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Garden City to Technopole

Garden City to Technopole The Promise of the Metropolis: Bangalore

Reviews

Garden City to Technopole

The Promise of the Metropolis: Bangalore’s Twentieth Century

by Janaki Nair; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005; pp 454, Rs 750.

JAMES HEITZMAN

T
he last 15 years have witnessed a paradigm shift in the understanding of urbanisation in south Asia, characterised by the appearance of works forming the leading edge of a tsunami in urban scholarship that we may expect in the near future. Among the important features of this new wave are enquiries that move outside the orbits of the “big four” metropolitan regions in India (Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Chennai) and investigate historical developments in second-level urban regions, some of them recently achieving metropolitan status. Persons in a variety of institutional positions – scholars, managers, coordinators of nongovernmental organisations, and bureaucrats – have more recently shown great interest in Bangalore, which has vaulted to the position of one of India’s largest cities, with a reputation for technologyled growth. Janaki Nair’s book stands as an important contribution within a surge of research on Bangalore, providing a wideranging historical understanding of this garden city-become-“technopole”.

The introduction situates this book within the larger currents of recent urban studies. It begins with the relegation of the Indian city to a secondary category within colonial and post-colonial analyses that privileged the village as the primary locus of cultural integrity. It moves into a short survey of urban studies in India since independence, noting the paucity of a strictly urbanist theoretical corpus and the limited number of forays into issues ranging from demography to planning and politics. The discussion then shifts to urban studies outside India, which received new impetus through changes during the 1980s and 1990s in what Manuel Castells has termed the “mode of development” (encompassing high technology, globalisation, the “space of flows”) and the firm commitment to the cultural turn. Here we encounter for the first time a reference to the work of Henri Lefebvre on the “production of space,” which became available in English during the early 1990s, and which exerts a recurring influence on Nair’s book. The contributions of this recent corpus of urban studies as summarised by Nair (p 12) include frameworks that she will employ later: state and market, social movements and symbolic spaces, gender and race/caste. The introduction then ends with the author’s presentation of her concerns in writing this book, including practices that construct meaning beyond technocracy, the refashioning of citizenship, the relationship between built forms and the body. Here is an ambitious range of goals, but the book will not disappoint the careful reader searching for their full exposition.

Brief History

The long first chapter (pp 23-76) is the most straightforward chronological presentation, describing the growth of Bangalore from its origins in the 16th century to the moment of independence. Mostly it focuses on the processes that created a city divided by the familiar institutions of “native” settlement and British cantonment. The important role played by artificial water bodies, or tanks, in the environmental transformation of the city receives detailed treatment, along with the several economic regimes experienced by Bangaloreans, ranging from the war economy of Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan to the deindustrialisation of the early 19th century, followed by a resurgence of textile production and the birth of the public sector under the diwans of Mysore. The treatment is most compelling when it moves into the “symbolic economy rooted in space” (p 73). We find here, for example, discussions of the hotel and coffee club culture that originated in the late 19th century and provided a novel arena for public discussion outside the ascribed venues of caste and family, and a detailed presentation of the 1928 “Bangalore Disturbances” surrounding a Ganapati temple, when communalism became a factor in the public sphere.

Chapter 2, on “remembered and imagined cities”, moves us from a single chronological framework into multiple time lines connected with issues after independence. We find here economic development in three stages (the dominance of textiles, the shift to the public sector, and the juggernaut of information technology), the change from the “ideology of the owner-occupied house” to a “real estate ideology,” the movement away from a granitic post-colonial architecture to the “heroic” façade of steel and glass along with the “architecture of fear” in gated communities where the “vaastu” consultant finds clients. The “celebration of production” under the postindependence Congress leadership gives way to the “theatre of consumption” in a burgeoning restaurant/mall culture, under conditions of “ferocious” automobilisation – giving rise to the intractable problems of infrastructure. We witness the increasing stasis of the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs and the brief vibrancy of Samudaya theatre and the Bandaya revolutionary literary movement in a post-Emergency cultural milieu, followed closely by the growth of Kannada chauvinism and the riots of 1991 and 1994. Civic mobilisation that in the early 1980s revolved around the 77-day public sector strike then evolves into Kannada sanghas, the “extension of the private” through neighbourbood associations, and the late 1990s emergence of the stakeholder exercising ownership rights to the city. One senses here – and it is a light touch, suffused by post-structuralism – the Left bewailing its lost youth, witnessing a “revolution powered only by information technologies” that cannot bridge the “wide and contested meanings of urban space” in this “restless territory”, this “disturbed zone” (p 120).

The remainder of the book concentrates on themes in the history of public institutions and public culture.

Economic and Political Weekly February 4, 2006

Chapter 3 examines the “ideology of planning” and the vocabulary of the formal, the informal, and the illegal. An earlier preoccupation with the industrial township and the welfare of the industrial worker has given way to the concepts of the individual homemaker and the slum dweller. Planning has moved from a position as state-regulated goal towards an existence as commodity to be purchased and exchanged by the consuming household (or corporation). In Chapter 4 politics and law intersect to promote the “ideology of private property in land” under the developmentalist state and, later, under the hegemony of ad hoc “public purpose” decision-making. Among the parastatal organisations castigated in this rogue’s gallery, the dubious rank of first place goes to the Bangalore Development Authority, which since 1976 has been responsible for planning and land allocation. The almost journalistic style of reporting in this chapter – perhaps the most empirically impressive in the book – exposes the array of illegalities characteristic of the state and state-connected individuals, and includes a series of case studies reporting on notable scams that have come to light during the last 30 years. Here the market determines without dominating, while the state dominates without determining (p 199).

