ITF 2nd Theatre Seminar: The City in History - Romila Thapar
Duration: 00:45:34; Aspect Ratio: 1.778:1; Hue: 20.690; Saturation: 0.173; Lightness: 0.178; Volume: 0.235; Words per Minute: 116.394
The 2nd national seminar held by the India Theatre Forum
intended to address the overall theme of "Spaces of Theatre, Spaces for Theatre" in a wider and holistic manner. It was held between 14 to 18 March 2012 in Ninasam, an extremely special theatre space in Heggodu village of Karnataka which has served as a community centre for over 50 years. The seminar intended to cover a gamut of related topics ranging from the relationship of performing "bodies" to space, to the actual physical spaces of performance, to the politics of the spaces in society , to the new virtual spaces opening up and to the future of Spaces. In other words, the seminar built on the understanding that the act of theatre is always more than simply an act of theatre. To think of theatre and its processes is, ipso facto, to think of its temporal and spatial specificities. However, the main approach of the seminar was not to develop an academic theory of the spaces of/for theatre but to sketch the contours of a "spaciology" of theatre as perceived by its practitioners.
Ninasam, Heggodu, Karnataka
Sudhanva: Good morning and welcome to the final day of the seminar. And there's a nice buzz going around the room, which is lovely to hear. A few announcements before we kick off the day. One is that there is a little bit of a reshuffling in the schedule. So do please take a look at yoour schedules. There's just one small adjustment which is that we have the morning talk, which I'll be introducing shortly. After that we have 'Spaces of the Future', that's the pre-lunch session. After which we break for lunch. Now in the schedule that you've been given, from 3 to 3.30 is the interesting agenda of activities. And from 3.30 to 4.30 is the open discussion chaired by Keval Arora. We are shuffling the two. In other words, from 3 to 4 is going to be the open discussion chaired by Keval. And 4 to 4.30 is going to going to be the idea session. So we have a one hour session from 3 to 4 that's an open discussion session. That will be chaired by Keval that will bring together some of the concerns that all of you have had, which you may not have had the opportunity to fully articulate or to give voice because obviously discussions tend to be sort of...there's these horrible chair people who tell you - no! you can't talk anymore... And after which we will have the concluding session which is from 4.30 to 6 pm. So that's one announcement.
The other is by the way that our sales counter, our merchandise store, is going to be open from 10 to 3 today. It's going to be right here. And I would really, really, really appeal to you to sort of go there and buy stuff. Be good consumers. It's the last day, this is the last opportunity, last chance, really hurry. What I am saying is very simple, what I'm saying is ....(what he's saying is we can spend all our money today)... yeah exactly, you can spend all your money. And what I said on the first day, I really mean it quite seriously, this is material produced by theatre groups. So really, everything that you buy from here goes back to the theatre group. Do please help them, do please support them. It would be fantastic for that to happen.
Another announcement, small announcement which is that those of you who'd like to, Toral and Nilofar are collecting voluntary contributions from all of us which go towards the Milena Dragicevic-Sesic who've been wonderful, who've taken such great care of us. So those of you who want to contribute do please meet up with Toral and Nilofar. So that's the announcements.
Queries about transport arrangements from the venue to train and bus stations are raised by audience members and participants which are then answered by the seminar organisers.
Sudhanva: We begin the day with the talk. The talk is 'The City in History' by Romila Thapar. Romila Thapar unfortunately cannot be with us, essentially because of health problems she wasn't able to travel but she was very excited to come here. I really don't think that too many of us need an introduction to Romila Thapar but for those who may not be from a history background and so on let me just very quickly try and introduce her. It’s a little bit like introducing Bede in Brazil or something. She really is one of our absolutely front-ranking public intellectuals, she's a historian.
