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||| The Bazaar and The City |||
History and the Contemporary in Urban Electronic Culture
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One of the remarkable features about the production of India's pasts by post-independence nationalism has been the frugal investment in the urban. This is something that stands out in contrast to both the British imperial and the Mughal reference to the city, which was indexed as constituting the centre of political power and spectacle. In the first three decades after India's independence, the urban stood out almost as a functional space for the political class, while the actual drama of the historical was played out in other areas of the country.
Much of this has changed over the past two decades, the old consuming historical fever of modernity that Nietsche spoke about has ebbed, with a new mode of crisis that shows no sign of retreating. At any rate the current situation in India has thrown into confusion the old categories of the historical, while at the same time highlighting new, dynamic forms of urban cultural practice which gesture to a creative, continuously reproducing vernacular space. The urban has emerged, perhaps for the first time in post-independence India as an important focus of movement and conflict.
I would like unpack this relationship of the historical, the urban and the vernacular from the vantage point of electronic culture, in particular that associated with telecom and computer networks. The latter are part of a porous map of overlapping forms in the electronic sphere - those of film, television and music all of which have the contemporary constellation only in the last decade. More than anything else in India, this new electronic culture has emerged today as the imaginative expression of a globalised consumption regime, with cities and towns acting as production sites of new visual practices. At one level this seems fairly compatible with global trends in the 1980's and the 1990's. What is remarkable in the Indian case is the level of non-legality that constitutes the production of this culture at the level of the everyday. Consider this: India, with its inequalities is emerging as one the large software exporters in the world, a key player in the new commodity chain of electronic capitalism. Yet about eighty percent of all computers sold in the country are from non-legal sources or the grey market. Further, almost the entire large cable television network operates out of small neighbourhood nodes, non-legal or unorganised. Elsewhere I have called this a pirate modernity, where the contact and copy dialectic that Michael Taussig refers to in his work on mimesis is transformed by a series of diruptive and innovative practices at the level of the everyday. What is intersting for our discussion is that this dispersed but growing culture of electronic non-legality in the city has raised important questions about urban built forms, and the emergence of vernacular spaces that almost seem to recall pre-colonial urban networks of consumption. My focus on the computer and telecom networks is deliberate, for as I will argue they have through a strategy of imaginative and non-legal poaching transformed the built areas of cities.
To make sense of this transition to the contemporary, I would like to dwell briefly on Indian nationalism's relationship to the urban in the post-independence period. After independence in 1947 ruling Congress leadership under the leadership of the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru subtly transformed the Gandhian agenda which had prioritised the village imaginary. Gandhi's ambivalence on developmentalism was sidelined in favour of a new model which was functional for the purposes of rational accumulation. The Nehruvain preference was for a developmentalist model based on an import-substitution regime. Temporal acceleration would obtain through the Plan which was a reworking of Soviet experiences. What was important about this model was its state-centredness and its organisation of national and political territory. The pre-independence anti-colonial movement had sought to lend a cluster of overlapping histories to India's territorial pasts. Nehru's developmental model sought to organise this constellation of nation-forms into a simpler, less contradictory model, which met the needs for national accumulation.
In the first place after the onset of the Plan and developmentalism, the space of the nation was bracketed and fissured from global space. The conquest of national space through development was set up as a condition for thoroughgoing incorporation into the world economy. Much of this was pretty much in line with the initiatives by Sukarno and Nasser, but in India the legitimacy of the regime was tested by periodic elections.
What was interesting about the post-independence regime was the shift of spectacular space from the city. Urban spectacle was quite central to the landscape of power in both the Moghul and British colonial regimes. Both regimes, though vastly different in content, carried out large building projects in cities. Witness the construction of the city of Shahjehanabad by the Moghul Empire, which formed the core of Moghul Delhi. Under the British colonial rule construction initially focused on the cities of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, the latter in fact was known as the second city of the Empire in the 19th century. The British urban building project culminated in the building of New Delhi by Lutyens and Baker - a combination of colonial historicism and a brutal marginalisation of the Mughal town. The building of New Delhi went hand in had with the Delhi Durbar of 1911, colonialism's attempt to mimic Moghul urban spectacle, ironically at the same time British hegemony was declining in the world-system.
