Glimpses of sunlight filtered through the leaves, illuminating our faces as we settled under a stray mound of ground under the big shady trees. This was our regular spot for jamboree sessions, as we walked back home from tuitions. That mound of earth perched up on the side of a serene stretch of road, along a narrow canal, treasures abundance of love and laughter that filled our younger days. Every time I passed by this route I would be on the lookout for that space, inconsequential to some, but treasured in my mind. But today, as I looked out for that stray piece of ground, I could not find it. The entire path has transformed–the large shady trees have been traded for neatly arranged shrubbery, the street is lined by a well laid out pavement. That narrow canal now harbors a bridge to ferry people to the other side. A couple of food stalls and shops have opened up around this bridge and a large fountain spreads certain grandeur to the place. Today, the serene street carries no semblance of its past. The locality is celebrating the grandeur in style as they congregate every evening around the bridge, sitting and chatting amid the twinkling lights that light up the space.
An air of festivity surrounds this space now, but my eyes still search for that austere mound of earth, the rustic charms of its serenity. But it has gotten lost within the urban decoration project that Kolkata is now undergoing. Streets and other public spaces have always lent a character to the identity of Kolkata. Random encounters with strangers, joining in at the ‘adda’ session in front of the shop have always contributed to the utility of a public sphere, making public spaces of Kolkata more than just a transit space. But never before had these public spaces acquired a uniformity of such levels to mark its utility. Today countless localities are transforming under the banner of the urban decoration project through neatly laid pavements, lighted up streets, cleaned up parks with spiked barriers on all sides. This article endeavors to explore the loss of a certain kind of public space in Kolkata, and in the process the altered notions of the power and utility of public spaces that underpin these transformations.
Uniform of the Commons
The public space and consequently larger public sphere is deemed to be a ubiquitous feature of the modern society, one where people meet physically or virtually, interact and express themselves in various ways. The interactions and negotiations between members of the society enrich the experience of everyday life, and the spatial manifestation of these experiences occurs in public space. Thus, when physical elements of public spaces are transformed, a renovation of cultural practices takes place. The relationship between the two cannot be easily disconnected and thus the attempt to begin a conversation on this note. “In the parks, plazas, markets, waterfronts, and natural areas of our cities, people from different cultural groups can come together in a supportive context of mutual enjoyment. As these experiences are repeated, public spaces become vessels to carry positive communal meanings” (Carr, Francis, Rivlin and Stone, 1993).
The political environment has always affected the nature of development of a region and Kolkata has always had its share of tumultuous political touches to the making of its urban landscape. It started with the British lending its Midas touch to the Calcuttan landscape. The idea of siphoning off public spaces deliberately became prominent with the obsessions of the colonial rule to separate the white and the native parts of the town. The tradition has been carried forward religiously by the Indian administration. “The ubiquitous municipal notices in most large Indian cities are vestiges of the colonial administration. Their governing conventions were internalized by the Indian middle classes, for whom the control of everyday uses of spaces was an indispensible part of the establishment of their social sovereignty. Colonial rule introduced the conception of disciplining everyday conduct to give shape and form to the body politic…the municipal sign was a colonial invention. It arrogated to itself and its invisible enunciators the function of a constant, relentless surveillance of everyday behavior, pretence of unending invigilation over popular conduct” (Kaviraj, 1997).
The urban landscape of Kolkata has always been subjected to such control over the public spaces, but this article chooses to comment on the most recent ones and talk about what comprises of developing a city and tries to restrain from any political conjectures.
Some instances of this uniform for the public spaces are areas under South Dum Dum Municipality. In addition to the uniform pavements, neatly organized garbage disposal places, a kaleidoscope of public art meets the eye, one that is supposed to represent a civic identity. The brick pavements act as proud stages to small monuments such as that of Hercules, Chota Bhim (a popular TV show), Hanuman, a tiger, Buddha, etc. Alongside this the three speared lampposts are carrying repetitive images of eminent literary personalities, philosophers such as Rabindranath Tagore, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Ram Mohan Roy, philanthropists like Mother Teresa, lined up side by side with eminent political figures such as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
It is not only these monuments that seem to personify the development of the city. As I travel through the roads, the streets are doubly often triply lit up–the older streetlights are glowing beside the new three speared lamps (the ones that are supposed to reduce our power usage). Every flyover in the city is lined up with decorative twinkling lights. They are curled around the already existing lamp posts, around tree trunks, etc. ‘Light’ seems to signify ‘development,’ even if this decorative light is unnecessary for the safety of commuters. And thus, the constant changes to the urban landscape.