She began her work with a super book on Asoka and after which she's written a number books. There's a lovely History of India, Vol. 1. There's a two-volume History of India that was brought out by Penguin a long time ago and many of us got introduced to history really through Romila Thapar's writings and the Volume 1 of that has been written by Romila Thapar. Subsequently she's written a huge huge amount of...a huge number of essays, articles, scholarly papers, books. One of which by the way is very close to us as Theatre People. It is a superb book on the image of Shakuntala and that's a book that I really encourage all of you to take a look at at some point. But really Romila Thapar is more than an Historian...she has gained in some senses amongst the preeminent public intellectuals who have acted as a voice of conscience for this country, especially when this whole Ayodhya controversy broke out and through before that and subsequently as well she's been very very keenly interested in the question of what is the secular in Indian history and society and so on. Her paper is going to be presented by Romi, Romi Khosla who has spoken to us many times already and he is going to be on the next panel as well. I don't think I need to introduce Romi...so....
Romi Khosla: Thank very much. So please be patient...I'm impersonating Romila. Now, what she did was and how this paper is going to be given is...she'd written fairly extensive notes for the talk but because I have had discussions with her before on the City in History etc., she just gave those notes to me and then I have essentially linked them up, so to speak.
I do quite a lot of work with the Tibetans in trying to understand their transmission of cultures. And when the Tibetans address you respectively they add the word 'la' after this. So I'm known...but to the Tibetans as Romi-la! It's true...
Romila's talk explores a number of issues that are pertinent to seeing the city as an object with physical manifestations. And as an organism with characteristics. And there's a question she asks right from the beginning - do cities have to have a beginning and an evolution or have they always existed as mature urban settlements? No definitive answer. If we consider the Harappan cities our earliest, they are so meticulously laid out, so well-planned that one wonders whether they were built by others who came from somewhere and were very familiar with urban living. What we are not sure about is whether the evolving settlement matures to become a planned city.
Archeological evidence shows how villages become bigger and bigger and become towns. But the planned city is something yet difficult to link up with archeology. If we look into the archeological evidence of settlements, there's ample proof that settlements evolve as they grow from a village to a cluster of villages to settlements that become nodal points of exchange and barter to these...which eventually become towns...organic but not planned. So these nodal points of exchange also become places where accumulation takes place and wealth is redistributed. And as the accumulation of wealth continues, these places become centres of great security and control. A chief or a king, a ruling community evolves and the central function of such a node would continue to be economical and accumulative. I think more or less it is a characteristic of all urban settlements that they are primarily places of accumulation and economic activity. Where there are places for markets, where there's credit, where there's money-lending, which become purely urban functions.
The accumulation of wealth as a result of these commercial activities inevitably creates the need for security and governance, civil and military administration, raising of revenue collection as a price to pay for the security. There would be paid employees and a service sector, need for writing, communicating, record keeping, credit accounts of people who've borrowed money, and the use of writing very intensive in the urban settlements. There would also be the need to be in touch with the Almighty and so the blessings for problem solving and so they would always be accompanied by major temples and places of worship.
However these qualities of a town did not necessarily evolve in a linear progression. Historically there were many models and the evolutions differed from each other.
The other question Romila asks is - do cities evolve only in certain kinds of locations? River valleys and river banks attracted urban settlements. The great rivers - the Nile, the Tigris, Euphrates, one more Indus - all supported important prosperous cities. The valleys, essentially like in the case of the Nile, the valleys were the hinterland of the city, provides the food basin for the urban centres. The river itself has always been an important avenue for transport, communication and of course culture. Often rivers were sailed upon to provide the access to the sea routes and maritime trade. River-side cities often had close linkages with each other, with other river-side cities and with other inland cities. The Harappans for instance, from Harappa they travelled to the Pamir Mountains to look for lapis lazuli which was one of the items they traded in and crafted and they went to Oman for copper. And of course the retail, the big retail market at that time was Mesopotamia where the finished goods were sold.
But the routes and course of rivers, on the sub-continent particularly, not so much in Southeast Asia but here particularly, don't remain stable for long. The river course alters and, for instance, Dankorharkar (?) disappeared when the Sutlej changed its course. Deltas also get silted up. And there have been tsunamis which have affected the Gangetic deltas. In fact, Greek navigators were always commenting on their problems of coming to port on the Indus and Ganges because every time they came, the port had shifted due to the course of the river altering.
