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An Alternative Articulation of Urban Experience

Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City by Ranjani Mazumdar


An Alternative Articulation space. Urbanisation today has come to be understood as the engagement with
of Urban Experience “urban space” and the diverse ways it struc tures relationships within its environs. In reorienting urbanisation as the spa
tial location of capitalist production and
Edward A Rodrigues consumption, Patel observes how the new

rban Studies by Sujata Patel and Kushal Deb is the latest addition to a larger collection of sociological readers covering various facets of society in India. These readers have been constructed keeping in mind an audience of students and teachers reading on the concerned field of sociology at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. As sociological writings in a given field, these readers focus on theoretical, analytical and historical concerns combined with case studies to provide for a comprehensive engagement with the particular field of study.

The reader in urban sociology matches up to these considerations very successfully. While mapping the wider discourse of urbanisation in India, it also engages both conceptually and empirically with the diversity of concerns that comprise the field of urban sociology in India. Though the study of urbanisation in India has enjoyed consistent attention from the mainstream sociological establishment our understanding of urban society in India has remained descriptive and

Economic & Political Weekly

February 23, 2008

Urban Studies edited by Sujata Patel and Kushal Deb;

Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp x+486, Rs 595.

statistical often devoid of any theoretical engagements with the complex forces that shape urbanisation in India. The reader attempts to fill this gap by providing for a more holistic and critical engagement with the urban phenomenon.

In her introduction Sujata Patel carries out an examination of urbanisation and the way it has been studied by sociologists both past and present, as well as the historical growth of urbanisation in India. For students of sociology this is a useful review as it covers a range of theoretical developments within the field. From the early evolutionary and ecological models of the Chicago school principally based on an American experience of urbanisation, to the contemporary ideas of David Harvey and Manuel Castells, as represented in “New Urban Studies” Patel traces the development of urbanisation theory pointing to the shifts in emphasis from culture and ecology to capital and scholarship within urban studies emphasises the usefulness of the political economy perspective which can simultaneously interrogate urban space in terms of the structures of production relations, power and cultural representations. Contemporary urban studies which is both historical and interdisciplinary, she notes, tends to focus on the particular experience of urbani sation as it developed histori cally in different geographical settings. Given the unequal development and spread of capitalism globally, cities of the south not only articulate a diversity of urban experiences, but also the role of precapitalist social relations which significantly account for shaping the dynamics of urbanisation. This is illustrated very well in her review of colonial urbani sation which developed in the Indian context.

In the Indian case urbanisation was neither coterminus with industrialisation nor did it result in the decline of the feudal agrarian relations. On the contrary India’s urbanisation was developed first by the colonial state and later through the interventionism of the independent nation state. Equally in small towns and


cities it was the rural landed elite which became the propertied class. These processes worked towards reinventing caste and hierarchy within the urban environs resulting in an urbanisation reflecting differential claims to urban space from the market forces, political groups, caste and ethnic groups, minorities and marginalised groups. Unlike urbani sation in the west, understanding India’s urbanisation necessarily involved the engagement with these different groups and the way in which they asserted or contested or resisted claims to urban space.

The Past 100 Years

This reader is an investigation into these different engagements that together make for the urban experience in India. The four sections deal with the five major themes that concern urban studies, namely, inequality, world cities and globalisation, the state and collective action, urban culture and finally the urban phenomenon in the south.

The first section titled ‘The Contemporary Urban Process’ has essays developed from different disciplinary perspectives covering various dimensions of the urbanisation process in India over the past 100 years. The essays by Anthony King and Jim Masselos investigate aspects of space and time within colonial urbanisation. King shows how the colonial bungalow represents a structuring of space in terms of work space and private space in a way very different from pre-colonial Indian society. Such representations were used to construct a “culturally constituted behavioural environment”. Likewise Masselos’ paper looks at the various conflicts surrounding the standardisation of time in colonial India and shows how the colonial government and the ruling elites imposed a time regime which became the focus of much contestation among the working classes in Bombay.

Rakesh Mohan, Jan Breman and Atiya Kidwai present papers focused on different aspects of the economics of urbanisation. Mohan’s paper studies the trends in the recent past pointing to how urbanisation is linked to developments in the industrial and agrarian sectors. Breman’s paper highlights the unitary nature of capitalist relations in India setting aside dualistic theories of labour to show how Indian capitalism has created an informal or dependent labour force who inhabit urban spaces often devoid of basic amenities. Kidwai’s paper takes a look at globalisation resulting from the structural adjustment programme and shows how it has led to deindustrialisation, tertiarisation and informalisation which while encouraging migration and cheapening labour are dysfunctional to national integration.