Questioning the Culture of Public Renovation
At this juncture, there are countless opinions to weigh, to ponder over in trying to understand these changes. The need of the hour is to create a Kolkata that is clean, resourceful, organized in order to fully utilize its potential as a megacity. This includes buildings pavements, better drainage, transport facilities, lighting, etc. The decoration of the city is also not unwanted. Neat, organized public spaces are always appeasing to the eyes. But when does it become too much? At what point do these transformations turn into senseless, frivolous expenditure (where some of the funds can surely be sent to more urgent civic requirement) and an environmental wastage (where one trades big shady trees for decorative garden shrubberies; or utilizes extra power for constant lighting of decorative lights)? As a citizen I put up these questions, and I ask whether this is reflecting true ‘development’ of Kolkata? Or is it only a cheery façade to the dwindling job opportunities and stagnant economic activities. One can applaud the attempts to transform these localities, or one can criticize some aspects of it. But the discussion certainly needs to go beyond a political criticism. One cannot fault any particular state government for its need to impose the imprints of its power onto the city spaces, but within all these transformations there prevails a common sense of loss. This loss is in the spontaneity of public space in Kolkata- the inconsequential mound of ground that serves as a common space for gatherers. There is a complete overhaul of the notion of public space in the minds of the public. To elaborate more, I would have to bring in some of the major transformations that are occurring in Kolkata.
The replica of the Big Ben in London stands in Lake Town, while another clock tower colloquially known as the ‘chota Ben’ stands in New Town, Rajarhat. Both of these clock towers, along with proposals of a London Eye, a Sydney Harbour Bridge replica, and even that of an Eiffel Tower has made rounds in the news. Such monuments are pushing Kolkata towards the brink of a new cultural heritage–one that seems to be celebrating the signage of the western world (the model of development). The sudden imposing monuments at important junctures (such as the Big Ben replica) have a popular image to it–people are celebrating the world within the administrative realm of Kolkata. These places are emerging to be the source of congregation for the public, with often a consumerist end to it.
Loss of Spontaneous Public Spaces
As the idea of ‘Development’ becomes the source of light in the present globalized world, the city’s public spaces has taken up the role to be rightly representative of this development. “We are being pulled in two opposite directions. One of unification and uniformity, needed by capitalism to survive and by the world to function in terms of economy, communication transportation, travel and all matters practical, and one of diversification behind the sheltering screens of individual cultural identities, which are needed by humans to feel unique, independent, real and belonging.” (Rathore, 2013) The creation of shopping malls, well designed and decorated public spaces are a common feature in the global city image. Kolkata too, has succumbed to this uniformity. The inclusion of uniqueness is placed in unoriginal replicas of monuments around the world. As cultural landscape of Kolkata transforms, the loss of a natural claim to public spaces cannot be denied.
The place of community gathering today is completely controlled by conscious visible structures- one that will point you to the exact space to gather and engage in community activities. The claim to public spaces is now being consciously redirected towards a specific place, often fulfilling the consumerist culture. There are no longer the sudden accidental place of leisurely adda just on the street, but in a park with a high bounded wall, and a food kiosk next to it. The entire claim to everyday public space is changing today through these physical transformations. The need for a specific landmark dictates the space of communal congregation; the visual structures speak more about the identity of a city than the activities that occur in that same space, and the entire focus of a developed city is based on the systematic organizations and neat, uncluttered spaces, something akin to the public spaces of the western civilization. As the changes occur, we are forgetting the older sense of the term public space in Kolkata–one which would never need an obvious physical reminder to carry out the functions of a public sphere. The loss of the indigenous form of spaces and activities can be mourned, but in the end change is inevitable. But even though change is inevitable, creativity and originality should find a place in the story of Kolkata’s transformation, and set it apart from the uniformities of global cities.
Note: The transformations cited in the article are based on personal observations mostly related to the South Dum Dum Municipality and New Town area of Kolkata. While I cannot be certain of the changes in other parts of the city, I encourage any reader to provide thoughts/data that can accept or negate my thoughts on the subject.
- Kaviraj, S. (1997) ‘Filth and the Public Sphere: Concepts and Practices about Space in Calcutta,’ Public Culture, Vol 10.
- Drummond, L. (2000) Street Scenes: Practices of Public and Private Space in Urban Vietnam. Urban Studies, Vol 37
- Rathore, N. (2013). ‘A Critique on Contemporary Urban Spaces,’ Urban Form and Space.