The 14th National Conference on Planning History

Society for American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH)

‘Heritage, History and Modernity in Contemporary Indian Urbanism’
(Paper Abstract)
Dr. Jyoti Hosagrahar, Columbia University

In this paper will look at India after Independence in 1947 to examine some of the multiple ways that cities and towns have engaged with heritage and history.  A historical view of the government institutions, policies, norms, and regulations over the last one hundred years provides one perspective on the place of heritage in the city; while the way people have interpreted heritage and its symbolic force in their daily lives provides another view of the meanings of heritage. Interconnected also are persistent global imaginations  of India as a land of ancient histories, spiritualities, and tradition that contend on the ground with fulfilling aspirations for global leadership in technology. How are these two opposing images of tradition and innovation reconciled on the ground? In this essay I will look at the paradoxical urbanism of India to reflect on the place of heritage in India‘s modernity.

Urbanism in India today is a medley of contrasting forms: on the one hand are the glass and steel skyscrapers of the financial centers, the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) for multinational corporations, exuberant shopping malls, and vast gated communities, as signs of a global modernity. On the other hand are countless historic towns with their palaces, mosques, and temples, their lively bazaars, traditional neighborhoods, and living heritage.  From the perspective of Western Europe and North America, observers regard many of these as quintessentially exotic and timeless. Seemingly isolated from the global flows of technology and information, they are celebrated as symbols of place, culture, and locality even as many complain of their being sullied by the homogenizing influences of a universal ‘modern’. Within and between these opposing forms are ‘transitional’ spaces that are as yet ‘modernizing’. An urbanism rife with problems and emblematic of poverty: haphazard growth, inadequate infrastructure, and squalid squatter settlements. Observers of cities in India might read recent transformations as evidence of the flattening out of a rich diversity of cultural heritage by the homogenizing processes of global modernity. Is heritage in India giving way to a monotonous homogeneity or does it persist as changeless and timeless performances of continuity?

In this essay, I will look at two seemingly opposite aspects of urbanism in India to reflect on some of the ways that history, place, and heritage have engaged with modernity and globalization. One is an investigation of the global imaginaries of Gurgaon, a city in the metropolitan region of Delhi that is a hub and a designated SEZ (Special economic Zone) for the information technology industry and multinational corporations in India. I contrast this with the changing landscape of historic Delhi, the apparent antithesis of Gurgaon. In looking at the  interpenetrations of heritage and modernity, I examine the place of heritage, and identity in the contemporary built environment. Who arbitrates them and how do the seemingly contrasting landscapes come to be the way they are and how are they interconnected? Postcolonial nationalist discourse of development in India under Gandhi and Nehru informs my analysis. I will argue that while nationalist discourse frames one in contrast to the other, in fact, the two are highly interconnected and interdependent.Research for this paper is drawn from a larger body of work on historic Delhi that has been ongoing for the last several years as well as more recent primary research and field work on the development of Gurgaon and other SEZ areas in India.

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