Nehruvian nationalism sought the spectacular not in the city but in the architecture of energy. Energy now became a significant component of the historical nation in the making. The spatial form this took was the large dam and steel mill. The dam imaginary was less Promethean than a reference to a form of developmental modernism: where built space, electrical energy and acceleration were combined in one unified system. Nehru's dam speeches were filled with references to Soviet building experiences as also the TVA, they conjured a world of order and harmony where the ambivalence associated with the village would be purged from our midst. In spatio-historical terms the building projects were technological monuments, Nehru went so far as to say that the dams were "temples of modernity." While the transformative element both in energy and spatial terms was crucial for national ideology, the dam projects were also brutal in their displacement of millions from their homes. It was only in the 1970's that large social movements forced the suspension of some of the big projects.
In his Things out of Season, Nietsche says that the culture of the historical "is a kind of inherited greyness, and those who have borne its mark from childhood must believe instinctively in the old age of mankind." (p:166) In effect one could argue that the dam imaginary posed a version of the spatial that recoded the inheritance of the historical in post-colonial India. The new elements : energy, modern monumentality, and the categorical imperative of transformation were a sublation of the past references to the village. What was new was also the visibility of modern elements of construction : steel, concrete and electricity, which seemed to map the grid of developmental modernism. Until it was attacked in the 1970's developmental modernism sought to introduce an abstract figure of the national : the effort to organise identity around technological monuments was in direct contrast with the aestheticised politics of Gandhi. At any rate, Nehru's technocratic model was able to enable an upper-caste elite of state managers to direct the accumulation model for almost 25 years after 1947.
The strategies of Nehruvian nationalism involved an acknowledgement of the virtues of a republican political democracy while at the same time expressing deep scepticism about any identity that gestured to place. Part modernist, part technocratic the idea of order was crucial here, albeit mediated through the experience of the territorial disruptions of 1947.
In the event this abstraction largely shut out the urban in the bigger scheme of national self-representation. There was however the exception of the construction of Chandigarh built by Le Corbusier. Chandigarh was in effect Nehru's effort to give shape to the idea of the modern, through the efforts of an avant-garde architect who displayed little interest in India's building traditions. The product, despite Corbusier's energetic efforts , was less an image of the urban future than a model of the modern, where an abstract vision of the now-defeated historical avant-garde and a technocratic nationlism met, albeit briefly. And Chandigarh had little impact on the country as a whole. In every sense the Chandigarh project was a sideshow to the developmentalist agenda, whose architecture remained unaffected.
What is significant about both colonial and Nehruivan urban strategies was a common distrust of the traditional city, and its main public institution, the bazaar. Bazaars were the main public and commercial spaces in the traditional city, in the Moghul capital of Delhi for instance, there were around 150 of them many trading in single commodities. From the 18th century onwards, European travellers began writing horrified narratives on the Indian bazaar, with its density and apparent lack of regulation, its chaos and smells, and an inability to produce a healthy commercial society. This narrative reached an apogee in Max Weber's own writings on the city. Weber drawing from the travel writings of Bernier and Melucci saw the Asian city as nothing less than a Central Asian horde in permanent military encampment. As for the bazaar, Weber maintained caste restrictions doomed it to a marginal status and incapable of rational accumulation.
Given the European report-card on the traditional bazaar as the index of Asiatic decline , it was not surprising that the colonial plan for Delhi by Baker and Lutyens carefully separated the new space from the traditional Moghul city of Shajehanabad. The new spatial arrangement marginalised the old bazaars, preferring instead the wide European avenues and a central shopping circle name after the Earl of Connaught. Not that Le Corbusier saw the arrangement any different in post-colonial India. The bazaar has no place in Chandigarh : the design of commercial areas were designed to offer maximum control and access by the state, rather than by the cities inhabitants. Nehruvianism was of deeply suspicous of the urban bazaar, seeing it as the den of primitive trading practices, and a conservative social agenda. Much of this owed less to an engagement with the city and its pasts but from a preference for a Brahmanical political economy which prioritised state control, and distrusted all commerce.
