After reading this article you will learn about:- 1. Introduction to Urban Studies 2. Urban History 3. Urban and Rural 4. Patterns 5. Classification of Cities 6. Trade 7. Political Power, Culture, Defence 8. Morphology 9. Urban Density 10. Indo-European Towns 11. Real Estate and Town Planning 12. Slums 13. Public Areas 14. Markets and Streets 15. Mental Maps and Other Details.
- Introduction to Urban Studies
- Urban History
- Urban and Rural
- Classification of Cities
- Political Power, Culture, Defence
- Urban Density
- Indo-European Towns
- Real Estate and Town Planning
- Public Areas
- Markets and Streets
- Mental Maps
- Gender in Public Areas
- The Threshold
- Private Territories
- Civic Governance
- The Freedom of the City
- Shared Goods and Services
1. Introduction to Urban Studies:
Among the many things for which Patrick Geddes, the first professor of sociology in India, will be remembered is his contribution to the development of urban studies in India. His conversations and writings, above all his admiration for Indian towns, kindled an interest in Indian urban forms among administrators and scholars, ranging from Sanskritists to geographers.
The Madras Geographical Association from the 1920s, and the Department of Geography at Varanasi in the 1950s, directed research towards the study of individual towns and urbanization.
From the mid-1950s, as part of the massive exercise of building up a database for planners, there was an increase in studies of towns—by economists, demographers, and sociologists. Urban history, which had academic but little practical value, saw a pioneering venture in 1968 but became a popular subject for research only from the late 1970s.
Today the volume of work on urban history is beginning to catch up with that on urban ‘problems’. Urban histories have a salutary effect in that they soften the sharpness of the ‘traditional ‘modern’ binary used by many social scientists.
‘Modern’ itself means three very different things—a set of values, a revolution in technology, a point in chronology. Similarly, ‘traditional’ means many different things, but most scholars assume a singular meaning as well as the unchanging character of ‘tradition’.
2. Urban History:
Urban historians in India have to be wary of two dangers—first, the tendency to follow the periodization into ‘ancient’, ‘medieval’, and ‘modern’ used for much of European history. The insidious fusing of these terms with, respectively, ‘Hindu’, ‘Islamic’, and ‘British’ can prompt generalizations which may not be justified.
The other danger is that many European or American texts on the city may be treated as canonical—but, to mention some of the best known examples, Fustel de Coulanges’ Ancient City was only about the Greeks, Henri Pirenne’s ‘medieval towns’ are those of western Europe, and ‘modern towns’ usually refer only to North America.
Some stereotypes are being abandoned—it is now agreed that ‘Islamic urbanism’ is an over-simplified category, and also that there is no family resemblance between the ‘colonial towns’ of North America and those of South Asia.
While there is a wide range of material—documents, oral evidence, the built environment— available for the study of urban centers in the last two centuries in India, there is very little for the earlier times.
It would be unfair to expect to find the kind of information that one can easily find for contemporary European towns or medieval Indian towns; for example, information about wages, property transfers, or street alignments.
It is also important to appreciate that different scholars look for different things in the same town—Sharar’s (1975) Lucknow is suffused with nazakat (refinement) and nostalgia; for Hasan (1997) it is a town marked by violence; for Llewellyn-Jones (1985) it was an architectural free-for-all; while Oldenburg (1984) directs our attention to the heavy ‘ordering’ hand of the British after 1858.
3. Urban and Rural:
The predominantly rural and agricultural character of India often makes one forget its five millennia of urbanism. ‘There is a view current in some circles of sociologists that the distinction between rural and urban sociology is not meaningful in the Indian context because about 80 per cent of the people live in villages’.
In Europe, economic changes in the last 150 years led to a major revolution. As a result, today an overwhelming proportion of the population lives in urban areas. Such a revolution has not occurred in India, though the relative proportion of town dwellers has been increasing since the 1930s.
Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi figure among the largest cities of the world, but their size is explained, like that of many others, as a result of ‘urbanization without industrialization’.
4. Urban Patterns:
The pattern of urban settlements—the spacing of cities, medium-sized towns, and small towns (‘size’ being used to mean that of population, not spatial extent) varies from region to region. The northern plain and eastern India are characterized by a few very large cities, and many small towns and qasbas (market towns).
Gujarat, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu have a large number of fairly evenly spaced medium towns; this is also true of late-twentieth-century Punjab and Haryana. Kerala has an unusual landscape of almost continuous urbanism. Andhra and Orissa are markedly under-urbanized.
These features are of long vintage—186 of the 216 towns with populations of over one lakh are historic ones, that is, they are over 200 years old. From the 1950s, there have been official surveys which have repeatedly suggested how urban centres should be spread more evenly across the country, but these suggestions have not met with much success.
5. Classification of Cities:
Census enumerators and demographers define and grade towns on the basis of population. By the geographers’ definition, towns are multifunctional—that is, inhabited by people performing functions that are not primary (agricultural) functions but secondary (industrial) and tertiary (service).
In India, Sanskrit and Persian, as well as the vernaculars, have had terms to distinguish different kinds of towns (rajdhani, capital; pattana, commercial city; nagara, town; shahar, town; bandar, port; qala, fort; qasba, market town; etc.).
Towns can be classified according to their original or chief function—capitals, forts, ports, university towns, temple towns, and hill stations. With the passage of time, the dominant function often changes. Agra began as a capital, but continued as a major commercial entrepot.
Trade, regional and long distance, has been a rationale for towns since early times. The ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ of regimes did not necessarily promote or paralyse trade. In the third and second millennia BC, urban settlements along the Indus linked Afghanistan to Sumer.
When oceanic trade decreased with the decline of Sumer, other transcontinental routes developed, as indicated by sites in the Indus-Ganga interfluve. In the thousand years when Buddhism was dominant (third century BC to eighth century AD), its expansion, marked by monasteries and universities, was linked with that of trade.
As a result, an urban map was spread over much of the subcontinent and central Asia, the towns of which continued to be linked by trade long after Buddhism declined in India. From the ninth century onwards, these ties were reinforced by Islam, when armies, Sufi preachers, and caravans of merchants moved between towns in west and central Asia and India.
Guilds of artisans, craftsmen, and traders—strongly bonded families of Marwaris, Chettiars, Bohras, and Parsis—established bases in ports and inland towns.
In the eighteenth century, the inroads made by some European trading companies led to a decline in the populations of some towns (described as ‘deurbanization’); Surat and Masulipatnam lost merchants to Bombay and Madras.
When the British took over Indian states, towns like Thanjavur, Dhaka, and Murshidabad lost their courts and, therefore, some of their artisans and court gentry. Later, improved highways and the new railway network created new centers and revived older ones. From the end of the nineteenth century, with the installation of mechanized factory industries, some towns became much more heavily populated.
7. Political Power, Culture, Defence:
Monumental architecture led to some towns being labelled ‘ritual-regal’ or ‘patrimonial- bureaucratic’, as ‘temple towns’ or forts. Most of them were richly multifunctional, and those that became quite deserted were those which were uni-functional, and not on a trade route, like Fatehpur Sikri and Vijayanagara.
There were others, like Tamralipti, which succumbed to the forces of nature. Most sites were reused, though at any point of time the actual area under occupation might have been at some distance from older ones. The extant town is no guide to its antiquity, which is gleaned from literary records.
(i) Town Size:
No schematic model of ‘the Indian town’ can be prepared, since the size and morphology of each would vary not only with geography but also with the requirements of security, the volume of trade, and the investment by individuals or the sovereign.
From the early centuries ad until the eighteenth century there have been redactions of Vastu shastra (treatises on the layout of towns and buildings) which must be understood as guide-lines, and not blueprints. Jaipur, established early in the eighteenth century, is often cited as an example of a town built according to Vastushastra.
