Empire’s Metropolis: Money, Time & Space in Colonial Bombay is a social history of technology and urbanisation in the “commercial capital” of modern India. It spans the period from Bombay’s first boom and bust during the American Civil War – when the city emerged as a gateway for the global cotton trade – to its rise into one of Asia’s largest industrial centres following World War I.
The principal sources for this historical study are newly opened municipal archives and private papers that chronicle the growth of the colonial port city from the 1860s to 1920s. Six interlocking themes and periods are explored in chronological chapters on the history of share trading and merchant banking; railway, shipping and telegraph infrastructures; urban land acquisition and valuation; clocks and time-keeping; cadastral surveying and property rights; and the place of street networks in the city’s built environment.
Modern Bombay developed within and against empire. Imperial hegemony was often most insecure in its urban seat of command and control, even as external trade and factory industry fuelled the city’s rapid expansion. Attempts to impose modern practices of commodity exchange, standard time, market value and private property were neither taken for granted, nor simply resisted or rejected. Neither “urbanisation” nor “industrialisation” unfolded smoothly, as elite strategies and mass struggles over finance, labour and land shaped the paths of technological and social change.
This is a proposal and summary of my ongoing research project on Bombay City between the two world wars, a sequel to my current book manuscript on colonial Bombay, Empires’s Metropolis: Money, Time & Space.
Bombay Between the Wars is a social history of urban politics, information and institutions in late colonial Bombay City, from the years before World War I until the outbreak of World War II. Through this study, I seek to understand the transformation of colonial rule and urban governance in the inter-war period, using the city as a window into networks of people, ideas and power in South Asia in the final decades of British rule. In this period, India’s commercial capital witnessed rapid social and technological change, with the rise of mass politics, state formation and the development of civic and local institutions which have remained under-investigated.
From 17-25 March 2017, I worked as curator and archivist in this public exhibition and installation at the Coomaraswamy Hall, Chhatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya (Prince of Wales Museum of Western India), Mumbai with artist Vivan Sundaram, archivist Dr Valentina Vitali and media artist Dr David Chapman from the University of East London and scholar and lead curator Ashish Rajadhyaksha.
Meanings of Failed Action:Insurrection 1946 is a collaborative art project that revisits an episode of India’s struggle for self-rule: the 1946 insurrection of Royal Indian Navy (R.I.N.) sailors. On 18 February 1946, a strike was declared on H.M.I.S. Talwar, the signal training establishment of the R.I.N. at Colaba, Bombay. Within a day, a total of 10,000 naval ratings posted across the Indian Ocean took charge of sixty six ships and on-shore naval establishments. On the fourth day of the strike, Bombay’s industrial labour force joined the struggle in a show of solidarity, and the city closed down. Ranged against the strikers was the might of the British armed forces, threatening to destroy the Navy.
The Indian national leadership, then at the threshold of Independence, refused to support the uprising. The curfew that followed ended with over two hundred people killed on the streets and the surrender of the sailors on the dawn of February 23. Widely considered a ‘failure’ in its time and since then conveniently erased from Indian nationalist history, seventy years on the February 1946 uprising refuses to be assimilated into any single narrative. Based on archival material sourced in India and the U.K., Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 revisits these five days as a memory that flashes up at a moment of danger, an episode that challenges India’s present trajectory.
In the late 1890s, an epidemic of bubonic plague swept through the ports of the British Empire in Asia, dramatising the vulnerability of imperial power in its urban centres of command and control. Colonial cities like Calcutta and Bombay served as gateways to regional and global flows of people, money and machines, centralised and accelerated by networks of steam, rail and electricity. Freedom to trade and the rule of law underpinned both business and politics. Within these cities, power was shared and contested between colonial rulers, Indian elites and urban populations.
My presentation explores the social and spatial restructuring of early 20th century Bombay in the wake of the plague epidemic, through a study of the construction of Sandhurst Road, an east-west arterial avenue. Since 1955 known as Sardar Vallabbhai Patel (SVP) Marg, Sandhurst Road was named after the British Governor of Bombay Presidency who tackled the outbreak of bubonic plague in western India in 1896 by establishing the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) to “clean up” the city.
Long out of print and unavailable, this is an essential guide to the Maharashtra State Archives, one of India’s richest and best managed repositories of historical documents, located at Elphinstone College in Kala Ghoda. Enjoy and share widely!
ChaloBEST began in January 2011 as a studio-based learning experiment at Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE) to make public transportation data available over the web, SMS, smartphones, and print media using free and open source software, open geospatial and civic data, and crowd-sourcing by commuters.
This is both the first project proposal (2004-5) and final report (2009) to the Pan-Asia ICT R&D Grants Programme of the Asia Pacific Development Information Programme of UNDP (United Nations Development Programme),
The Mumbai Metropolitan Region is one of Asia’s largest cities, in which urban spaces are the central arenas of political imagination and intervention. The past decade has seen the articulation of a new politics of space in Mumbai — through the contesting claims of the urban poor majority in slums and squatter settlements, assertive residents’ associations and civic reform movements, the prosperous construction industry and builder-politician nexus, and concerned practitioners in the design, architecture and research professions.
In spite of this increased awareness and concern with urban spaces, basic information on housing, land, infrastructure and environment — the right of citizens — remains largely inaccessible, because of bureaucratic obstacles and vested interests. This asymetry of information has given rise to predatory classes of builders and speculators, whose privileged access to information is transformed into “development rights” for construction, eroding accountability to local communities and urban stake-holders, and the planning policies meant to uphold their rights.
Existing applications of new spatial technologies such as geographic information systems (GIS) for commercial services or scientific research remain distant from the needs of these grass-roots communities and local decision-makers. Citizen increasingly demand their rights to information on urban space — and recent legislative enactments and public interest litigation on freedom of information have recently institutionalised this right. Continue reading Mumbai Free Map Community GIS→
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.