In retrospect Nehruvian developmentalism seemed to be driven by two almost contradictory aims. The first was the ideal of an orderly regulated state, driven by a Promethean programme of transformation, marked by punctual national borders, all of which was managed by an upper caste, westernised elite which occupied this abstract centre of the state. On the other hand, the Nehruvian agenda also invested in the republican democratic order, whose future was predicated on the success of the accumulation model. This was not to happen and by the 1970's the model collapsed under its contraditions.
What is striking about the first thirty years after independence is the relative paucity of significant urban building programmes on the part of the nationalist state, as compared to its predecessors. As we know both the Moghuls and the British left an impressive building legacy: even smaller Indian rulers under British rule left impressive public buildings, some of whom were built by refugee architects from Nazi Germany. After 1947, the technological monument dominated the building imaginary, held out as a symbol of nation-ness and the abolition of caste/community divisions. The scale of the monument and the retailing of an energy/national/future imaginary was a moment that seemed to indicate a break with the past and the Gandhian heritage. This was the nationalist spectacle, the Nehruvian reply to the legacy of Lutyens and Shahjehan. At that time the magnified force fields of the historical and the electrical rendered the brutal violence of dam capitalism invisible, neither were there any intimations of the coming ecological disaster.
Popular forms filled in where official nationalism failed in its engagement with the city. The films of Bimal Roy in the 1950's expressed a deep disenchantement with the failures of the post-independence regime, through a bleak urban landscape, and narratives of doomed lives were the first in the popular cinema at that time. In the early 1970's the Calcutta films of Mrinal Sen reflected the city in ferment and the anger of the Naxalite movement, later on, the "angry young man" films of Amitabh Bacchan made the city of Bombay a centre of narrative action and crucial reference point.
By the mid 1970's the old developmentalist regime was in crisis, now grafted to a highly centralised and repressive state whose self-representation was dynastic rule by the Nehru-Gandhi family. "Development" was paralleled by state-sponsored compulsory sterilisation drives aimed at the poor. This project ended in political defeat for Indira Gandhi and the Congress party. In the 1980"s the Congress was back in power - but the old nationalist architecture was in considerable crisis. A new approach was put into place in the early 1980's, actively encouraged by Rajiv Gandhi (Nehru's grandson) who later became Prime Minister in 1984. This new constellation had two main components.
The first was to ensure temporal acceleration while at the same time perform the task of emancipating the state-managers from the everyday, the interaction with place. In other words the annihilation of space through time would obtain without the messy political problems that spatiality and its associated politics produced. What was needed was a solution that would shift from old-style nationalist policies, seen by the elite as restricting initiative and growth. This was resolved by an evacuation of the "national" space ("globalisation"), a process that would accelerate by the late 1980's and the early 1990's. Under pressure from the IMF and the World Bank, the old import substitution regime was gradually dismantled and controls on domestic industry and transnational companies lifted.
The end-result of all these moves was a decisive reconstruction of the old nationalist imaginary in ways that would dissolve it to the point of no recognition. 'Development' remained an issue but was reconstituted as a problem of communication. The way forward was computerization, networking and a new visual regime based on a national television network. The computer soon became the iconic space around which almost all representation, both state and commercial cohered - the effect on nationlist discourse was incredible. As opposed to the Nehruvian focus on 19th century physical instruments of accumulation (steel, energy, coal), state discourse after 1984 posed a virtual space where issues of development would be resolved. Through public lectures, television programmes and press campaigns, state managers simulated this new space, which though unseen was seen as transcending the lack inherent in Nehruvian controls.
This phantasmic neo-national space was complicated by two factors. The first was the simple brutal fact of peripheralisation - constant network breakdown which militates against a seamless web of communication. The second is the multiplication of networks : which cancels the monopolistic legitimacy of panoptic power.
This transitional form of developmentalism was however enabling of two movements: the proliferation of a media culture through a state television network, and the increasing focus on an urban consumption sphere. By the 1990's the old model of state-centred accumulation had been overtaken by the turn to globalisation.
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Thank you to Ravi Sundaram for permission to use this piece.
This paper was lectured at the conference "Architecture and Globalisation", at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, October 1999.
It is also available online at expand, which describes itself as "a project space online, an interdisciplinary artistic field of action, in which aspects of urban and mediated surroundings are assembled and into which offline projects flow in."
Ravi Sundaram, Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi and Joint Director of Sarai, the New Media Initiative.