Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Indigenous Modernities

In a chapter entitled “Concerning Violence,” Frantz Fanon characterizes the successful decolonization process as changing the “whole social structure…from the bottom up” (The Wretched of the Earth, 35). While the only mention of violence in the Metcalf and Hosagrahar readings is the bomb tossed at Lord Hardinge by an Indian nationalist, as the Englishman entered the new capital, Hosagrahar’s concept of “indigenous modernities” could perhaps be seen as a peaceful – yet still rebellious – analogue of transforming the social structure. By undertaking their own program of modernization, which was more appropriate to their daily living situation and cultural values than the British version of “an idealized and universal modernity” (Hosagrahar, 221), the residents of Delhi adapted to the changing social situation while peacefully asserting their independence via the built environment.

The Delhi Improvement Trust (DIT) was formed in 1936 with the objective of “reforming and modernizing the city” by “relieving congestion, improving living conditions, and developing new areas as planned extensions to the city” (225). In short, the DIT had free reign to westernize the areas that the government considered slums, many of which had blossomed as “modern” industry grew and attracted more workers. Since these “slums” were without adequate water and sanitary sewer infrastructure, and had a population density that was 30 times greater than that of New Delhi, the colonial administration could attempt to “improve” them under the auspices of public health. However, as Hosagrahar asserts, the proposed layout of the DIT projects provided a much more open layout that would be easier to police for “deviant behavior and insurgency” (239). Similarly, by disrupting the existing communities and thinning out the crowds, it would likely be possible to prevent social organization that could lead to an upheaval of colonial rule.

Hosagrahar introduces the physical manifestations that represent the social divide between the government and the property owners by describing the savvy manner by which the latter set about building what would later be considered slums. Spurred by the modern economic policies that made land a commodity, property owners found ways around strict building regulations. They built irregular additions to their buildings and then used the court system and regulatory structures to make the illegal structures legal. For example, they continuously renewed permit applications, appealed to higher courts for decisions in their favor and banded together and asserted that controversial structures had always been there (224). Attempts to demolish existing structures were thwarted by inhabitants that obtained restraining orders and appeared in court (223). Moreover, many of the lower level inspectors were residents, extended family members or fellow churchgoers and therefore had loyalties to the neighborhoods as well as the government, and thus fueled the haphazard construction (224). In true modern fashion, monetary and political incentives from the new entrepreneurs convinced many inspectors and building officials to look the other way or approve construction plans (225). By utilizing such modern means and driven by modern capitalist intentions, the property owners and inhabitants of Delhi essentially defined Hosagrahar’s concept of “indigenous modernity” by propagating a style of housing that reflects the everyday situation of the citizens.

Increasing the divide between the government and the citizenry was the DIT’s effort to “unslum” the center of walled Delhi with a scientific approach of reducing complex “tight-knit families and cultural communities” (232) to population statistics that needed to be spread out. Though the residents frowned upon these development schemes, they were aware of the monetary returns that could be reaped by selling their property. Dissatisfied with offers for their land, they often banded together and made legal appeals, sometimes resulting in the property remaining theirs and unchanged. Hosagrahar asserts that the intention of the property owners was to maximize their personal gains but realized that selling their land for the offered price would destroy their community (235).

Of course, some DIT projects, which completely ignored traditional Indian living arrangements, such as the interior courtyard that provided an escape from the heat or layouts conducive to housing extended family members, were completed. But rather than decongesting the slum areas as planned, new immigrants from elsewhere moved in and often “indigenized” the buildings, which resulted in a reflection of the area’s cultural context rather than the intended European ideal of modernity. As a result, the high density and strong social ties within the communities remained in spite of the new construction.

Furthermore, the same capitalistic spirit that created much of the overcrowding remained and was likely exacerbated by the DIT’s development program. Property owners continued to expand their buildings into the public streets, thus resulting in the increasingly narrow avenues and hodgepodge architecture that defines Delhi. In doing so they preserved their cultural values privately but, as in most entrepreneurial endeavors, “sometimes sacrificed public good” (238). Hosagrahar notes that these “petty entrepreneurs” both followed and manipulated the law by “appropriating space by stealth, negotiating compensations, pressurizing (sic) inspectors, screaming injustice and seeking the protection of law” (239) and even though the outcomes were not what the citizens wanted, the new buildings grew to resemble the existing cityscape.

In the end, the complex diversity of the Indian culture and the willingness to adapt to the new economic and political environment proved too resilient for rational European modernism to overcome. The original landscape created in response to the industrialization of Delhi seems to remain largely intact while the completed DIT projects have taken on a form similar to that of the consciously hybridized buildings of New Delhi: they are essentially a western architecture that has elements of Indian culture added to better fit within the surrounding context. However, the buildings that rose out of the walled central city represent an entirely different degree of social participation and should therefore be considered the true expression of the adaptable culture of Delhi.

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