What is more plausible, however, is that Vidyadhar Bhattacharya, who was an astronomer, and Raja Jai Singh, an astrophile, designed a town based on astronomical calculations.
(ii) Ecological Models:
A rough periodization for Indian towns can be threefold—before the railways, from the 1860s to the 1930s, and from the 1930s onwards, when cars came into use. Pre-railway towns varied in size from 200 to 500 ha, with populations ranging form 1,00,000 to 4,00,000.
In the second phase, industries and adventurous migration increased urban density, and there was ribbon development leading out of towns alongside the railway tracks.
Once cars came into use, those who could afford them were able to move out of the crowded towns, skirt the jerry-built extensions to shift to well-ordered suburbs.
Despite the superficial similarity between present- day Indian cities and American ones (an inner city surrounded by lower-middle-class housing in turn enclosed by upper-class suburbs), it would be inappropriate to apply in India the ecology model of the Chicago sociologists.
Gideon Sjoberg had pointed this out in a disarming fashion as early as 1955, ‘Anthropologists and sociologists … must … recognise that the particular kind of social structure found in cities in the United States is not typical of all societies.’
American towns, all less than 300 years old, have no links with older settlements or with villages. Elsewhere, in West and Central Asia, where ‘urban’/’sedentary’ is the opposite pole to ‘nomadic’, towns are federations of tribal groupings, not comparable with Indian towns.
Indian urban morphology can most usefully be compared to that of European towns, which have long histories and have in many cases grown out of villages or market towns.
Most Indian towns were built on slopes or along river banks, important in the centuries of pitched battles and before piped water. City walls were made for security, and were to delineate tax boundaries. Citadels separated from the town by another wall were called petta-kottai (town fort) in Tamil.
Mohalla, para, and pol were the Urdu/Hindi, Bengali, and Guajarati terms for neighborhoods. Each had usually a single entrance-point, guarded by a gate, and with privacy ensured by culs-de-sac. Each was inhabited by families linked by kinship, jati (sub-caste), or occupation.
Their location in relation to the citadel or place of worship was decided by convenience. Relative location did not indicate status (it was often assumed— wrongly—that those of highest social ranks were nearest the citadel).
There were no areas specifically cordoned off for any ethnic/religious group, as in European ghettoes. Contemporary maps of the seventeenth or eighteenth century do not indicate any communitarian divisions of urban territory, other than that, not surprisingly. Brahmins were found living near mandirs (temples) and maulvis near masjids (mosques).
Beyond the wall lay gardens, orchards, country houses, shrines, graveyards, and sarais (rest houses). Soldiers’ makeshift camps were usually outside the wall, as were the quarters of weavers or leather workers, who needed running water from rivers or streams.
In contrast to the densely built towns of the north, in south India, where the climate was not one of extremes, towns were often open and not walled. Open towns have often been labelled ‘Hindu’ and densely built ones ‘Islamic’ because the former appeared to approximate Vastushastra norms and the latter the towns of West Asia.
In fact, it was climate rather than religion that decided morphology Varanasi is similar to ‘Islamic’ Agra or Shahjahanabad-Delhi, though its profusion of temples and its history made it a ‘Hindu’ town. The terms are therefore as inappropriate as it would be to term Paris a ‘Christian’ city.
9. Urban Density:
From the nineteenth century onwards, as the tight control over the entry and exit of people in towns decreased, and the urban population kept increasing, town walls ceased to be boundaries—the famine-ravaged, the landless, the sharp-witted seeking a fortune, settled either on the periphery or within the towns which seemed to have an elastic quality of being able to accommodate people.
The most spectacular example of the town as refuge was the absorption of floods of refugees in Delhi, Lahore, Calcutta, and Karachi during the crisis of Partition in 1947.
Increasing density led to degradation of the housing stock, and thus to inner areas becoming the territories of the poor. In earlier days, in such a situation a new quarter would have been laid out, or the old settlement abandoned for a new one adjacent to it (as in medieval Europe).
