Tag Archives: history

Do Buildings Have Agency?

Published in shorter 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.

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A Rule of Property for Bombay

This book review appeared in edited form as “Micro-History of Mumbai” in Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), Vol XLV No.36, 4 September 2010.

Mariam Dossal, Theatre of Conflict, City of Hope: Mumbai, 1660 to Present Times (New Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 2010).

Historian Mariam Dossal’s new book on Bombay/Mumbai is a major contribution to a flourishing genre of new urban histories in South Asia, and a scholarly cross-over into a large-format, illustrated urban heritage books. This is Dossal’s second major monograph on Bombay, following her Imperial Designs and Indian Realities (1991) on the infrastructure and planning of the colonial city from 1845-1875. Her new book focuses on “the ways in which the politics of land use have impacted on the lives and living conditions of Bombay’s inhabitants” (xxiii) with “contested space as its central concern”.

The book seeks to explain historically how “expensive private property dominates almost every aspect of life” (xix) to the detriment of the environment, health and happiness of Mumbai’s citizens. Dossal’s work breaks new ground in its use of new sources to shine a light on a central thread of colonial and urban history in Bombay.

Land is one of the enduring themes of South Asian agrarian and colonial historiography. But the survey, settlement, and mapping of lands in cities – and the formation of a market for private property in urban land – remains under-investigated by historians. Marxist social history, premised on the opposition of industrial capitalists and wage labourers, relegated landlords and landed property to an ambigious “third space” in the historical geography of urban development.

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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.

Urban Obduracy: Unbuilding Cities

Anique Hommels, Unbuilding Cities: Obduracy in Urban Socio-Technical Change. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005.

While sharing a common intellectual genealogy, the contemporary disciplines of science and technology studies (STS) and urban studies have followed divergent paths of development, and flourished in largely separated academic compartments. Anique Hommels’ Unbuilding the City argues for the complementarity of the approaches of STS and urban studies in explaining the phenomenon of urban “obduracy” and strategies for “unbuilding” the city. Linking together the concepts drawn from actor-network theory and constructivist studies of socio-technical change, the book contains three case studies of postwar urban development in the Dutch cities of Utrecht, Maastricht and Amsterdam.

How can we understand urban structures as more than simple technical or physical artifacts? How can we explain the history of cities and their power relations as socio-technical ensembles? Does the urban built environment embed the tacit knowledge of its original planners and builders, such that their norms and values continue to shape the relations of city-dwellers in subsequent generations? In a well-known essay on the question “do artifacts have politics?”, Langdon Winner has cited the example of the low-lying bridges designed by planner Robert Moses in New York, whose passages were too low to permit movement by public buses between the freeways and beaches of Long Island. Moses’ bridges prevented access to these elite white spaces of recreation by inner-city black populations, thus inscribing a permanent spatial discrimination into the design of seemingly apolitical technical artifact.

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A History of Modern Computing

Paul Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

In my own lifetime of thirty years, global society has been transformed by the widespread availability of inexpensive computing technology. Indeed, only within the past ten years, a new combination of commoditised hardware, software, and network infrastructure has put this technology within reach of millions of new people. A certain taint of presentism is, therefore, inevitable in any attempt to write the history of computing in our time, as we are positioned at a particular point in a dynamic of ongoing social and technical change. As with earlier historians of the “industrial revolution”, we must assess the historicity of the information or “digital revolution” both as historical narratives and popular common sense.

This presentism presents particular challenges to the historian in his or her craft of framing a coherent narrative of technological development. Here I will consider different approaches to the history of computing which confront both the the familiar challenges of a historian of technology, as well as the unique aspects of computing as an object of historical inquiry. In the introduction to his A History of Modern Computing, Paul Ceruzzi discusses two distinct approaches to the history of computing, what he calls the technological systems approach and the social constructionist approach. What are the objects of inquiry of these two approaches? Continue reading A History of Modern Computing

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

The Worlds of Indian Industrial Labour

Originally published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, Fall 2001.

Jan Breman, Karin Kapadia, Jonathan Parry, eds., The Worlds of Indian Industrial Labour (Contributions to Indian Sociology, Occassional Studies 9). New Delhi and London: Sage Publications, 1999.