Chapters 5 and 6 are studies in the signs of the state. The first theme is architecture, and more specifically the administrative complex that has grown up in and around Cubbon Park, the green zone that once separated city from cantonment. The author discusses the mammoth state capitol, the Vidhana Soudha, as a manifestation of nostalgia for an imagined past and a drive to express sovereignty over subjects, rather than accessibility for citizens. The problem of access appears in subsequent sections on the continuing struggle by proletarian or plebian groups to preserve spaces around the capitol for public demonstrations. The Bangalore Urban Arts Commission (1976-2001), an elite agency designed to implement a “city beautiful” movement within Bangalore, manifested during these struggles an antipathy to “mass culture” and an elite “ideology of beauty” that further attempted to restrict the space of public life. Finally, the Visvesvaraya Towers with their “stark, even brutalist” style, reach an impasse, fail to stimulate, lack vitality, foreclose options. If the reader emerges from this discussion in a depressed state of mind, the subsequent examination of Kannada language policy provides little relief, for the state language in this state capital is relegated only to a “lonely reign over the literary sphere” (p 242) in sharp contrast to the situation in language-conscious states such as Tamil Nadu or West Bengal. Despite the activism of pro-Kannada groups since the early 20th century, it seems that only the government of Karnataka could impose a single language on a city population that has typically included a majority of non-Kannada speakers and more recently has exhibited a cosmopolitanism that effectively encourages English medium schools. The struggle to eliminate the “dominated” status of the state language is ultimately the “resolutely and aggressively male” campaign (p 263) for state jobs in an economy that is increasingly privatised. The author’s conclusion, in agreement with some pro-Kannada activists: “The only language that the Karnataka state is actively promoting is the language of capitalism” (p 268).

Challenges to Hierarchy

The final two thematic chapters concentrate on mobilisations that have challenged the established hierarchies of public life during recent decades by attacking the disposition of space or by appropriating that space, if only temporarily. Pro-Kannada groups attacked monument dedicated to heroes of other language groups, such as a statue of Shivaji honoured by Marathi speakers and a statue of Thiruvalluvar honoured by Tamil speakers. Dalits concentrated on the installation and preservation of statues of the untouchable hero, B R Ambedkar. Muslims in 1986 protested against a newspaper article that allegedly disparaged the prophet. Citizens groups banded together in 1998 to oppose the allocation of land in Cubbon park for more government office buildings. Women played major roles in strikes at BPL in 1998-99 and at Peenya industrial estate in 2001. Women achieved positions of importance in the trade union movement, in the city council, and in neighbourhood organisations despite formidable obstacles from their families and from opponents playing linguistic, religious or caste cards. Since 1979, the NGO initiative called Vimochana has systematically exposed domestic violence against women. And in 1996, a wide range of groups cooperated to oppose the Miss World pageant held in Bangalore. These studies demonstrate that “the city is a far more disturbed zone than what is valorised in technocratised planning” (p 273). The inclusion of these studies at the end of the book reinforces a vision of instability and democratic alternatives that one may juxtapose with the images of hegemonic market forces and the nation that are systematically projected by the state, the corporate sector, and the press.

Although Richard Sennett’s work periodically appears in this book, Lefebvre’s presence is the most pervasive. We find him presenting conceptual frameworks for understanding historical process: spatial practice or lived space, representations or verbal signs, and representational space or non-verbal signs (pp 26-27). He appears again in the definition of planning as the subordination of history to ideology (p 122), and the definition of the urban or the science of space as opposed to the “practico-material base” (p 167). “Housing” or “habitat” is an abstraction that removes from the residence the sensory reality of inhabiting (pp 130, 133), part of transforming the home into the “consumption of space as well as a space of consumption” (p 273). Finally, we see Lefebvre claiming that time in the city has more than one writing system (p 346). Taken as a whole, these inputs provide a means for understanding Nair’s project as a critical examination of the relationship between the physical reality of life in the city, the struggles of the workplace, and the modes of expression in public life that make truth claims about the worlds’ most complicated array of social relations. Moving beyond, but not eliminating, the class struggle and the mode of production, Nair listens closely to the distant sounds of battle over language and text. This is an approach that examines official graphic images and the projections of professionals and gives them their due, but regularly subverts them through descriptions of the lived experience of subaltern and not-sosubaltern groups. The purpose is not simply the creation of dualities such as the opposition of bourgeoisie and proletariat (although such oppositions abound), but to open up the possibility for new levels of discussion that involve multiple groups and various viewpoints – a democratic interaction. Even though this work never ventures into the linguistic terrain of governance, it stands as a contribution to the debate on the institutions of participation.

EPW

Email: jheitzman@ucdavis.edu

Economic and Political Weekly February 4, 2006

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