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Colonizing, Decolonizing, and Globalizing Kolkata (Review)

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Siddhartha Sen. 2017.
Colonizing, Decolonizing, and Globalizing Kolkata: From a Colonial to a Post-Marxist City
Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press
ISBN 9789462981119

This book analyses urbanism in the context of the megacity of Kolkata in India, from colonial times to the early 21st century. Urbanism is explicated in broad terms, including matters such as the relationship between the material aspects and built environment of cities, their architectural form, and the social, economic, and cultural systems that the city is embedded in. Chronologically written, the book covers the entire period from the early years of Calcutta/Kolkata (Calcutta, the colonial name of the city, was changed to Kolkata, which is the name of the city in Bengali, in 2001), from the end of the 17th century, to British colonial-imperial times, to post-Independence times. The book views Kolkata as unique in comparison to other Indian cities. The first British possession where architecture was deployed as a symbol of colonial power, Kolkata was also the first city in which the urban physical form was altered to impose social and political control. The book also argues that post-colonial urbanism in Kolkata was also unique in the unprecedented extent to which planning was influenced by political economy. The author argues that while the desire to curb communism dictated planning for many years, the left government that then ruled province West Bengal for more than three decades from 1977 penetrated the urban fabric of Kolkata in an unprecedented manner. The parts of the book about colonial Calcutta and Howrah (or Haora) were the strongest in this book. The parts about post-Independence Calcutta and Kolkata were deeply disappointing. In these latter parts, the gaze was deplorably otherizing, with no attention or focus on the undoubted architectural innovations of 20th-century Kolkata or the relationship between urbanism, including architecture and the socialized every day of the urban built environment on the one hand, and film, creative literature, and political writing that Kolkata has teemed with, on the other hand. Calcutta: The Living City, in two volumes, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri,[i] and the work of Calcutta Architectural Legacies, with founding members such as the writer Amit Chaudhuri, are highly relevant in this context, and that they are missing from any citation and academic discussion in Sen’s book says much about the utter lack of engagement with, and indeed, dismissal of, the richness of Kolkata’s urbanism. I quote from the Calcutta Architectural legacies website to give a flavor of how many contemporary urban thinkers and actors are articulating their sense of Kolkata, and their urgent sense of the need to engage in citizen-led heritage activism:

As citizens of Calcutta/Kolkata, we have, if we think about it, much to be proud of in this contradictory and often intractable city. Not least among Calcutta’s many remarkable features is the atmosphere of its neighbourhoods, its paras, often built and sustained by ordinary residents. We have, of course, the emblematic colonial buildings; the great aristocratic rajbaris of North Calcutta; and we have the striking variegated residential houses that comprise localities and streets, which often fall outside the purview of ‘heritage’, but are precisely what have made Calcutta so visually and spatially singular. These are houses ‘built by anonymous builders for middle-class Bengali professionals: lawyers, doctors, civil servants and professors. They’re to be found throughout the city, from north to south, in Bhowanipore, Sarat Bose Road, Lake Road, Southern Avenue, Hindustan Park, Bakul Bagan, Paddapukur, Kidderpore, Ahiritola and more’, says Amit Chaudhuri at CAL, a people’s campaign to save our surviving neighbourhoods from destruction. When these distinctive houses vanish, so will a whole history of urban innovation and cosmopolitan modernity, never to return. The process by which our city will lose its remarkable character will be complete.[ii]

Passages like this from leading Kolkata urbanists acknowledge the innovations and aesthetics of Kolkata in post-Independence times, instead of only seeing it, as through Sen’s theoretical framework, in very dated poststructuralist terms, a derivative Kolkata that never achieves the status of a global city. While the sections on the Calcutta Metropolitan Planning Organization and the export of American planning paradigms to Kolkata are useful, there is no dwelling on or detailing of the urbanism to be found in the numerous ‘refugee colonies’ that sprang up in Kolkata after Partition. There is no detailing or in-depth look at even one of the earlier ‘new towns’ that the government developed: Bidhannagar or Salt Lake, Kalyani, and Bansberia have two paragraphs devoted to them (pp. 181-182), but the coverage is perfunctory, a perfunctoriness that marks this book overall, and which, sadly, gives a sense of a smattering of knowledge about many aspects of Kolkata’s urbanism, but no evidence of original or pathbreaking research on any one aspect.

 


[i] Sukanta Chaudhuri (ed.), Calcutta: The Living City, 2 vols, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
[ii] Calcutta Architectural Legacy, Why Cal, http://cal-legacies.com/why-cal, accessed 28 October 2019.

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