Planning Modernity: Colonial Continuities, Postcolonial Discontinuities Workshop Summary

Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 24 and 25 October 2014

The Leverhulme-funded Planned Violence Network’s third workshop, ‘Planning Modernity: Colonial Continuities, Postcolonial Discontinuities’, could not have taken place in a more apt location. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is situated within an expanse of verdant greenery, an area that is in turn located in the swiftly developing Southern suburbs of New Delhi. The nearby malls and large, multi-lane highways are emblematic of the area’s gentrification and, more broadly, the city’s uneven infrastructural developments. In many ways, the university itself is a geographical pocket of resistance to the expansive processes of twenty-first century capital that are currently altering Delhi’s urban landscape. The concrete and brickwork surfaces of its buildings are smothered with political posters advocating a broad range of ideological perspectives and quotations from figures as wide-ranging as Mahatma Gandhi, Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault litter its walkways; at its centre marches a statue of Jawaharlal Nehru himself.

Members of the ‘Planned Violence’ Working Group in front of the ‘Planning Modernity’ poster outside of the English Faculty at JNU.

Members of the ‘Planned Violence’ Working Group in front of the ‘Planning Modernity’ poster outside of the English Faculty at JNU.

Approaching the English Faculty on the first morning of the workshop, delegates and speakers alike were presented with the Network’s ‘Planning Modernity’ poster, blending superbly into the building’s colourfully, and politically, decorated walls. Inside, the large room was bustling with eager attendees sipping tea and waiting to participate in what proved to be a series of exciting, interdisciplinary and hotly contested discussions. The workshop began with a warm welcome from GJV Prasad, the Network’s main point of contact and contributor based on Delhi, an introduction that was followed by short presentations from other members of the Working Group, including Network Convenor Elleke Boehmer, Facilitator Dominic Davies, and Alex Tickell and Pablo Mukherjee, two of the Network’s UK-based contributors.

After this opening panel had posited a series of questions that would give shape to the workshop’s discussions, Delhi-based author Manju Kapur delivered a series of readings from her work that interrogated the disparities between domestic and public spaces within the city, themes that came through in her following conversation with Elleke Boehmer. These insights into the smaller architectural inscriptions of Delhi’s cityscape were located in a broader global context by the following panel, in which the Network’s Working Group member from Johannesburg, Pamila Gupta, and Aman Sethi, author of a non-fictional account of a Delhi labourer, A Free Man (2013), delivered papers on ‘Village Goa’ and ‘The Global City’ respectively.

Chair Pablo Mukherjee introduces Pamila Gupta and Aman Sethi to their panel, ‘Global Metropolitanism’.

Chair Pablo Mukherjee introduces Pamila Gupta and Aman Sethi to their panel, ‘Global Metropolitanism’.

In the light of a recent surge in awareness of Delhi’s horrifying rape culture that has been accompanied by vocal activism and protest against it, Panel Two focused on ‘The Gendered City’, putting feminist activist Kavita Krishnan in dialogue with more academic studies of how urban space facilitates and enables violence against women from Rachna Sethi and Kanika Batra.

Sohail Hashmi talks delegates through the state of these abandoned, inner city water tanks on the Workshop’s cultural tour.

After a delicious lunch, workshop delegates were treated to a special lecture from Sohail Hashmi, an activist and tour guide who shared his unique knowledge of the city in order to offer an insight into the historical layering of Delhi’s multiple water systems. Prior to the arrival of the British and their later restructuring of Delhi’s urban infrastructure in 1913, Hashmi pointed out that the city had a complex and highly functioning system of wells, drains and channels that provided its citizens with fresh supplies of water. This excellent talk was complemented by a superb cultural tour, led by Hashmi, of some of these water tanks, as speakers and delegates alike tramped through winding alleyways into dusty, liminal areas to witness the now decrepit, mosquito-breeding pools.

