Do Buildings Have Agency?

This book review appeared in slightly edited 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.

The essays in Galleries of Life study how chawls “have been agents of, and have acted as protagonists in, the city’s social reform [and] national movements, class struggles, and… social networks and institutions over the years” (17). For most of Mumbai’s modern history, the chawl or chaali was the flexible building typology around which most urban housing in the colonial and postcolonial city was constructed. Chawls were built by landlords and merchants in the colonial period to house members of their own caste and village communities; by textile mill owners to house their workers as Bombay’s industrialisation gathered pace; and by private builders and landlords, state improvement and housing boards to house the influx of migrant workers, salaried clerks, and government employees from the early to late twentieth century.


Filed under: main — Tags: , , , , — Shekhar @ 2 August 2011 11.00 pm

A Rule of Property for Mumbai (Review)

This book review appeared in slightly edited form as “Micro-History of Mumbai” in Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), Vol XLV No.36 September 04, 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. The best works of urban history, both in India and elsewhere, spatialize the classic opposition between capital and labour in the geography of the modern capitalist city. In Bombay, Raj Chandavarkar has shown how trade union politics and industrial protest were shaped as much in the workplace and factory as in the organization of working-class neighbourhoods. Jim Masselos has narrated how control over urban space was central to public politics and nationalist mobilization in colonial Bombay. In capitalist cities, space and the built environment are both the outcome of ongoing struggles, as well as an arena for new practices of politics and social life. The state, in turn, ensures the reproduction of the dominant spatial practices – private ownership, profitable land uses, and stable property values – through technologies such as cadastral mapping, revenue surveys, and urban planning.

It is within this “theatre of conflict” over land and property relations that Dossal’s spatial history of the colonial and postcolonial city unfolds. Divided into two sections – on agrarian Bombay until 1860 and industrial Bombay until the present, respectively – the book seeks to situate Bombay’s urban history in the historical transition from “feudalism to capitalism”. The large format, coffee-table book ambitiously claims to chronicle from “1660 to Present Times” in nine chapters. However the real heart of the study is from around 1790 to 1940, or about 150 years (Chapters 4 to 8) which span the rise of Bombay from an archipelago of agricultural-fishing islands to one of Asia’s largest industrial metropolises. The first three chapters chronicle the British acquisition of Bombay from the Portugese, and early efforts by British governors to protect and fortify their settlement, and extend their legal sovereignty over the city and its inhabitants. In the new courts instituted by the British in the 18th century, a modern form of legal hegemony over land transactions was sought through instituting a “rule of property” by which the colonial state would supersede earlier Indian and Portugese tenures, neutralize the power of landlords and tenants, and establish Government as the ultimate “lords of the land”.


Filed under: main — Tags: , , , — Shekhar @ 11 September 2010 6.03 pm

Open Historical Maps

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

ABCD GIS Group, Harvard Center for Geographic Analysis
Wednesday 15 April 2009 from 12.00-14.00
CGIS North Building, Room S050, 1737 Cambridge Street

Download Presentation PDF

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.

Filed under: main — Tags: , , , — Shekhar @ 13 April 2009 7.17 am

Obdurate Urbanism

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’s 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.


Filed under: main — Tags: , , , — Shekhar @ 10 April 2007 12.00 pm

Ravinder Kumar

In the final week of the semester,I have been avidly procrastinating by reading the major works of Ravinder Kumar, the social historian of western India. Apart from the phenomenal account of the rise of British power in nineteenth century Maharashtra in his magisterial Western India in the Nineeeth Century (1968), I have been dipping into his Essays in the Social History of Modern India (1983). His long article, “From Swaraj to Purna Swaraj: Nationalist Politics in the City of Bombay, 1920-32″, written in 1977, is remarkable in anticipating many of the later historiographic debates on the nature of nationalist politics, particularly the work of Shahid Amin on Gandhi as Mahatma. Indeed Kumar’s work combines the empirical depth and richness of Cambridge School social history with the sophistication and theoretical boldness of Subaltern Studies. And his major works were all completed long before either of these schools of historical writing took over the conversation.

Filed under: main — Tags: , — Shekhar @ 16 December 2006 4.04 pm

History of Computing

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.

Filed under: main — Tags: , , — Shekhar @ 10 December 2006 12.00 pm


Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali JinnahFor the second time in two weeks, I’m back in Hyde Park, at the University of Chicago. While I’m officially attending the Chicago Colloquium for Digital Humanities and Computer Science on Sunday and Monday, on Saturday I sat in on the 100 Years of the All-India Muslim League Colloquium organised by Manan and Rajeev. It was a fascinating attempt to account for the fractured legacy of the Muslim League in colonial South Asia, and in postcolonial India and Pakistan. Better known as the party led by Quaid-e-Azam M.A. Jinnah which established the state of Pakistan in 1947, the League was founded a century ago in Dhaka, in the wake of the agitations surrounding the abortive Parition of Bengal in 1905-1906. Besides educating me about the history of the League, this was also an occassion to listen to several distinguished social and and cultural historians including Dipesh Chakrabarty, Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar, and Muzaffar Alam.

