Indian Cities In conversation with Devdutt Pattanaik, and how he interprets the Idea of the Indian City in context of the rapidly urbanising contemporary India of today.
Devdutt : There are many great question associated with Indian Cities in the process of trying to understand them — but the answers are usually very complex and interwoven with many other factors . I think that it is very critical is to check the ‘gaze’ that defines cities as ‘modern’ and ‘regressive’…..Our gaze : the way we look at and view the world, fed by our background, education and inherent bias. That becomes the crux of interpretation of Indian Cities.
Indiancities : We all live in this complex microcosm which we call a city — as an interwoven fabric of multiple layers of history, tradition, culture, religion, built form, landscape etc. As a mythologist, what does the concept of an Indian City mean to you?
Devdutt : India is primarily a rural civilization. It comprises of many scales and sizes of Villages, Hamlets, Settlements. Cities come and go, but the villages stay. So we have had Indus cities, Pataliputra, Kashi, Saket, Kannauj, Delhi, Vijaynagaram, Paithan, Pune…. But the villages have outlived them all.
Nagar is where the gods reside (Deva-nagar); they need scripts (devanagari) because people do not talk to each other or do not know each other’s language, unlike a village.
Where the king and, his patron god, stay is the nagar (Mithila of Janak, Ayodhya of Ram, Mathura of Surasena). The Rest is the village.
What purpose does a city serve? Markets? Not really, as I feel that melas achieve that without need for a permanent foundation. So it needs to have another function. It serves the villages by bringing together market places for exchange and creating centers that can patronize arts that are not dependent on market forces (natya-mandapa).
Indiancities : How does one relate the concept of Indian City with the 21st century times of mega-cities and large urban clusters. What according to you is the strength / speciality / future of the Indian city vis-a-vis other global (read — western) cities.
Devdutt : Modern Indian cities were built by the British around the ‘fort’ that existed to exploit the neighboring villages for raw material for its factories in Europe. Just like citadels of feudal Europe. Ancient Indian cities served villages; Ancient European cities were served by villages that they protected. That is the major difference that we are looking at here : Western cultures — Greek, Christian, Islamic, Jewish , all thrive in cities, hence the great value to rules and written documents and contracts (covenant). Not Indian culture. It is essentially rural in nature.
Our cities are a combination of organic (slums) and inorganic (planned). Poor migrants build the organic while the inorganic is built with the support of the state machinery. To assume we will have enough resources to have fully planned cities is a dream. We have to factor in the reality of slums. A slum functions like a village — using available resources to create a settlement. It is in fact not as chaotic as people imagine them to be — one needs to understand their own inherent logic.
Indiancities : The traditional Indian city is defined by a typical characteristic which is percieved as “chaos”, “raunak”, “bazaar”, “congested”, “dirty” etc. There are many multi-layers of activities, rituals, multivalent functions which coexist to create “microcosmic order in macrocosmic chaos” (refer The Flawed Gaze, HT dt June, 2011 by Devdutt Pattanaik). We have termed this quality of the typical Indian old town as LIVELINESS. How relevant are these qualities in identifying the very soul of the modern Indian city? What are the qualities/attributes of the modern day Indian city, that can be defined as strongly as the Liveliness of the old Indian towns (if there are any)?
Devdutt : Chaos is a word that Western academicians use as they are steeped in Greek mythology (popularly known as secular liberal thought). It means absence of organization and control. But what it REALLY means is absence of human control, more specifically single central control.
The word ‘chaos’ does not exist in Indian mythology. There is natural order and human order. Every social organization is human order. Humans organize themselves in groups or communities known as jati or kula, in India. Each jati/kula has its own notion of order. Thus multiple social orders superimpose themselves in a village. There is peripheral negotiation between these jati/kula orders creating organic structures. To the untrained/biased eye, this looks like chaos.
The notion of public spaces emerges through tension between the various jatis/kulas — so this may result in narrow roads which are just enough to allow passage but not wide enough to allow encroachment. This narrowness then must be interpreted in the context of the usage of the space and not a “standard” or norm relating to road width. In fact, in a traditional society, only the king’s authority can create wider roads, for example, the raja-marga or the bada-danda of Puri, which is full of people and shops except on the day of the royal/sacred procession, when it transforms into another entity.
Western societies are usually based on a central, external all-powerful authority — either the polis (Greek) or God (biblical), whose rules must be obeyed. Such a concept is actually alien in Indian society.
Indiancities : Do you really believe modern Indian cities stand a strong chance to mature into functional, efficient and lively cities? Or rather will ever be able to deal sensitively with our strong historical and colonial references, while appropriately addressing poverty & population concerns. Is it possible for us to plan and build our cities for the rich and the poor, with malls and the bazaars, condominiums and affordable housings, the expressways and the gali’s all co-existing and striking a balance.
Devdutt : The modern cities are designed around the notion of “monotheism” and “homogeneity” — where it is assumed that everyone thinks the same way and aligns to the same rules and by default submits to a high central authority. But the reality of the world is diverse with multiple desires and forces. It is “polytheistic” and “heterogeneous”. In my opinion, a city like Shanghai cannot be created organically. It can be created inorganically with brute force — might even go so far as to say, with no room for creativity (you cannot hang your clothes in the balcony; you cannot change your faÃ§ade; you cannot park on the road outside). It is based on regulations and audit. You are “Free” within the “cells” created by the authority. I personally don’t know if that is a good idea. Organic and inorganic forces need to communicate with each other in a vibrant and volatile world.
Indiancities : How can we make our study of the Indian city meaningful, positive and directional, most importantly relevant to modern day age of mega-cities ?
Devdutt : Ask questions! To understand the nature of the city one must question its very existence. One must ask, what does the ‘mega-city’ bring to the table culturally and psychologically, and not just materially. The gaze currently is material, based on 19th century economic and political theories. The cities of Sweden and American reflect a Swedish and American mindset — they are NOT ‘global’ or ‘logical’ or ‘secular’ mindsets. They create steel/glass structures that wipe out jatis/kulas in the name of liberalism, but essentially celebrate ‘one God and no other God’ — that of the authority. They actually leave very little scope for the idea of the “question”
Indiancities : History — Tradition(Religion) — Economics — Architecture : Is there a common ground in our cities for a public stakeholder & not just private enterprise.
Devdutt : The public stakeholder can create ecosystems to allow the organic to engage with the inorganic. It will be a long and tedious process. It will not happen overnight — but it needs to be initiated.
Indiancities : If you had to choose — which city would you consider as having truly evolved, in the modern day context — In the world ? And in India ?
Devdutt : NONE! Everyone is evolving. Every time you shift from one habitation to another, you lose something and gain something. Perfection exists only in one’s Imagination.
Indiancities : If there can be 3 key lessons from Indian mythology that you would want Architects and Town planners to keep in mind while designing cities and spaces within cities, what would those be ?
Devdutt : 1. The City should serve the countryside 2. Allow a community to create ‘ghettos’ — they too have their value in the larger scheme of things. 3. Reinforce and Create rituals that force communities to engage with each other.