Apart from the location of cities on the riversides, there were also inland cities which prospered with the same logic as the riverside ones did except the trade moved on back animals, bullock-carts, camels, elephants, etc., horses. And for this activity roads were required so that raw materials could be brought and the finished materials taken and this explains the great trunk roads across India - the Silk Route which linked China with the Near-East and Europe, the Mediterranean basically. These were places where caravans moved, and these were places where bandits sort of attacked.
In some cases cities evolved into cosmopolitan, complex cosmopolitan centres with social and occupational mixes of diverse communities with varying cultural profiles. And I think probably with Mesopotamian cities are, the best example is Sumer in Mesopotamia, the best examples of these complex, extremely complex, as complex as a modern city. The varying size of the city came to be referred in texts in different ways. The Pura was the smallest one. There was Nigam, there was Nagar, there was Mahanagar. And people distinguished between the Sheher and the Kasba. Different nouns for different kinds of urban fabric. However the logic for the location of the city was not simply predetermined by its functions of economy. There were other larger issues that influenced location such as the regional geography and the ecological conditions in the surrounding area.
Take for example the case of Delhi which she has illustrated. In 1000 BC, there was only a village there and it became a town by about 100 BC plus as it gets into AD. And around 1000 AD onwards it became a Rajput 'Nagar'. And then actually the first 'kasbas' were added to it in the Sultanate Period around 1500. When the Mughals come in, it becomes a 'Sheher'. It gets referred to as 'Sheher'. In the Colonial Period, it acquires a twin colonial part - the ‘New Delhi’ and also a Cantonment. The two characteristics of colonial cities...throughout Latin America and in Asia also. Today it's of course (sic) something else.
The geographical impact of the region around Delhi is made by the Aravali Hills and the Jamuna. Delhi sits on a triangular plain, Aravalis on one side and Jamuna on the other. And within this triangular plain, curiously like a movement of rivers, the location of Delhi has been changed. Some of it had to do with water sources and the flooding of the Jamuna. The perpetual, unpredictable flooding of the Jamuna, it kept the city moving. But essentially the rivulets that drain the Aravalis and brought the water down and connected it across the plateaus, which today everybody refers to them as the ganda nalas (dirty sewers) of Delhi, but were actually the fresh source of water that came down and fed the various locations of Delhi.
The other example that she's mentioned here is Patna, located once on the confluence of Son and the Ganges with a rich hinterland. Which incidentally, geographers use the term Umland. She's mentioned the word Umland as used by geographers as the hinterland of the two rivers. So when the course of the rivers changed in the case of Patna, the point of confluence also moved. Patna lost its advantages and began to decline.
Then she mentions the mountain towns located within the gaps and passes. For instance in the western Vindhyas, Shongabad which was also known as Maheshmati in olden times and also was called Udhankot in medieval times sits on the major tracks through the Vindhyas. Sometimes in the mountains, towns are located at both ends of the pass. And control and regulate the traffic which goes on the route through the pass, as in the Khyber Pass perhaps the best example with Bagram and Kabul being at the end of...Afghan end of the Pass and on the sub-continental side, Taxila and Peshawar on the down side are located in relation to the mountains.
Romila then returns to some aspects of the city that she alluded to at the beginning of the talk. Some aspects about what a mature settlement is and what constitutes a mature, developed complex urban fabric. Historically relying on the evidence of archeology, it is clear that there are at least two distinct models which have come to us from the distant past and now there is a third model which she calls the Cap-Col or the capitalist-colonist city which has a different reach altogether and I'll mention that.
The first model consists of two adjacent components which is the citadel and the residential quarters which are linked together by a commercial spine. The citadel was located primarily as a defence stronghold and often on higher ground. It was only in the later period, when the Mughals were ruling, that the citadel becomes a purely symbolical expression of power as seen in the Red Forts of Delhi and Agra. Both Delhi and Agra actually have as their basic geometry, the geometry of the citadel and the residential centre; the Chandni Chowk linking it as the commercial centre. But you mustn't forget that both the Red Fort and the Agra Fort were decorative. They were never invaded, there was never any question of invading them. They were there purely as a symbol of historical linkages to cities. The real defence of citadels were of course fortified as defence barriers against invaders as far as rebellious farmers, squatters, migrants, the countryside life.