In the evening, a powerful cultural performance combining mime, music and flamboyant costume raised awareness around the leisures, pleasures and dangers of transvestites inhabiting Delhi’s urban jungle. The first day concluded with a fabulous spread of Indian cuisine, courtesy of JNU’s excellent catering staff, and delegates were given the chance to mingle, reflect on, and unwind from the day’s events.

Narayani Gupta’s excellent make-shift map that shows the spatial interactions between Delhi’s monumental architecture and its more modern infrastructural routes.

Narayani Gupta’s excellent make-shift map that shows the spatial interactions between Delhi’s monumental architecture and its more modern infrastructural routes.

Historian Narayani Gupta opened the second day’s programme with a fascinating remapping of Delhi’s ancient monuments that in many ways spoke to the concerns Sohail Hashmi had raised the previous afternoon. This was followed by a third panel on ‘Urban Transitions’, which offered a succession of papers that reevaluated Delhi as urban space from a range of different perspectives. These ranged from the inscriptions left on the material and literary forms of the city by the events and narratives of Partition in 1947 and the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, to the ‘disabling’ effects of Delhi’s urban infrastructure, powerfully articulated by Someshwar Sati.

In the workshop’s second Author Keynote, comic book artist Vishwajyoti Ghosh spoke about his own personal affiliations with Delhi, proudly proclaiming himself a Delhiite before treating delegates to a reading from his graphic novel, Delhi Calm (2010), accompanied with images of his own exquisite depictions of Delhi’s urban space and a range of atmospheric sound effects. Ghosh’s talk was complemented by Preeti Singh’s talk, ‘Delhi in Graphics’, which discussed the notion of the graphic novel as a form well suited to the depiction of urban space, alongside a talk from Working Group member Alex Tickell on the workshop’s fourth panel.

Rana Dasgupta speaks on the second day of the third ‘Planned Violence’ Workshop at JNU, in Delhi.

Rana Dasgupta speaks on the second day of the third ‘Planned Violence’ Workshop at JNU, in Delhi.

After lunch, Rana Dasgupta, author of Delhi: A Twenty-First Century Portrait (2013), gave what was for many one of the highlights of the workshop. Having attended the morning of the workshop’s second day, he chose to put aside his intended readings and instead offered a thoughtful and measured response to the many concerns about which he had been hearing. The excellent talk concluded with a reading from the final section of his biography of Delhi, which again fed back into the issues of water supply and infrastructure that had become such a central focus of the workshop after Hashmi’s talk and tour on the first day.

The final panel, especially apt given the workshop location and its central concerns, addressed notions of ‘Agency, Protest, and Control’, with animated talks from Lipi Biswas, Vibha Chauhan, Debaditya Bhattacharya and Rina Ramdev. The voice of the activist was once again fruitfully brought into dialogue with its academic counterpart, as the panel rang with a note of political immediacy that seems so symptomatic of the planned violence of postcolonial urban space.

View of the 60-something delegates who attended the third ‘Planned Violence’ Workshop across the two days.

View of the 60-something delegates who attended the third ‘Planned Violence’ Workshop across the two days.

Allowing some time for reflection before delegates disbanded, a concluding Roundtable Discussion with contributions from Elleke Boehmer, Pablo Mukherjee, Alex Tickell, Pamila Gupta and Laxmi Menon, brought things to a close. This final session drew some cautious conclusions whilst also raising new questions, points of intrigue and avenues of research, that the ‘Planned Violence’ Network now hopes to pursue and interrogate in its remaining workshops in Johannesburg and Oxford.

The Leverhulme-funded ‘Planned Violence’ Network Working Group would like to thank all those involved in making this, the second workshop, a success. Of especial mention are: Alex Tickell, whose energy and organisational skills were essential at the UK end; GJV Prasad, who directed events from Delhi and who helped to put together such an excellent programme; and Laxmi Menon, who worked tirelessly to ensure that the whole event ran smoothly and came together in the way that it did.

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