Category Archives: talks

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.

Mumbai in a World of Cities

This is a panel which I organised with Professor of Geography Matthew Gandy and Andrew Harris of University College London (UCL) at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) on Friday 18 April 2008 at the Westin Copley Place Hotel, 10 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts. See this link to AAG Online Program Panel 4551.

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.

Andrew Harris, Department of Geography and Urban Laboratory, University College London (UCL)

Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria, Department of Anthropology, University of California at Santa Cruz

Shekhar Krishnan, Program in Science Technology & Society, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Nikhil Rao, Department of History, Wellesley College

Ninad Pandit, Department of Urban Studies & Planning (DUSP), MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

- Why has Mumbai increasingly been used as a resource for international urban research and debate (e.g. Urban Age)? What models, metaphors and categories have been deployed to depict Mumbai, and what have been their capacities and limitations? Why have certain processes and spaces been emphasised?

- How does this new international spotlight on the city reinforce/overlap with the portrayal of Mumbai as world class? How and where do these new circuits of knowledge operate?

- Can Mumbai be used as a laboratory for refiguring, complicating and renewing (Eurocentric) urban concepts and theories? How can comparative research between Mumbai and cities elsewhere best be framed and undertaken?

- How have narratives of history in Bombay/Mumbai been assembled and fragmented, and has there been sufficient analysis of the city’s specific formations of modernity? Is a colonial gaze being replayed in contemporary urban redevelopment policies and practices? What does this teach us in terms of wider understandings of a ‘colonial present’?

- What research strategies and institutional arrangements are best able to cope with Mumbai’s opaque, mythical and chaotic qualities and the dynamic and performative forms of power in the city? Does researching Mumbai demand and generate new innovative methodologies and outputs?

- What examples and opportunities does Mumbai provide to imagine and realise new notions of citizenship that challenge neoliberal world views and offer a radical democratisation of urban politics? How have alliances been formed, dialogue created and ideas translated between Mumbai and other cities?

Raj Chandavarkar Memorial Roundtable

Our friend Professor Rajnarayan Chandavarkar 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.

This memorial roundtable, in his memory, on Labour, Space and Politics: Raj Chandavarkar and the History of Modern South Asia, was held at the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) Annual Meeting was held on 22 March 2007.

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.

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The Crisis of the Database

My friend Manan Ahmed at the University of Chicago is co-organising a panel on digital archiving in South Asia at the Annual Conference on South Asia hosted at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I haven’t been to the conference in three years, and Manan was kind enough to ask me to present something about my work with digital archiving and mapping, though I only just gave him my abstract for my presentation on The Crisis of the Database: Independent Research and Pedagogy in India Before and After the Digital Revolution.

This presentation will examine the recent history of networked research and pedagogic practice by voluntary initiatives, academic organisations and freelance researchers in India, and consider their consequences for organised scholarship in the humanities and social sciences of South Asia.

Over the past five years, the research landscape in India presents a strange paradox. At the moment when new technologies have enabled the emergence of vibrant new spaces such as mailing lists, blogs and wikis, and a remarkable vitality is shown by the formation of new collectives of researchers, media practitioners, and activists, higher education and university research has been sufffered institutional crisis and precipitous decline in India. While previously isolated communities of independent researchers have become increasingly connected, and new technologies promise to lower the barriers to online pedagogy and collaborative research, the response of traditional academic institutions to these changes have been primarily defensive.

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Geographies of Resistance: Urban Housing in Mumbai

Presented at the Roundtable on Asian Cities and Cultural Change at the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, July 2005.

The past twenty years have witnessed the decisive end of attempts at state-centred urban planning in Mumbai. The post-Independence Development Plan, which has guided land, housing, and economic growth since the sixties, has been displaced in favour of piecemeal investments in infrastructure and transport, and housing and slum rehabilitation by the state, with increased participation from private builders and agencies.