But from the nineteenth century, cartography and the registering of property rights conspired to make towns and villages fixed in space, with definite boundaries. As a result of colonial rule new morphological patterns arose.
10. Indo-European Towns:
In the 1960s and 1970s scholars commonly used the terms ‘the colonial town’ and ‘the colonial port-town’ to categorize the Indian urban environment. On examination one finds that there were many ‘Indian’ elements in the morphology of these ports.
The seventeenth-century European coastal settlements began as sturdy forts designed by European engineers. Later, extramural areas were laid out where Indian merchants and weavers could build their houses, as provided by the Peshwas in contemporary Pune.
These were often based on the grid pattern. So were the military cantonments later attached to towns annexed by the British, and the ‘city extensions’ built in the twentieth century. Extravagant with space, the British lived in spacious garden houses which resembled not homes in Britain but the havelis (town houses) of the Indian rich.
Many Indians bought land in Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta, and built houses in the wall-to-wall style of the Indian town. Some, however, opted for the garden- house or bungalow favoured by the British. There were many open areas in the British Indian towns which could not be policed effectively, as also vacant stretches on the properties of rich Indians.
Here the poorer immigrants settled, either as tenants or as squatters. They built mud-and-thatch clusters—towns-within-towns called bustees (small towns) in Calcutta and cheris (non-Brahmin neighborhoods) in Madras.
Growing by accretion, Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras became extensive mosaics comprising villages, agraharams (originally land given in gift to Brahmins, later connoting Brahmin neighborhoods near temples), housing estates, garden houses, and dense mohallas—clusters. These urban conglomerations were spread over a much larger area than older Indian towns.
11. Real Estate and Town Planning:
Colonial governance affected urban morphology in two ways. First, it made the ownership of urban land permanent and transferable. Hitherto, the only way to do this had been to convert property into property/land made into a dedicated trust because it was supported by an institution of learning or a place of worship (Malik 1993). Real estate became for the first time a field for investment.
This coincided with the trend towards nuclear families, and also with the internationalization of the ‘colonial’ assumption that one’s status was measurable by the size of one’s property. This explains the new preference by the upper middle class for spacious houses on the outskirts of towns, earlier thought too open.
By the 1970s, when civic planning bodies designated neighborhoods by income (Middle Income/Lower Income Housing) it was accepted by the citizens as natural! Second, British India was given a planning ideology, shaped on the lines of the British Town and Country Planning Act of 1909 and the New York Ordinance of 1916 on ‘zoning’—the first advocated anticipating and planning the expansion of towns, the second dividing up towns on the basis of land use, so that an ‘industrial zone’ would be distinct from an ‘institutional’ or ‘residential’ one—totally at variance with the form of Indian towns.
The two principles—of demarcating proprietary rights and of zoning—have become the anchors of urban development in India after Independence. What was sought in principle, however, needs to be distinguished from what actually takes place.
During colonial rule and to a much greater degree thereafter, the ‘best-laid plans’ were subverted by squatters. Formal and informal job opportunities act as magnets, and collusion between political operators, officials, and migrants has led to ‘colonisation from below’ occurring simultaneously with that from above.
The term ‘slum’ came into common use in twentieth-century India, and a vast literature has built up around it. One-fifth of the total urban population in 1985 was estimated to be living in slums.
Defined by the density of habitation, with implications of poverty, degraded housing stock, and demoralization sliding into crime, this term is used in India without reference to history It includes historic urban areas, well-organized communities, shanty-towns, and rundown multi-storeyed buildings like Bombay’s chauls originally used for makeshift homes, later for high-density flats built to house factory workers.
This amalgamation of such diverse categories is inimical to any serious proposals for ‘urban renewal’ that aim to improve the quality of life in over-used areas. Officials find it simpler to resort to expedients like removing or relocating people living in ‘slums’.
