressive variety of disciplinary perspectives in a series of compact essays. While discussing each in detail is beyond the scope of this review, taken together, Galleries of Life is greater than the sum of its parts, and opens up new horizons in the study of urban housing in Mumbai and India.

The first half of the anthology begins with an overview jointly authored by the editor and two contributors, which contextualises the chawl in the political and economic history of colonial and industrial Bombay. The author’s own essay follows, accompanied by five historical and ethnographic pieces by professional academics, the most notable of which is a fictionalised chronicle of an typical Mumbai chawl and the claims, contests, and tactics of its inhabitants, owners, and occupants. Another ethnographic essay attends to the linked trajectories of two neighbourhoods in Girgaon and Girangaon, where redevelopment of chawls is plotted for the old working-class in terms of “survival”, but for a new merchant-business class as “renewal”. Other essays range from narrow empirical historical accounts which stick close to official archives, to stylised first-hand descriptions of contrived ethnographic encounters (the essays on chawls as “chronotypes” and “crucibles” can test a reader’s patience for theorising).

By contrast, the strongest contributions in Galleries of Life are mostly found in its second half, comprised of essays by Mumbai-based journalists, literati, architecture and film critics. A review of cinematic representations of chawl life – both films shot in real chawls and those built on studio sets – takes on the question of the agency of chawls quite literally, exploring how the buildings themselves figure as “actors” in popular Hindi cinema. With the fictionalised building chronicle in the first half, as well as journalistic accounts and personal narratives of women and Muslims, and the translated personal accounts of Dalit and upper-caste poets and activists, one finds some of the best ethnographic writing on chawls yet available in English. Perhaps the paucity of English translations of Marathi and Gujarati literature on chawl life allows these pieces to stand out. Indeed the celebrated middle-class novel Batatyachi Chaal by P.L. Deshpande – oft-cited by many of the contributors – has yet to find an English translator (perhaps due to its idiomatic Marathi, a punning prose which “Pu La” later performed in recorded one-man shows).

The essential focus in Galleries of Life on the chawl as urban actor and “protagonist” draws forth a rich fund of writing from diverse writers across disciplines. But this essentialism can also obscure how generic and global the chawl form is in the global history of urban housing. The essay on chawls as film actor invokes the cinematic landscape of Lodz, the Polish textile town which one could visually mistake for Victorian Bombay. An historical essay on “chawls overseas” cites examples of model industrial and workers’ housing in the U.S. and Europe, and an ethnography of redevelopment projects in central Mumbai pits the chawl as the “Other” of the generic global skyscraper. However apart from these suggestive references to the cosmopolitan history of Mumbai’s urbanisation, most essays in Galleries of Life address chawls squarely within their local context.

The chawl, however, was not only a “quintessentially” Mumbai institution, as urban housing was the object of connected policy discourses and adjacent histories throughout British Empire and its industrial port cities. For example, J.P. Orr, the voluble chairman of the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) in its most active decade of chawl construction retired early from the Indian Civil Service to direct planning and housing in the London County Council in the 1920s. Metropolitan town planning policy in turn influenced the efforts of the late colonial, interwar and post-Independence Congress Governments in Bombay to address the city’s housing crisis through new legislation on rent control, urban planning, housing boards and cooperative societies.

The question of how chawls as “agents” of of mass housing signified and transmitted the authority of wider forces shaping the urban environment – from rack-renting private landlords to paternalistic state agencies – does not come out clearly across the essays. A review of the legal and policy history of rent control, “cessed” buildings, redevelopment and land use planning in Mumbai is notably absent in the volume, though many authors refer to these laws, regulations and judgements throughout the anthology. These references will be lost on many readers, both in Mumbai and elsewhereiii.

Surprisingly for a book edited by an architect, with 160 pages of pure text, Galleries of Life contains only eight colour plates which utilise the full size of its large-format pages, in drawings of different types of traditional chawls. Folded into the anthology are another eight pages of smaller size photography, and an excerpt from a film storyboard of the English novel Ravan & Eddie. Though these visual inserts are delightful, they remain outside the chapter schema, and are too sparse to justify the size of the book. Weighted heavily with text, the large pages can be cumbersome to read. Galleries of Life could have been enhanced greatly with more black and white illustrations and images, especially in the essays which describe films and visual media, or specific housing schemes and building typologies in Mumbai and abroad.

