Ravi Sundaram on Sun, 21 Dec 1997 10:21:03 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Asian Cities ...

Asian Futures and the  Paradoxes of Urban Life in India
The rise of East Asia poses a number of interesting problems for those of
us who approach the fin de siecle with some ambivalence. In first
instance, the great millennium of secure Western hegemony, beginning with
the violence of the Crusades, seems finally on its way out. In this surely
epochal transition, what is interesting for us in India is the sense in
which "Asia" becomes the generalized trope for the East Asian  power. It
is important to recognize this violent abstraction - all the more given
the wide inequalities, and imaginary social maps within "Asia" itself.
This situation is all the more apparent from  the Indian sub-continent.
Given the cultivated distance of  the  West-centered local elites in India
from  East Asia , the rise of the latter as "Asia" has been viewed with a
mixture of amazement and bewilderment. Elite trepidation apart, nowhere
are the Indian-East Asian distinctions clearer than in the differing urban
imaginaries. The frenetic building pace in East Asia ,with a giantist
neo-modernist emerging landscape, revealed in detail in Koolhaas' recent
mediations, have no remote equivalent in South Asia.  This East-Asian
construction destruction dynamic perhaps has certain equivalents in the
Indian pasts - but nothing equaling the scale of the transitions in East
I will like to look at some fragments of  the historical pasts of urban
life in India to help us reflect on the Asian divide.
Fragment One: Colonialism 
British colonial power introduced a series a far-reaching changes in the
way urban life was experienced in India. The rupture with the pre-colonial
order, based on the Moghul heritage was particularly significant. European
style urban planning and large scale construction was undertaken, notably
in the two major colonial cites Calcutta and Bombay. In the early stages,
a form of colonial hybridity was encouraged in the larger buildings -
curiously called "Indo-Saracenic." By the end of the  19th century, even
the "Indo-Saracenic" was given up in favor of a more securely European
historicist building - that which informed Lutyens' construction of New
Delhi. To be sure, Lutyens' work inadvertently incorporated elements of
Moghul construction, but a premium was placed on the European colonial
spectacle.  For their part, pre-colonial cities  had encompassed a wide
variety of experiences: pilgrimage sites like Benares and Ajmer, the
political capitals of Delhi, Lucknow and Lahore, the commercial centers
like Surat, Dacca and Cochin. With colonialism these diverse experiences
were subsumed under an invented category, 'the Asiatic city', stagnant,
chaotic and not conducive to the needs of Reason. Lutyens' New Delhi
epitomized this attitude at its best: the beautiful sites of the old
Moghul city were in effect marginalized and ghettoized, the access points
to the colonial spectacle (the Viceroy's house and the state buildings)
were subject to a careful process of spatial regulation. An arrogant
optics of domination  and control prevailed.
The most significant change was the actual experiences of urban life for
the colonized at the level of the everyday. Pre-colonial urban life was
informed by a certain fuzziness of identities, a sense of mutual openness
to the regular movements from Central Asia. To be sure, cities saw violent
political conflict  but very few conflicts operated on the format of
modern conflict seen by the sub-continent since independence in 1947.
Colonial cities, by segregating the European and non-European spaces  set
in motion an entirely new form of spatial organization hitherto unknown in
South Asia. If  this was not enough, the colonial census, by offering a
series of limited identity choices played the role of congealing the
fuzziness of  the pre-colonial order. Entirely new communities came into
existence, part invented, part re-recognized, generating a conflictual
space quite different from that celebrated by Baudelaire in Second Empire
However, that the  most interesting colonial construction of urbanity lay
outside  the territorial map of the city. This was, of course the railway.
The railway was the embodiment of colonial modernity  ans surely one of
its most ambitious ventures. Organized in a rational-purposive grid, the
railway network spanned the length and breadth of the sub-continent. Soon
tens of millions of people were traveling in the train, including many
from the rural areas. Train travel combined many of the features of the
modernist experience mapped by Baudelaire and Simmel : those of loss and
revelation, of speed and separation from home, of anonymity and community.
The colonial railway station here represented particular investment in the
creation of an new kind of urban space on a national scale.  The railway
stations in the large colonial cities, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta were
spectacular constructions, but more typically the colonial railway station
consisted of a platform and a building.  Time-tables, tickets, and signs
introduced the colonial subject to the emerging world of print-capitalism.