13. Public Areas:
In towns, public and private areas coexisted without being rigidly demarcated. ‘Public’ areas included thoroughfares, gardens, riverbanks, places of worship, and shopping arcades which as in medieval Europe, often shaded off into one another.
On the other hand, citadels and palaces had gradations from public to private, demarcated by buildings and their nomenclature. In this layout, there were many cases of imitation by one ruler of palaces they had seen or heard of or of practices they had observed (the Marathas of the Mughal court). In Europe there was a striking increase in the seventeenth century in the number of public buildings—town halls, courts, secretariats, museums, and libraries.
This occurred in India in the nineteenth century as part of the ideology of the Raj. British New Delhi, a whole city build after 1914 on a baroque plan completely at variance with Indian urban morphology, later became a model for other capitals. Most studies of the built form in India focus on style, patronage, and the political use of architecture.
From the 1950s there has been a self-conscious quest by many architects for an ‘Indian’ style. Few scholars have analysed how town dwellers used buildings or reacted to them—monumental architecture can awaken awe and admiration.
Because secular public architecture is relatively new in India, and is associated with government, it often engenders a sense of alienation as town dwellers do not have a sense of pride or of affinity with it.
14. Markets and Streets:
Bazaars—neighbourhood, supralocal, periodic—are invariably convivial and animated. Twentieth-century ‘planning’ seeks to bring order—and monotony—into these by regulating sizes and layout. Modern marketing techniques, which shout to be heard, are fast making shops and their commodities more and more visible, so that window-shopping has become a major leisure activity.
Taking advantage of this clientele are those who colonize pedestrian areas by setting out ‘pavement shops’; these mark the intrusion of the ‘bazaar’ into formal shopping precincts. Similarly, streets and galis (lanes) have for so long been treated as areas of social interaction and business transactions that it is an uphill task to instill a perception of them as traffic corridors. This problem was faced by European towns in the nineteenth century, and is very common in Asian and African towns today.
15. Mental Maps:
Town- dwellers were familiar with as much of the town as was relevant to their lives. Towns for which vernacular maps are known to have been made (painted, and later printed) are those like Varanasi or Mathura, both of which have a concentration of temples and have therefore been tourist destinations for centuries. Where temple rath-yatras (car processions) have more than local significance or where the town has a ‘sacred geography’ (as in Bhaktapur in Nepal or in Ramnagar near Varanasi), the community’s sense of the town is more comprehensive.
16. Gender in Public Areas:
Public areas were largely male territories. Women, jealously guarded, could not venture out except under escort. The degree of protection was proportionate to social status. Until the twentieth century most women did not know much about the town beyond their mohalla, and even today there are many who know far less about the town they live in than about the town where they spent their childhood.
In Kolkata for example, even shopping for the household is still the prerogative of men. Elsewhere it is taken care of by the itinerant salesmen who come to the door. In the late nineteenth century Indian women were dismayed when piped water was introduced; this put an end to their only regular out-of-doors activity—the daily walk to the river (the same innovation was resented by African women because it spelt the end of their gossip sessions at the well).
Places of worship were areas it was legitimate to frequent, and temples always exuded an air of animation as much as devotion. Other than visiting these, townswomen could not enjoy the role of flaneur.
17. The Threshold:
Between the public and private territories is the wide threshold of the semi-public. Avenues branch off into galis and these into kuchas (dead-end lanes), a hierarchy marked by narrowing width and length.
The deorhi/roak—a raised covered verandah at plinth level marked the area of transition between home and gali. Courtyards, balconies, and roofs also were semi-public areas. In the pre-automobile centuries, social interaction was chiefly in these areas and within a comfortable walking distance from home.
18. Private Territories:
Homes underwent a qualitative change from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. Earlier, personal incomes could not be gauged from people’s homes, since they preferred to accumulate wealth in the form of ‘portable property’.
Many rich merchants lived in disproportionately small houses, often built against or above shops or business premises. There were optimists who built spacious havelis that could accommodate attendants and client craftsmen.