Filed under: main — Tags: , , — Shekhar @ 4 November 2006 8.35 pm

Frontier Dialectics

In the writing of nationalist histories of the United States, it is difficult to find a more succinct statement of space as an organising metaphor of nationhood than the “frontier thesis” of Frederick Jackson Turner. In his famous address of 1893 to the American Historical Association meeting during the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Turner marked the end of the “first period” of American history and the “closure of the frontier” through the successful expansion of the United States through warfare, colonial land purchases, and the spread of new networks of railways, cities, and homesteads across the North American continent in the nineteenth century. Here I consider two contemporary histories of space in the early modern United States, Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden: Technology at the Pastoral Ideal in America and William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and Great West. Read together, the work of Marx and Cronon present us with a critical counterpoint to Turner’s celebratory narrative of the frontier as the fulfillment of American manifest destiny. Cronon’s historical geography of commodity markets in Chicago and the Great West, and Marx’s literary history of the “pastoral ideal” in America, suggest a two-pronged analytical approach to the historical imagination of space in capitalist societies.


Filed under: main — Tags: , , , — Shekhar @ 17 October 2006 1.15 pm

Remembering Raj Chandavarkar

Historian Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, whom I had known closely for the past seven years in London and Bombay, 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. I had looked forward to Raj’s guidance and advice as I embarked on my doctorate, which he had been urging me to pursue for many years. His last published work was “From Neighbourhood to Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Left in Bombay’s Girangaon in the Twentieth Century”, which appeared as the introductory essay in Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar’s One Hundred Years One Hundred Voices: The Millworkers of Girangaon: An Oral History, a project with which I was involved as editor and reader when the stories were being collected in 1999-2000.

Historians Douglas Haynes and Subho Basu penned “Rajnarayan Chandavarkar (1953-2006): An Intellectual Biography” for the Economic & Political Weekly in Bombay in June 2006, which we republished on Wikipedia. Along with Raj’s friends and students, we also proposed a roundtable in for the Association for Asian Studies meeting in Boston from 22-25 March 2007, which has just been accepted for the conference. This roundtable, in memory of Raj, will be chaired by Frank Conlon and includes myself, Nikhil Rao, Subho Basu, Douglas Haynes, Lisa Trivedi and Samita Sen. Here is our abstract for Labour Space and Politics: Rajnarayan 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. His challenge to universalising narratives of world capitalism opened up new ways of understanding the social spaces, political choices and organising strategies of urban working classes. Larger formations such as class and nationalist politics articulated with everyday relations amongst women, migrants and the urban poor. The earlier importance given to the workplace as the primary site of class mobilisation gave way to a wider understanding of how the spaces of the neighbourhood and countryside enabled workers to engage in urban politics. His attention to social organisation emphasised the shifting nature of class and community identities in the context of mass action, challenging functionalist conceptions of social structure and political agency.

This roundtable will situate Chandavarkar’s wide-ranging contributions to the historiography of modern South Asia, addressing critiques of his work as well as areas where his interpretations have gained acceptance. This roundtable also points to new directions which his work and mentorship have helped shape amongst his peers and colleagues. The participants include senior historians, younger scholars, and Chandavarkar’s former students from the U.S., U.K. and India.

Filed under: main — Tags: , — Shekhar @ 5 October 2006 12.00 pm

Expanding the Franchise

A friend from Pune, Dnyanada, while visiting today reminded me that there are two types of scholars — those who are studious, and those who are creative. And historians, in most cases, must value the former as much, if not more, than the latter. For while there is no denying the labour of creativity involved in the act of interpretation, for under-investigated areas such as the urban history of modern India, give me a studious archive rat any day. The recently deceased Raj Chandavarkar always insisted, often polemically, that the most basic questions about urban history, such as about party politics in the Bombay Municipal Corporation, have still not been written about in any serious way, and the new research interest in cities will prove ephemeral without a solid empirical focus. Indeed a basic political history of the municipal corporation is waiting to be written, and the primary materials for this task can, I am confident, be found in the Maharashtra State Archives.

While sitting there yesterday, I happened upon a reference to a compilation of files from 1920-24 on “the reconstitution of the BMC on a more democratic basis” containing a fascinating debate around the extension of the municipal franchise following the constitutional reforms of 1919. Government sought an expansion in the franchise for municipal elections, which until 1920 was based on an electorate restricted to rate payers, who numbered no more than 12,000 in the entire City of Bombay. While the directive was to seek an expansion to between 50,000 to 60,000 voters for the reconstituted corporation, a debate ensued between British civil servants, and corporators and civic representatives, and nationalist reformers on the principle of the franchise. This was to be changed from a basis in “rate-payers” to “rent-payers”, the question arising as to the minimum rent paid which would qualify someone for the vote in Bombay City. Various statistical distributions of the rent-paying populations of each ward in the city were presented in the debate as to whether to fix the minimum from between Rs 10 to Rs 25.

As I remarked to Nikhil, who initially got me thinking about municipal elections, this was the first time I had seen a real breakdown of ward-wise rates of rent in this period. This is where the debate also turned communal, as the question of reserved electorates for minorities such as Parsis, Mohammedans, Christians and others were mooted along with the new principles of expanding the franchise on the basis of rents, and increasing the number of seats in the Corporation. It seems from the correspondence between the Indian members of the Municipal Corporation and the British officials deliberating the new principles of enfranchisement that the former were concerned with the dilution in the influence of Parsi community, whom Ibrahim Rahimtoola hailed as having shouldered the great burden of local self-government (and who must have also represented a significant number of the rate payers in the old franchise). Nonetheless they rejected the idea of communal electorates as divisive and unnecessary to secure minority interests, which they still claimed would be best managed by a propertied elite. Some British officials strongly remarked that Government should not stick too closely to the “class of landlords” who on the one hand directed civic affairs and on the other hand abetted in the creation of slum areas, the single biggest problem of colonial administration in Bombay at this time. The expansion of the franchise based on rent payers was eventually accepted with some amendments, and instituted in 1923.

Filed under: main — Tags: , , — Shekhar @ 10 August 2006 2.16 pm
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