Jyoti Hosagrahar. Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism. New York: Routledge, 2005. xiii + 234 pp. $43.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-415-32376-5.
Reviewed by Amita Sinha (Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Published on H-Urban (February, 2007)
One of the few books written on the urban history of South Asia, Indigenous Modernities is ambitious in its effort to demonstrate that the momentous changes in the social and physical environment of Delhi, taking place between 1857 and 1947, exemplified "indigenous modernities." In many non-Western societies, modernity arrived with colonialism. It was therefore an imposition from outside, not a homegrown enterprise evolving from within existing social structures. According to Jyoti Hosagrahar, what one sees in the modernization of Delhi are hybrid forms, not ideal types as envisaged by the global project of modernity. She offers infrastructure development, use of new technologies, introduction of novel public institutions, and growth of new housing typologies as examples of these hybrid forms. Every change in the social mores and physical spaces was contested, negotiated, discarded, and adapted. The end result was not a pale or an imperfect version of European modernism, but something different in which traditional and modern, old and new, coexisted uneasily in a state of dynamic tension, in a fluid, ever changing dialectic.
Hosagrahar sets out to read this cultural landscape in the window of time that ushered in modernity. In five chapters she traces the fragmentation of the domestic spaces of havelis (mansions); the withdrawal of the community from the public realm; the breakdown of traditional health and sanitary systems; privatization; and the commodification of community property. Modernization extracted a terrible price, combining as it did urban reform with profit-seeking motives. The stresses generated by these imposed social changes were enormous and had the potential to destroy the social fabric. That, however, did not happen. The colonized inhabitants proved resilient and appropriated modernity in ways they saw fit, ensuring their survival and furthering their lot in life. Delhi survived the departure of feudalism, the birth of nationalism, and the attainment of independence, all in less than a century. Hosagrahar's study illuminates the price the city paid and its ill-gotten gains in private and public spheres.
In the aftermath of the Mutiny/First War of Independence (1857), havelis, residences of landowning gentry, suffered from neglect and were converted into warehouses and smaller residential units. These large houses had been the mainstay of neighborhoods, because the occupants supported artisans and their trades. At the same time, the rising entrepreneurial classes sought to live in hybrid versions of courtyard housing and European-style bungalows. Although the courtyards shrank and extended families fragmented, older lifestyles did not disappear entirely.
Attempts to produce public spaces as a public good were contested vehemently, accustomed as the residents were to using available land for their own purposes. Enforcement of bylaws and other regulations met with considerable resistance since matters concerning property rights and territorial encroachments had previously been resolved within the community or arbitrated by the elders. New urban spaces generated by the building of institutions such as the town hall became the venues for nationalist demonstrations, so a kind of civic realm, independent of religious or royal associations, did emerge, even though it had a conflict-ridden genesis. New medical systems of knowledge and the practice of their technologies produced spaces and built forms--hospitals and dispensaries--that did not entirely displace the shops of hakims and vaids, practitioners of unani and ayurvedic systems of traditional medicine. Similarly municipal services including piped-water supply, sewage systems, and trash collection did not result in the banishment of sweepers.
Hosagrahar draws upon municipal archives and her own interviews with Delhi residents to write an urban narrative that is handsomely illustrated with historic maps and photographs. The earlier chapters on havelis, streets, and geographies of health make for more interesting reading than the last two chapters on land development and new housing projects meant to create a "modern" citizen. I would have liked to know more about the influence of changing housing typology on gender roles, children's socialization, family structure, and social networks or why certain sections of the domestic sphere, such as the kitchen and bath, resisted change more than others and were transplanted into the bungalow. One also wishes that other types of public spaces, not just the street and square, were discussed. For example, what was the role of greenery in ameliorating the effects of urban congestion?
In the narrative Hosagrahar sketches out for us, neither the colonizer nor the colonized appears to act out of noble motives, although the subject population deserves our sympathy in their attempts to make sense of rapid social changes and adapt to them. While there was no outright rejection of modernity (except perhaps the last desperate gesture of rebellion in 1857), there was considerable resistance to heavy-handed authoritarian measures as well as reformist agendas. Private interests, more often than not, triumphed over public good.
Environmental changes were attributable to concepts and mechanisms that were imported, not indigenous. The forms they took and practices they bred, however, remain Indian and, in that assertion, Hosagrahar is right: Western ideals of modernity always took shape in local contexts. The term "indigenous modernity," though, implies an absence of an external causal agency that was not really the case with the colonial urban landscape of Delhi. A more appropriate term would have been "contested modernities," capturing the full flavor of Hosagrahar's chronicle.
In the twenty-first century, a new avatar of colonialism, globalization, is once again changing the urban landscape of Delhi. Just as sectors such as Civil Lines, Cantonment, and New Delhi consumed a far greater number of resources and were dependent upon old Delhi for services, so do the new satellite cities of Gurgaon and Noida depend upon older sections of the city. And just as New Delhi's landscape was "modern" in its definition, resting upon its differences from Shahjahanbad/old Delhi, so do these new developments aspire to a feel and image that is global, derived from Western prototypes. Dualities abound in post-independence Delhi. Municipal services in most sections remain inadequate, squatter colonies proliferate, there is an acute water shortage, and most citizens do not have access to sanitary systems. This landscape of impoverishment is juxtaposed with a landscape of luxury in shopping malls, skyscrapers, and vast greenery. With hindsight, it is tempting to categorize the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century efforts as a failed or incomplete project of modernity, destined to persist in its mutant form into the next century. Perhaps the trajectory of modernity would have been different had its projects been implemented with greater sensitivity to cultural codes and customary practices; we should plan for the future accordingly.
. See Amita Sinha, "Women's Local Space--Home and Neighborhood," in Bridging Worlds: Studies on Women in South Asia, ed. Sally Sutherland (Berkeley: Center for South Asia Studies, Occasional Papers, No. 17, 1991), 203-224; and Amita Sinha, "Bungalows of Lucknow Cantonment, India," Open House International 24, no. 2 (1999), 56-63.
. See Anthony King, Spaces of Global Culture: Architecture, Urbanism, Identity (New York: Routledge, 2004).
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Amita Sinha. Review of Hosagrahar, Jyoti, Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism.
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