Bombay Time: Power, Public Culture & Identity, 1870-1955

Towards New Histories of Mumbai, 6-7 January 2017, Department of History, University of Mumbai
Towards New Histories of Mumbai, 6-7 January 2017, Department of History, University of Mumbai

Please click here to download my presentation (PDF) on “Bombay Time: Turning Back the Clock, 1870-1955″. As a tribute to our friend and mentor Professor Jim Masselos, the Department of History at the University of Mumbai, the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), University of London and the University of Leicester hosted a conclave of historians, scholars and researchers of the city at the Vidyanagari Campus of Mumbai University on Friday 6 to Saturday 7 January 2017. Special thanks to Profs Manjiri Kamat, Prashant Kidambi and Rachel Dwyer for organising this conference.

The completion of global networks of railways, telegraphs and steamships across British India and globally in the 1870­-1880s made possible the coordination of time signals across these lines of communication and transport, as observatories electrically transmitted the precise longitudinal time simultaneously from cities such as Madras and Bombay to their expanding territorial and maritime frontiers. However, the proposal to standardise time-keeping in cities confronted a multitude of visible and audible temporal signs in the urban environment – public clocks, factory sirens, office shifts, railway timetables, sunlight and sunset – as well as across the vast subcontinent, where local solar times varied by more than an hour between Calcutta in the east and Karachi in the west.

Despite repeated attempts to secure uniformity by colonial scientists and the state, a patchwork of temporal standards in colonial India resulted from rivalries between scientists, port, railway and municipal authorities, and persistent defiance of these standards by religious and civic leaders, traders, and the urban public. “Railway Time” or “Mean Time” on the longitude of the Madras Observatory – fixed on the completion of the trans-continental railway link with Bombay in the 1870s – encountered stiff public resistance in Bombay, for whom the new standard was more than 30 minutes ahead of local solar time, or “Bombay Time”, and was hastily withdrawn.

The introduction of “Indian Standard Time” (IST) amidst Lokmanya Tilak’s arrest and trial and the “Swadeshi” agitations in 1905-06 prompted further protest, from the stoning of public clock-towers to strikes by office employees and factory workers, as the state attempted to “turn back the clock” by more than half an hour. Thereafter, “Bombay Time” was observed in the city as an insignia of native difference and everyday resistance, as the “annihilation of space by time” was reversed in the spatial arenas of urban temporality. For Indian workers and office employees, “Bombay Time” could turn up later at work; native bankers and brokers could remain open for trading later than European commercial banks; and local philanthropists and municipal leaders sponsored public clocks at variance with official IST.

My paper revisits Jim Masselos’s essay “Bombay Time” (Meera Kosambi, ed., Intersections: Socio-Cultural Trends in Maharashtra, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2000, pp.161–83), seeking to complement and deepen Masselos’s pioneering research into the standardisation of clock time in the colonial city. My paper will explore how “Bombay Time” dramatised the social construction and moral economy of time, extending Masselos’s original insights on the transformation of urban life in the context of technological change with new material from the municipal and state archives, and up to the demise of “Bombay Time” during World War II and after Independence.

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