Time-tables had the effect of rewriting the pre-colonial journey. The old
Journey, centered around trade and pilgrimage routes was always imbued
with a temporal ambiguity on the idea of the Return. This temporal
fuzziness was replaced in the new urban-railway imaginary with a journey
that was characterized by a certain punctuality of arrival and return, a
journey of speed and transition.  The Urban had arrived in India.
It was a powerful moment in the history of South Asia. As such it was
celebrated by Marx - who argued that surely the railway would be India's
passport to modernity. Alas! It was not to be. Apart from the tremendous
violence wrought by the construction of the railway system on the lives of
the Indian people, what is interesting for our discussion is that this
great symbol of colonial power and urban modernity, turned into something
quite different. Initially overwhelmed by the railway, the colonial
subjects went about transforming it. To be sure, this was done in a piece
meal, often unthought fashion, a form of what Michel de Certeau has called
"poaching" - chipping away at the larger edifice to create imaginary maps
within, enabling a process of movement and agency. 
In the first place, the station was transformed into the village street.
Far from being the rational space of movement, it was not uncommon to see
entire families sleeping, cooking and even defecating near railway
platforms. The noise, the disorder, the constant delays and the network
breakdowns could not be further from Marx's high-modernist enthusiasm for
the railway. Even Gandhi, that critic of the railway par excellence,
simulated a space within the train (the Third Class compartment) which the
'people' could identify with ,and critique colonial power. 
To some extent, the railway became a crucial reference point in the
everyday imaginings of Indian, something that Lutyens' spectacle - cold,
distant and imposing, could never achieve.
Fragment 2, Post Coloniality I - Nationalism and the Absent City
There was little doubt that the coming to power of Indian nationalism in
1947 would herald a significant transition in the imagining of space.
Given the strong rural context of nationalist mobilization against the
British,  the city was seen more as a seat of power and less as reference
point for emancipatory hopes. 
Nehruvian nationalism's great investment was in the ideology of
development. Development of course meant an ideology of "catching' up with
the West based on a state-centered accumulation strategy. But what is
relevant for our discussion here was Nehruvianism's promotion of its own
spectacle - the dam, the power plant and the steel mill as necessary
reference points for Indian modernity. This was vision informed by
technological monumentalism and a particular form of speed culled from
Soviet planning and the TVA in the US. Around the dam sprung the various
townships , part company town, part technocratic enclaves, an "urbanity"
without a soul.
Of course it may be pointed out that Nehru himself was a city-person, who
often took a keen interest in promoting individual architects. One of the
by-products of that period was Le Corbusier's Chandigarh,  the new capital
of the Indian state of Punjab.  Chandigarh was Nehruvian nationalism's
great attempt at monumentalism. Le Corbusier's city distinguished itself
by a complete contempt for the historical building styles and urban
cultures of India -  espousing a soi disant  radical stance (all
localities had numbers, not names), it cut itself from the local
population in whose name the city was conceived.  Chandigarh was invested
with an abstract temporality, evoking one of the more noumenal visions of
Nehruvianism - the urgent  desire  for modernity. Here was a vision of
order,  an Ideal City where the chaos and uncertainties of the Village
would be banished.  Perhaps Chandigarh signaled the fatal utopianism of
the developmental idea - that the world as a tabula rasa, had to be
re-written, kicking and screaming, into a new Time. If nationalism's
vision of the future had been projected in the form of a temporal Not-yet,
Chandigarh changed that into a Now.
Chandigarh stood out as one of the more bizarre, if painful legacies of a
European avant-garde's engagement with the non-Western world. But
Chandigarh apart, the vast majority of urban construction tended to
reproduce some of the worst excesses of International Style, lacking the
even finesse of the colonial period, where there was at least a premium on
the public perception of the building. 
Ironically, at this very moment the cultures of the two great colonial
cities - Bombay and Calcutta were thriving. Shored by a series of radical
movements in politics and culture, both cities displayed a vitality that
contrasted with the drabness of official nationalist discourse. Calcutta
in the 1960's was a dynamic city of left movements, writers, poets and a
rich literary culture. Bombay was the great center of the film industry -
the world's second largest after Hollywood. The city also played host to a
number of radical art movements. What was important in the emerging
publics in Bombay and Calcutta is that for the first time in contemporary
Indian history the notion of a city and the certitude of an urban culture
was taken for granted. As writers and critics dealt with experiences of
loss and revelation, of energy and despair, of freedom in the city and its
schizophrenic existence the outlines of a very specific Indian engagement
with "modernism" began to take shape.  As popular cinema figured Bombay as
the typical space of both urban movement and loss, the city entered the
imaginative space of everyday life for millions of people.  
