Category Archives: talks

Plotting & Scheming: Land Acquisition & Market Values in Colonial Bombay City, 1898-1910

Please click here to download my presentation (PDF) to the Cities Cluster of the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences (FASS) Research Division, National University of Singapore (NUS) on 18 January 2017. The talk was co-sponsored by the Asian Urbanisms Cluster of the NUS Asia Research Institute (ARI) and chaired by Professor Tim Bunnell. This seminar talk is based on  a chapter from my forthcoming book, Empire’s Metropolis: Money, Time & Space in Colonial Bombay, 1860-1920.

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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 Singapore 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 urban centres, power was shared and contested between colonial rulers, Indian elites and urban populations.

My presentation explores the social and spatial restucturing of early 20th century Bombay in the wake of the plague epidemic. In 1898, the British colonial state established the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) to “clean up” the city, equipped with draconian powers of compulsory acquisition and land clearance to demolish slums, erect new buildings and build broad boulevards. Within a decade, the BIT emerged as the single largest land-owner in colonial Bombay by seizing and plotting vast tracts into new planning “schemes” – though not without costly legal and technical challenges to its eminent domain from landlords and tenants, temples and mosques, and owners of shops, theatres and quarries.

Arbitrated through Victorian ideas of “market value” and techniques of measurement and valuation in colonial courts, urban environments once valued through overlapping chains of title and use were now awarded hypothetical cash values, driving speculation and generalising a new logic and political economy in colonial Bombay. I will examine this transformation in the urban land market through tribunals and court cases fought against the BIT by Indian claimants, appeals against acquisition and for higher compensation which often dragged on for years. These lengthy arguments and novel interpretations of Anglo-Indian land and property law continue to shape urbanisation in the cities of post-colonial South Asia.

Bombay Time: Power, Public Culture & Identity

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

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 have been hosting a conclave of historians, scholars and researchers of the the city at the Vidyanagari Campus of Mumbai University on Friday 6 to Saturday 7 January 2017. Click here to download my presentation (PDF) on “Bombay Time: Turning Back the Clock, 1870-1955″.

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.

The Master of the Game: The Woman Who Wouldn’t Let Donald Trump Mumbai

Click here to download this presentation (PDF) which I gave in the South Asian Studies Programme (SASP) seminar series at the National University of Singapore (NUS). This talk and presentation was co-sponsored by the NUS Asia Research Institute (ARI) and chaired by Prof Annu Jalais.

It was held on Wednesday 9 November 2016 in Singapore, just before and after the final results were announced on U.S. Election Day and Donald J. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton to win the U.S. Presidential election.

This presentation was based on and develops an earlier talk on Donald Trump in Mumbai given at the workshop “Constructing Asia: Materiality, Capital & Labour in the Making of an Urbanising Landscape” organised at ARI on 12–13 May 2016 by Dr Malini Sur and Dr Eli Asher Elinoff, where I presented a talk on “Constructing Trump Tower Mumbai”.

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Mumbai’s real estate is amongst the most expensive per square foot anywhere in the world. Property developers and construction magnates dominate the city’s political economy and public culture, and are portrayed as sovereigns of its skyline, an imagined community whom city newspapers commonly refer to as “the builder-politician nexus”.

Builders’ unique appetites for risk make visible and channel the desires of millions for new and better futures (or to make things “great again”). Both real estate and politics are shadowy domains which demonstrate how money, time and space are sources of social power in the contemporary city. The games of language and number played with them favour those who can challenge norms, wait out long battles, and anticipate changes in the rules.

Rather than seeing those who play them as gamblers, populists or moral failures, we need to understand their business strategies as the materialisation of uncertainty. On the occasion of the U.S. Election Day, my talk will focus on the business of building a luxury high-rise Trump Tower in Mumbai and Donald Trump’s Indian apprentices and opponents, first on the disputed site of a charitable hospital and community housing trust, and later in an old textile mill compound.

This presentation is part of an ongoing ethnographic and archival project on the real estate speculation and property redevelopment in post-industrial Mumbai.

PhD Dissertation Defense

Listen below to the audio of my talk and presentation at my dissertation defence in the Doctoral Program in History, Anthropology and STS (Science Technology & Society), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on 29 August 2013.

The title of my thesis was Empire’s Metropolis: Money, Time & Space in Colonial Bombay, 1870-1920.