The poor put together mud-and-thatch houses reminiscent of their village homes. All homes, big or small, were formally organized so as to ensure privacy, with the mardana (men’s area) separate from the zenana (women’s area). In the former, most rooms were multifunctional and, in keeping with the climate, furnishings were spare.
With a life lived as much ‘without’ as ‘within’, the Indian male would not have called his home his castle. For women, the kitchen had a central position, because of the time perforce spent in it and because it was a sphere where they exercised control.
The only women who enjoyed control over the whole establishment were the unorthodox ones— the women whose artistic abilities, wit, and social poise won them grants of property, at the price of being labelled ‘nautch-girls’.
From the nineteenth century, the homes of the well-off in the big towns underwent a change. If the British had gentrified the Bengal hut into the bungalow (King 1984), the rich Indian began to’ copy elements of British homes in terms of architecture and decor, particularly in rooms where European visitors might be entertained.
From early on in the twentieth century, engineers and the controllers of the cement industry began to propagate the concept of ‘ideal homes’. Later, ‘interior designers’ joined them in selling the idea of spacious homes and gardens.
Homes also changed because of transformations in the structure and authority of the family. As women got more freedom to control their own time and activities, as well as their homes, the distinction between zenana and mardana disappeared, the kitchen was filled with icons of modern gadgetry rather than objects of ritual worship, the courtyard was appreciated as being trendily ‘traditional’ rather than as an integral element of lifestyle.
From the 1950s, the first generation of Indian architects (as distinct from engineers) began to design homes. The novelty of having a house led to rampant individualism, which became the butt of sarcasm for younger architects. As glossy magazines and television advertisements projected desirable lifestyles, the differences between regions in the subcontinent became blurred.
19. Civic Governance:
Civic amenities also shape lifestyle. As with many institutional changes, the introduction of municipal government in British India after 1861 was seen by many later scholars as something quite novel.
Gillion’s remarks made in 1968 are representative:
The traditional cities of India … are viewed in the light of Weberian and Marxist analysis. They are contrasted with the self governing towns of medieval Europe … [and] appear to be disunited, often ephemeral conglomerations of subjects, dependent on the court, and prevented from free association by caste rivalries.
Going on to analyse Ahmedabad, he expresses surprise. ‘Here was a city with a corporate tradition and spirit … and a history of indigenous financial and industrial activity’ —Ahmedabad was not, as he thought, a unique case.
Densely populated settlements need regulation to ensure civic harmony and to provide facilities like water, food supplies, and sewerage. The municipalities of the nineteenth century were not a new form of governance they merely replaced the older kotwalis and panchayats.
With the enlargement of urban settlements after Independence, planning of facilities came to be done at macro level. The volume of reports and studies on these from the 1950s is vast. But it has taken time for the suggestions made in these to be translated into action.
Planners and citizens have begun to appreciate that equity demands that urban services be available to all, irrespective of income; that urban facilities should not be subsidized at the expense of rural; that a very high degree of efficiency in maintenance is needed, because of the wear-and-tear of high-density living as well as the hazard of epidemic.
Civic sense has to be inculcated since a large proportion of town dwellers are first-generation urbanites, more concerned to fight for their individual rights than to think of a larger, more amorphous ‘community’.
Indian towns have always been cosmopolitan. Since urban consumerism is buoyed by income from land revenue, historians often refer to medieval Indian towns as ‘parasitic’, a phrase coined by Hoselitz.
This is however to ignore their role as employment generators. Guilds of artisans and builders used to travel over long distances to find employment in towns. Merchants, scholars, and preachers travelled from town to town.
The phenomenon of rural people as first-generation urbanites is relatively recent—it is the consequence of agrarian distress, famine, perceived job opportunities in towns, and the sense of the town as a stepping stone to outward mobility.
Migration to towns has been in the first instance overwhelmingly male, later followed by families. In Kolkata at any time, only 47 per cent of the population had been born in the city. Towns’ hinterlands could be defined variously.