Marking both a renewal of interest in labour studies and an important disciplinary shift, the publication of this anthology is a significant event. Introduced by Jonathan Parry, the fourteen essays by sociologists, anthropologists and historians in the volume include two “book-ends” introductory and concluding reviews of the respective literatures on the “organised” and “informal” sectors of the industrial economy in India, both by Jan Breman. These chart the shifts in labour studies from the narrow emphasis on the tiny formal sector of the economy — about workers’ “commitment” to the industrial setting, measures of productivity, the social profile of formal sector workers, and trade union strategies — to the much larger and unwieldy “informal” sector of the economy, incredibly neglected by research scholars. While questioning this dualism in the study of economic activity in India, Breman raises questions about the formation and coherence of the working-class or proletariat as an identity and analytical category, the diversity of forms of wage labour and industrial production — from home-based to small workshops to large factories — and the multiplicity of workers’ identities in both formal and informal occupations.

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Mill on the Loss

Originally published as “Mill on the Loss” in the Indian Express Mumbai Newsline, 5 April 2000

The history of Mumbai is a narrative of the struggle over space. The fate of the mill lands of central Mumbai, and its industries and workers, is the latest chapter in this story.

 

The life of any city is not simply tied to its flows of goods, services and capital, but also to its patterns of work, leisure and movement — all of which revolve on the use of space. Throughout Mumbai’s history, claims on land and space have been the narrative thread of the most celebrated and most notorious chapters in our urban history. These range from the legendary reclamations that linked up several marshy outposts and settlements to compose the island city in the eighteenth century, to the disastrous Back Bay Reclamation Scheme in the 1920s. This scheme to fill in the Back Bay earned the name “Lloyd’s Folly”, after the bungling of the then Governor, whose plan ended in failure and infamy because of engineering mistakes, corruption, and the crash in land values during the Great Depression.

The story of the mill lands is a fin-de-sicle echo of this familiar urban theme. The historic textile mills of the city are industrial dinosaurs dotted around the city landscape, whose textile production has been eclipsed in efficiency and profitability by the sweatshop labour employed in powerlooms towns like Bhiwandi. The millowners realised long ago that the lands of the city mill compounds are more valuable than the textiles they produce, and the workers whose livelihoods they have sustained for several generations.

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Wages of Freedom: 50 Years of the Indian-Nation State

Originally published in Contemporary South Asia, vol.8, no.3, Carfax Publishing (Bradford, U.K.), 1999.

Partha Chatterjee, ed., Wages of Freedom: Fifty Years of the Indian Nation-State, Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 1998.

Recent years have seen a significant enrichment of the theoretical depth of Indian political and social analysis, inspired both by revised disciplinary perspectives — most notably, the work of the Subaltern Studies collective — and by contemporary political changes. This volume, edited by one of the most outstanding of such recent theorists, brings together both seasoned analysts and new contributors from the fields of social, cultural and political analysis in a solid collection of essays that examine the experience of postcolonial democracy and nationalist modernity. Continue reading Wages of Freedom: 50 Years of the Indian-Nation State

Untouchable Pasts

Originally published in Contemporary South Asia, vol.8, no.3, Carfax Publishing (Bradford, U.K.), 1999.

Saurabh Dube, Untouchable Pasts: Religion, Identity, and Power among a Central Indian Community, 1780-1950. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

The prevailing narrowness of disciplinary boundaries in history and anthropology have prompted a now well-developed critique of the isolation of the archive and the field, respectively — the privileging of elite archival sources, textual authority, and their master narratives on the one hand, and the ahistorical essentialism, questionable epistemic and cultural perspectives of fieldwork on the other. The effort undertaken by the Subaltern Studies collective to use the anthropologist’s tools in the writing of history has, in the study of Indian society, introduced questions of culture and power, identity formation and representation, and everyday cultural and social practices into the historiography of modern India. This recent book deepens this project of ethnographic history through a study of the Satnami community of Chhatisgarh in contemporary Madhya Pradesh. Continue reading Untouchable Pasts