My thesis committee was chaired by anthropologist Professor Michael M.J. Fischer and political scientist Professor Sudipta Kaviraj of Columbia University, and historian Professor Merritt Roe-Smith of MIT were my  additional advisors. I was awarded and graduated my doctorate in September 2013.

Open Historical Maps: Crowdsourcing, Open Source GIS, and the Research Web

Talk and presentation with Schuyler Erle to the ABCD GIS Seminar Series, Harvard University, 15 April 2009.

Our presentation will show how open source GIS and curated “crowdsourcing” can create an infinite archive of places for digital historians and ethnographers. While the importance of space and place to their research has long been acknowledged by social scientists, there remains a wide gap between their theoretical concerns and the data-driven empiricism of GIS. For those without technical or database skills, maps and geodata are mostly commonly to illustrate rather than advance an argument. However the web can render the tacit knowledge of geography implicit in most historical and ethographic narratives available to the scholars in entirely new forms. We will showcase our ongoing work with the Maps Division of the New York Public Library on a web-based Map Rectifier and Digitizer, a platform for scholars and entusiasts to georeference scanned historical maps and digitize historical features of cities and the environment.

SHEKHAR KRISHNAN is a researcher and activist pursuing his doctorate in History and Anthropology of Science Technology & Society (STS) at MIT, where his research on the history of technology and the urban environment in colonial Bombay and western India. He has been a project fellow with Zotero at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. With Schuyler Erle, he manages geo-spatial web projects for the New York Public Library and the Network in Canadian History of the Environment (NiCHE)

SCHUYLER ERLE has been a free and open source software developer, project leader, and evangelist for over a decade. He is a co-author of Mapping Hacks and Google Maps Hacks, both published by O’Reilly Media. He currently lives in New York City, where he leads EntropyFree, a technology consultancy focused on geographic information systems (GIS), natural language processing, academic computing and humanitarian aid.

Beyond Colonial Urbanism: Cities in South Asia

Panel organised at the Urban History Association 4th Biennial Conference on “Shock Cities”: Urban Form in Historical Perspective, Houston, Texas, 6 November 2008, 10.45 a.m,. to 12.15 p.m.

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. Continue reading Beyond Colonial Urbanism: Cities in South Asia

Mumbai in a World of Cities

Panel at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) on Friday 18 April 2008 from 4:40 to 6:20 p.m. in Great Republic #7 at the Westin Copley Place Hotel, 10 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts.

Over the last decade, Mumbai has become far more prominent within international coverage of contemporary urbanism. This greater focus on Mumbai has been a welcome rejoinder to a continued predominance of North American and European cities within urban studies and debate. Yet in accounting for urban change in Mumbai, there has been a tendency to uncritically adopt Eurocentric models and terminology.

This session seeks to explore some of the ways that Mumbai disrupts and contradicts existing categories, histories and narratives of urban analysis. The session will question some of the institutional frameworks for urban research and a tendency for debates about the future of cities to be initiated and directed by experts and practitioners based in the global North.

It will attempt to assess why Mumbai has recently assumed significance as an urban archetype, and examine ways urbanists can help facilitate scholarship in cities such as Mumbai, and develop new progressive forms of learning and research. The aim is not to isolate Mumbai as an exceptional form of urbanism nor to confer paradigmatic status on Mumbai, but to show how a city such as Mumbai can be used to generate new theoretical dialogue, greater historical perspective and open up new channels of urban policy formation. Continue reading Mumbai in a World of Cities

Raj Chandavarkar Memorial Roundtable

Historian Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, whom I had known and worked with for  years in the U.K. and India, died of a sudden heart attack while at a conference on Four Cities in Modernity at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire on 23 April 2006.

As a friend and mentor, his death was a great loss to me both personally and intellectually. This memorial roundtable at the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) Annual Meeting was held on 22 March 2007, and called “Labour, Space and Politics: Raj Chandavarkar and the History of Modern South Asia”.

Rajnarayan Chandavarkar was one of the foremost scholars of urban and working class history writing on South Asia. His sudden death in April 2006 has been an inestimable loss to the academic community. The empirical depth of Chandavarkar’s scholarship stood out amongst his contemporaries. The impact of his work on the field remains to be assessed. This roundtable will focus on several areas where Chandavarkar’s contributions remain significant and offer new directions for future scholarship. Continue reading Raj Chandavarkar Memorial Roundtable