[URBANTH-L]REV: Sinha on Hosagrahar, _Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architechture and Urbanism_

Angela Jancius jancius at ohio.edu
Thu Feb 8 01:19:28 EST 2007

[x-posted from H-Urban]

Published by H-Urban at h-net.msu.edu (February 2007)

Jyoti Hosagrahar. _Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and 
Urbanism_. New York:
Routledge, 2005. xiii + 234 pp. Illustrations, notes, index. $43.95 
(paper), ISBN 0-415-32376-2.

Reviewed for H-Urban by Amita Sinha <sinha2 at uiuc.edu>, Department of 
Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Contested Modernities

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 by-laws 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.[1] 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 

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.[2] 
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.


[1]. 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.

[2]. See Anthony King, _Spaces of Global Culture: Architecture, 
Urbanism, Identity_ (New York: Routledge, 2004).

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