With the retreat of the state from its ambitious agendas of rational land-use, equitable distribution of services and resources, and protection of the environment, the instruments of abstract spatial planning used by the state have withered and mutated into new urban forms marked by severe exclusions and enclosures. Classical urban planning practice was historically premised on the segregation of the functions of modern urban life into residential, commercial/industrial, and public spheres, and their centralised location governed by state directives.

However, Asian cities have constantly demonstrate the falsity of this separation of functions — with their vast districts of dense, mixed-use settlements governed by porous legalities, popular politics, and tactical negotiations over space and survival. This vast and complex economy has been inadequately imagined as the Third World ‘slum’ or theorised as the ‘informal economy’. With the retreat of the state, centralised planning practice and its technocratic spatial imagination has been appropriated into a new spatial regime in which a predatory class of private builders dominates the production of formal housing for a minority of the rich, amidst rising inequality in access to housing and basic services for the majority of the urban poor in Mumbai [1].

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Future Academies

Lecture at the Future Academy Symposium at the Edinburgh College Art School of Architecture, March 2005, later published in Geetha Narayanan, ed., Tana Bana: Srishti School of Art Design & Technology Bangalore at Ars Electronica 2005 in Linz, Austria, August 2005.

Two distinct but inter-related phenomena have been dramatically reshaping the environments of academic institutions in India over the past five years. The first phenomenon is the widespread dissemination of networked media and information technologies, and the challenge this poses to large centralised structures, such as academic institutions and state bureaucracies. The second phenomenon is the decline of the traditional arts, humanities, and social sciences in the social prestige and market value they once commanded, and the erosion of the principle of liberal education and citizenship they represented. Taken together, these two technological and cultural shifts necessarily disrupt the institutional moorings of arts education, creating new spaces both inside and outside the academy for new pedagogic practices, which the academies of the future must seize on.

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The Urban Turn

This is a transcript of symposium on urban history held in December 2002 with historians and sociologists Gyan Prakash, Jairus Banaji, Sujata Patel and Rajnarayan Chandavarkar. You can also download the PDF of the transcript.

This symposium was organised by PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge Action & Research) at the Bombay Paperie, Mumbai. Thanks to Shonali Sarda for transcription and Neeta Premchand for hosting the event.

GYAN PRAKASH is Professor of History at Princeton University, U.S.A. and a member of the Subaltern Studies Editorial Collective. He is the author of Bonded Histories: Genealogies of Labour Servitude in Colonial India (Cambridge, 1990), Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India (Princeton, 1999), and has written several articles and edited several volumes on colonial history and historiography.

JAIRUS BANAJI is a historian and independent scholar based in Mumbai. He worked with unions in Bombay through the eighties, when he published, with Rohini Hensman, Beyond Multinationalism: Management Policy and Bargaining Relationships in International Companies (Delhi: Sage, 1990). His most recent book is Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity: Gold, Labour, and Aristocratic Dominance (Oxford, 2002).

SUJATA PATEL is Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology at University of Pune. She is the co-editor, with Alice Thorner, of Bombay: Metaphor for Modern Culture and Bombay: Mosaic of Modern India (both Delhi: Oxford India, 1995), and, with Jim Masselos, of Bombay and Mumbai: The City in Transition (Delhi: Oxford India, 2003).

RAJ CHANDAVARKAR is a historian and is Director of the Centre for South Asian Studies, Cambridge University, U.K., where he is a Fellow of Trinity College. He is the author of The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business Strategies and the Working Class in Bombay 1900-1940 (Cambridge, 1994) and Imperial Power and Popular Politics: Class, Resistance and the State in India 1850-1890 (Cambridge, 1998).

“The Urban Turn” (December 2002)

SHEKHAR KRISHNAN: Welcome everyone, on behalf of PUKAR. The panel discussion at The Bombay Paperie tonight is called “The Urban Turn”, which signifies many different things to many different people. What we wanted to do tonight was to honour the people who are sitting here, four distinguished historians and sociologists who have worked on Bombay in one aspect or the other. Continue reading The Urban Turn