Though the contributors to Galleries of Life are more oriented towards the local than the global, chawls are no more a quintessence of Mumbai than the tenements of American industrial cities, or the council estates of English factory towns. Just as Mumbai chawls produced the literary humour of Pu La Deshpande or the radicalism of Namdeo Dhasal, the “ghettos” of New York produced television shows of upwardly mobile working families such as The Honeymooners and The Jeffersons, or the political culture of rap and hip-hop music. Galleries of Life is pioneering in opening a debate not not only of how chawls are unique to Mumbai, but of how particular practices of mass housing are circulated as generic and portable forms within and across global cities.

This is crucial to recall in the present-day context of Mumbai, where physical difference in housing is increasingly a marker of status difference across a broad spectrum of typologies, from the self-constructed “slum” made of bricks, metal sheets and tarpaulin, to the multi-storey tower with gated entrances and few if any shared social spaces (except for parking and elevators). The physical layout of the chawl and its origins in colonial-industrial Bombay no doubt makes it a distinct object of interest, but one hopes for a more such ethno-historical explorations of urban mass housing in India – from flats in suburban apartment buildingsiv to the proliferating “slum” settlements which have received so much scholarly and state attention in the past two decadesv.

Galleries of Life boldly opens a space for more studies of the wide and porous continuum of housing practices in Mumbai, which include chawls, flats, wadis, slums, and coastal villagesvi. If urban housing has subjectivity, then a geneaology of chawls has as much to tell us about social mobility and spatial practices. These now dilapidated icons of Mumbai’s vibrant urbanism once nurtured class mobility, and the powerful stigmas attached to its lack of privacy – the shared taps, toilets, and corridors – drove the aspirations of millions of workers and “lower-middle” classes to “move on up”. Starting from the precincts planned by the BIT north of the mill areas at the turn of the century, and now reaching out towards the peri-urban fringes of Thane and Raigad Districts, the upwardly mobile from the mid-twentieth century chawls provided the social networks and capital which continue to drive Mumbai’s suburbanisation. These communities – now properly “middle-class” – brought the social and cultural practices of chawl life into apartment buildings organised into vertical “colonies” of cooperative housing societies north of the colonial Island City. Indeed most middle-class families who have lived in Mumbai for a generation or more will have had (or still have) a relation for whom the chawl system provided their first foothold in the city.

So do buildings have agency? Though Galleries of Life does not yield a simple answer, it brings this crucial question to the fore in a multi-faceted dialogue between historians, ethnographers, journalists, writers, architects and urbanists. The book is an important addition to the libraries of these disciplines, and it significantly raises the intellectual calibre of the growing number of large-format books on Mumbai’s history, heritage and architecture. Galleries of Life counter-poses the romance and nostalgia inherent in the “coffee table” genre with the stigmas and deprivation of chawl life. Its singular focus on the building as agent often ends up essentialising “chawlness” or “chaali sanskruti”. In such a rice anthology, we can allow for such “strategic essentialism” as the essays in Galleries of Life together disclose a milieu so far relegated to the peripheries of histories of architecture, labour and the city.

Buildings may stand still, but people never do. While physical structures cannot speak or act by themselves, their ability to “act back” on history is revealed at the limits of other forms of human agency, from elite hegemony to popular resistance. Indeed it is this very obduracy of buildings – combined with the agency of their inhabitants and users – which frames the political economy of redevelopment in contemporary Mumbai. In the shadow of the new high-rises and towers reshaping the post-industrial inner city, the thousands of dilapidated chawls are no longer the norm for housing Mumbai’s masses – sixty percent of whom now in much worse conditions in so-called “slums”. The editors do not romanticise chawls, but fear for what may replace them after redevelopment. Galleries of Life however, suggests that the enduring presence of chawls reveal Mumbai’s mighty construction industry and its powerful builders may actually have feet of clay.

iNeera Adarkar and Meena Menon, One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices. The Millworkers of Girangaon: An Oral History (Calcutta, Seagull, 2004)

iiSee the self-published thesis by Mayank Shah, ‘Chawls’: Popular Dwellings in Bombay (Cambridge, Mass: School of Architecture and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, June 1981)

iiiNeera Adarkar and Vidhyadar K. Phatak, “Recycling Mill Land” in

ivNikhil R. Rao, House But No Garden. Apartment Living in Bombay’s Suburbs, 1880-1950 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming)

vMike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso Books, 2006)

viHousing Typologies in Mumbai (Mumbai: Collective Research Initiatives Trust and London: Urban Age/London School of Economics, 2008), http://www.urban-age.net/0_downloads/House_Types_in_Mumbai.pdf