Fragment 3 .  Post -Coloniality II After Nationalism?
If anything the Nehruvain imaginary in India was never securely tied to
the territoriality of the city itself. Nationalist power operated  through
a combination of republican democratic politics and a panoptics of
control. Power was concentrated in an enlightened upper-caste elite of
modernizer/politicians, where legitimacy was secured periodically through
elections. A sui generis constutitionalism, rather than the City (as in
the West) was the preferred basis for regulating citizenship. The idea of
Speed was preserved through development. 
By the late 1970's the crisis of state-centered nationalism brought about
a series of long transitions. In the first place, the idea of
state-centered development was in disrepute, paving way for a
liberalization of controls and opening up for foreign investment.
Politically, new movements of backward castes began asserting themselves
by the 1980's challenging the security of the upper-caste political elite.
By the early 1990's many regions were ruled by backward caste political
coalitions. The old panoptics of power began to shift. The state, no
longer the secure kingdom of upper-caste /meritocratic hegemony, has
witnessed a series of conflicts, which continue to this day.
The crisis of state-sponsored nationalism has in effect sealed the fate of
the Village as an imaginary reference point of identity. What has come in
its place is a confusing mix of identity assertions, some often violent
and undemocratic, and trying to re-write the troubled trajectory of
modernity in India. But what is common to many  of the movements a
reference to urban cultures - some of the small town, others of the new
emerging techno-cities, which animate their imaginative space.
Globalization has led to a huge increase in urban consumption and its
representative markers. The rapid spread of satellite and cable television
has given prominence to a new culture of spectacular consumption. At the
everyday level, newer forms of mechanical reproduction (notably
inexpensive means of making music tapes) have spawned a huge music
industry - India is now the second largest market in cassette tapes in the
world. As the markers of consumption transform large areas of urban life
in India, the representational difference from the Nehruvian nationalist
period could not be more.
This is also a violent urban space, where the large spatial and income
inequalities co-exist with the discourses of consumption . Bombay and
Delhi are not yet Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, but the Brazilian path of
high consumption and inequality are surely one of the possible futures of
contemporary urban India. 
Globalization has also brought the suburb to India. The suburb in India is
part elite retreat from the crisis-ridden city, part techno-paradise,
living in a mode of simultaneous time  with the West.  A new and emerging
part of the suburb concept is the techno-city, part influenced by the
neo-modernist East Asian impulses, part an effort to create a sanitized
space for techno-elite habitat. With private security, direct links to the
West through electronic space, techno-cities have been held out as India's
passport to the 21st century.
The key impulse behind the techno-city is, of course, Speed. It is the
urge towards what Paul Virilio has called the "industrialization of real
time." But, contra Virilio, this is by no means a seamless process,
fraught with counter-strategies and the rhizomic space of the everyday in
urban India.  In the Indian case, these are problems of living in a
republican democracy where the more authoritarian imaginaries of a Mohatir
Mohammed or a Lee Quan Yew cannot easily succeed. A case in point - a
recent proposed site for a "Singapore City" in the suburbs of Delhi had to
close after land occupations and protests by local residents. Less than an
actualized reality the techno-city is emblematic of a certain elite
exhaustion with the older City, seen as contaminated by subaltern
strivings and civic chaos.
Asian Futures
But what of "Asia" ? In the pasts of the continent, a case could be made
for an existential solidarity of "Asia" against  Western imperium. In the
Now ,"Asia" has ceased to be itself.  As East Asian cities thrive and
perhaps prosper, their South Asian counterparts are enveloped in  a cycle
of crisis, violence and elite re-location. To be sure, South Asia too has
seen an explosion of consumption strategies, varied cultural practices in
the cities and a certain dynamism. Yet, consumption practices and new
"hybrid" styles have been easily appropriated by right-wing urban
movements, civic chaos threatens old notions of order and justice.
And the futures?  Perhaps in about ten, twenty years new urban
constellations will emerge  in Asia with little reference to the secular
history of the Western city  - an entirely new phenomenon with distinct
narratives of trans-nationality.  And the "Asian" city? That concept died
with colonialism, an reference point invented to distinguish Western
uniqueness than a serious engagement with the rich cultures of Asia. There
was no "Asian" city, and there never will be.
Ravi Sundaram
Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies
29 Rajpur Rd, Delhi-110054, India
E:mail rsundar@del2.vsnl.net.in 

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