In the pre-railway period it was the area with which a town had mutual dependence. Both before and after the railways were built, one could map the area from which its colleges drew students. After mechanized industries were set up, a ‘hinterland’ could indicate the regions which provided factory labour.
The freemasonry of the poor ensured that no migrant was left to fend for himself, and it was assumed that one’s extended kin or jati group would also help one. Even today, given a choice, newcomers would prefer to live near people of their own language group or ‘home town’ or village.
Their links with the latter, ritualized through annual visits or during the harvest or festive season, gives sustenance, but also dilutes the degree of attachment to the city. Cosmopolitanism is thus an outer veneer on a core of a strong regional identity, which becomes less marked with the second-generation urban dweller.
21. The Freedom of the City:
‘City air makes free’ was true for India, not in a legal sense as in medieval Europe, but in a more general manner. Towns could provide opportunities and a break with the past. This has been seen over the last hundred years. Immigrants do not have to apprehend the terror of anonymity which haunts Western towns because they are cushioned by jati and kinship support.
What can generate a sense of alienation is not social exclusiveness, but the inadequacy of civic services, and their mismatch with the glossy advertisements of urban lifestyle. Ascriptive status, as understood until the mid-twentieth century, divided urban dwellers on the basis of the manner of speech, apparel, and social mores. Today, the marker of class divisions is income— proclaimed by life-style and location of home.
22. Shared Goods and Services:
A way in which some countries try to reduce class distinctions and create a sense of citizenship is to invest the public/shared areas with dignity and accessibility Increased densities have meant that older shared spaces have been whittled away.
This makes it imperative that designated public areas be maintained well. Garbage disposal, good lighting, and efficient policing have become important as never before. Structured spaces have been paralleled by structured time, with regimented work patterns and major traffic movements at specific times of the day— which calls for long-term transportation and traffic policies.
If towns are cosmopolitan, they need a language for communication. Travellers’ accounts refer to the many languages heard in Indian towns; dubashes (interpreters) were much in demand. There existed numerous hybrid languages like Urdu—the lingua franca of soldiers—developed in Hyderabad and Delhi and Bombaiya Hindi—the link language of Mumbai.
The multi- language derivatives of words in many Indian languages tell of the common urban marketplace. At the same time linguists tell us that class differences can be distinguished by the way people employ different registers in the same language.
One of the major roles of urban centres was to act as patrons. Rulers, aristocrats, and rich merchants patronized poets, artists and architects, and employed craftspersons. Specific towns came to be identified with particular artistic and literary forms—Maratha Tanjore with Carnatic music, Nawabi Lucknow with Kathak dance, Shahjahan’s Delhi with Mughal architecture, the Nizam’s Hyderabad with Urdu poetry.
Literature and art cut across communitarian divisions and language barriers, reinforcing cosmopolitanism. Urban elites in some cases reinforced jati/sect differences, in others cut across them.
Delhi was no more an ‘Islamic city’ in its culture than it was in its morphology (though it was one in the architectural dominance of the Jama Masjid), just as Viajayanagara was more than a ‘Hindu city’ in its architectural features.
The ambit of urban patronage has widened in the last fifty years because of state participation and because of the provision of infrastructure—halls and auditoria. Music and dance earlier contained in courts and temples now have much larger audiences.
iii. Urban Tension:
Different urban groups did not always coexist cordially. Though there is no evidence of the kind of street riots that used to occur in medieval Iran, there were instances documented from the eighteenth century of conflict over the use of public areas, particularly the street.
‘Left- hand’ castes tried to keep out those of the ‘Right-hand’ in Madras and upper- caste Christians challenged the pariahs in Pondicherry—in both, it would appear that those who protested were taking advantage of the ignorance of the Europeans.
Rival groups of Brahmins fought to control a temple in Madras, Shias and Sunnis clashed during Mohurram in Lucknow and Mumbai and established Hindu merchants tried to cut out the newcomer Jains.