Five Cities

In section two titled ‘The Urban Metropolis’, the five essays take a look at individual Indian cities pointing to the different ways in which urban space structures inequalities and differential access to utilities. Adrian Peace’s study of Jaipur illustrates how upper castes/class from the

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  • February 23, 2008

    Economic Political Weekly


    pre-indepen dent period, who have access to resources like education, jobs, property, etc, live in modern suburbs that are very well serviced. The lower castes, who are the poor have no access to such resources, live in the inner city severely lacking in services. Nandini Dasgupta’s paper on Calcutta traces the history of the city’s urban economy as it transited from manufacturing to stagnation and the role of the state, capital and migration in this process. She highlights the dominant role of the petty trading class as also the growing unemployment in the city that serves as the backdrop for competition between insiders and outsiders. Likewise John Harris’ paper on Coimbatore shows how caste becomes a critical factor in structuring both the labour market as well as residential habitat. Rama Naidu’s paper on Hyderabad offers an interesting insight into how generalisations get misrepresented. Her study of Hyderabad clearly shows how politics has labelled very well serviced localities in the inner city as slums while some poor localities truly lacking in public amenities are not labelled as slums. Finally Ritu Priya’s paper on Delhi looks at the absence of basic civic amenities and public health for the urban poor of Delhi as a result of a development planning that is oriented towards real estate.

    Interplay of Forces

    In section three titled ‘Urban Space, the State, Politics and Collective Action’ the five essays focus on how urban space becomes the site for representing various kinds of collective action and state intervention in five different cities taking into account the underlying economic and spatial inequalities. Sujata Patel’s essay on Bombay traces the trajectories of the multilingual indigenous bourgeoisie and the Marathi-speaking working class who represented two very different projects of modernity from the early part of the 20th century. She shows how these modernities not only represent the different worlds of the rich and the poor in the city, but also serve as the backdrop for much of the collective action that has developed in the city. Ghanshyam Shah’s essay on Surat examines the interplay of the economy and civic authority in Surat city. Shah looks at the role of predatory capital as represented

    Economic Political Weekly

    February 23, 2008

    in the economic pursuits of groups like the nouveau riche, moneylenders, bootleggers and power brokers and how their short-term profit motives have severely affected the moral character of civil society.

    Anita Soni’s essay on Delhi highlights the role of the Delhi Development Authority and private agencies who have displaced and marginalised agriculturalists on the outskirts of the city in the name of urban development leading to further pauperisation and exploitation of those who have been displaced. Turning to another kind of collective action that dominates towns and cities, Sujata Patel in her next essay analyses the 1985-86 communal riots in Ahmedabad city to show how this violence is intimately linked to caste and regional politics on the one hand and the structures of power and inequities on the other. Finally, Kushal Deb in his study of Hyderabad shows how the state functioning through the Hyderabad Urban Development Authority actually serves the vested interests of a local capitalist class.

    In the final section titled ‘Urban Culture’, the writers positioned from within civil society examine the cultural representations and negotiations of urban space. Sumanto Banerjee’s paper on the cultural expressions of the urban poor in Calcutta shows how these groups revived the popular rural theatre of Bengal deploying it to highlight the class and gender discriminations faced by them in the city. Frank Coulon’s essay on dining out in Bombay shows how the growth of wealth in the city develops a taste of cosmopolitan food. Dining out he argues represents a cultural statement of urban residents who want to see themselves as modern. Sara Dickey’s paper examines film viewing trends amongst Tamil audiences. She shows how film has become the most popular culture amongst the people and how film watching is an important and significant dimension of consumption. Ranjani Mazumdar in her essay investigates Hindi cinema to understand the changing nature of its cinematic representations. In her analysis of ‘tapori’ in Rangeela she shows how such cinematic portrayals represent the street cultures of contemporary India which are both rural and cosmopolitan. Finally, Shilpa Phadke in her paper investigates the experience of being a woman in Bombay. Phadke shows how women have to negotiate with public spaces strategically in order to produce a safe environment for their bodies and themselves.

    Given the spread of urbanisation in India and across the world combined with the uneven growth of capitalism, there is quite clearly a need to go beyond the conventional evolutionary and functionalist discussions that have dominated urban sociology in India. By positioning itself within the theoretical and historical engagements of new urban studies, this reader in urban studies offers the student of urban sociology an alternative way of imagining and articulating the urban experience in India. The range of themes its authors have dealt with is indicative of the diversity and complexity of the urban experience in the contemporary world. Equally, its interdisciplinary approach reflects both, the richness of intellectual thought in this field, as well as the immense potential for such a continued engagement with the urban phenomenon. Urban sociology in India can only be enriched by such a collection of writings.


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