The quarrels were ostensibly over symbols and perceived violations of status/hierarchy Two generalizations can be made about these episodes which the British called ‘riots’—first, as towns became more crowded, codes of conduct earlier honoured were no longer adhered to; boundaries and thresholds were no longer held as sacred.
As immigrants moved into towns in an unregulated fashion, a proto-proletariat was being created, that could be recruited for demonstrations. Crowds are extraordinarily easy to mobilize in the densely inhabited parts of the towns, where the police would find it difficult to check them.
Second, public discussion, newspapers, and pamphlets made individuals conscious of an affinity with their own kin and jati groups, or developed loyalties to particular political leaders. Linking towns into the chain of larger political associations made for common patterns of behaviour, even copycat riots.
iv. Civic Protest:
Towns as battlefield also took the form of protest by citizens against the government. A hartal- (literally) to lock one’s premises to down shutters—against a proposed house tax in Varanasi in 1811 followed a time-honoured mode of protest, as did campaigns against merchants hoarding grain, or officials trying to put through a programme of vaccination or of inspecting houses during the plague epidemic in 1898.
The high points of the nationalist movement were demonstrations of solidarity in towns which became the models for ‘protest marches’ and slogan chanting, a marriage of Indian devotional processions and European political demonstrations.
After Independence, capital cities were frequently the venue for anti-establishment displays. Delhi has been particularly vulnerable. Tikait’s long week of colonizing Delhi’s Rajpath in October 1988 and turning it into a rural landscape is a vivid memory.
These short-term dislocations are different from the other displays of strength—even propagandists have incited pogroms and targeted particular groups for violent actions, or have taken over territories with real-estate value.
The establishment is also known to have exercised force, one of the most notorious incidents being the forcible eviction of residents from a ‘slum’ in Shahjahanabad.
Indian towns have not witnessed pitched battles like the class struggles in Paris in 1789 and 1848, but incidents that show how communitarianism can brutalize people en masse are a warning of the frightening situation that can be generated when intolerance is expressed in conjunction with corruption and weak governance.
i. Many-Layered Towns:
India has the added distinction of its towns living in several centuries simultaneously. As urban dwellers move from Redfield’s little communities’ to Kari Mannheim’s ‘mass society’, western capitalist patterns of land use coexist with stubbornly persistent older patterns.
Kinship groups dissolve into nuclear families. The same individuals patronize both temples and discotheques. Private opulence rises unabashed from a base of public squalor.
The obsession with ‘countenance’ at personal level is matched by indifference to the outward appearance of the public. ‘Viewing Indian cities, one might infer Indians to possess, not merely an indifference, but a deep-seated hatred for the physical world.
Buildings are often abused in ways that suggest a pent-up rage that might otherwise be unleashed in a frenzy of social destruction’. Recently a psychologist predicted that random violence against women might increase, as an expression of frustration and alienation.
But as against these features of modern urbanism, there is still a sense of the mohalla, poverty is not always synonymous with misery, and the immigrants’ bewilderment does not necessarily lead to crippling loneliness or anomie. What is needed is to improve the quality of urban governance for the average town dweller and to generate a sense of the larger community, bigger than the mohalla, smaller than the region.
ii. Urban Images:
In most cultures, town and countryside are seen as opposite categories. The sense of a town being a better habitat than a village is widespread: ‘The sense of urban superiority papered over material discomforts’. The European nostalgia for living in the ‘countryside’ does not seem strong in India though many writers have described the beauty of the particular rural landscapes of their memory.
In earlier days, towns were defined/celebrated in terms of human attributes—brave, strong, beautiful. Urdu poems in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries mourned ravaged cities.
Today, that sense of specificity and identity is blurred as towns look more like clones of each other—and even toponymy changes with political swings. But it is always possible to hope that, as has happened in other countries, Indian towns will regain their distinctive identities.