Farmers...if a crop failed, farmers...the ruler actually defended themselves by the same fortified walls because there was...there were many types of citadels - you've got the tight ones where, which were places for garrisons to be stationed. And then there were the extensive ones like you've got Golconda Citadel which have got extensive...extensive walls, it surrounds them, and then there's a lot of space inside. And in this you provide, of course in the time of invasion of war the village populations could come inside and survive. So they had water tanks, you had temples, you had administrative offices, land records; Dholavira she gives us the example of. These extensive fortifications and citadels.
These were well-defended and wealthy citadels supported by sophisticated urban settlements where commercial activities took place. There were shopping streets, private and public spaces catering to the different social strata. The Delhi Red Fort, Chandni Chowk and the Sarai Rohilla?? are of course, I mentioned earlier, one of the best examples of that geometry.
The second model which she talks about is the one built in, more common to find in Central Asia and in West Asia - Samarkand, Bukhara etc. are ideal models of this. They are located on the crossroads. So typically you would get a wall of the city with four gates coming in, and then the East - West, North-South routes would engage and cross in the middle and that center would be the core of the city around which the palaces and the mosques etc., temples would be located.
And these were, they were also the control points, which were regulated so you could not enter the city gates without going through a whole sort of formalities and transactions. And then when you came to the core of this you were again subjected to more kinds of regulations because at the head were the palace, the gardens, the temples...
Such were formal cities, you used the direction of the North-South at least, the rest would be demarcated different residential areas where caste or occupational segregation was important for control and administration. Much later the Portuguese used this instrument of control in their urbanisation of Diu. And as for the residential area, so with the commercial areas there was segregation of craft and trade and wholesale retail. The Vastushastra has long explanations of who can live in which quarter and all this going on.
Typical houses in these cities would have courtyards. Samarkand and Bukhara are, they are excellent examples of these city- centred courtyard houses where there would be fruit orchards. The elite of course rode on horse-driven carriages (?) ....and Dalits lived outside the walls. Yeah, I think it's important to understand that the population densities of the settlements were very low compared to our concept of city size. Mohenjodaro had 40,000 people living there. And Agra came, at its maximum around 500,000.
So the dynamics of growth and development of cities, both inland and coastal too were primarily influenced of course by trade and the accumulation of wealth. Between 100 AD and 1500 AD there was an enormous expansion in the barter trade and routes were put up in Central Asia, in West Asia, in the coasts of India where the continuation of earlier Roman maritime trade with South India and the West was taken up by Arabs traders. So there is this period of time she speaks about the sudden rise of commercial activity in the Indian Ocean.
And of course with the coming of Arab trade, the coastal settlements which were inhabited by the Khojas, and the Bohras and the Ralqilas (?). The trade in horses, steel and textiles was born. Incidentally the Brahmins were some of the greatest horse traders, she mentions. The dimension of all this wealth generating an interesting example that she gives: In Peshawar in the northwest, the Brahmins controlled the horse trade of Central Asia. I'm adding this, it's not in the paper that the route went through Peshawar and it ended up in Bukhara. Bukhara was the centre for the Indian money-lenders. Entire financial trade of Central Asia was controlled by Indian money-lenders. And when the Russians occupied it, the first people they threw out were the Indian money-lending families so that their banks could take over the control in trade.
Back to the paper. For the trade with southeast Asia, because there's this overland trade going on north and then east from Orissa there's trade in southeast Asia, there were major trading guilds. Some of them were Brahmins and others for other communities. And Buddhism and Hinduism travelled along these trade routes. Overland and across the country. Monks and traders travelled hand-in-hand. These trade links expanded and reached China. So there was a network of links from Tunis to Canton that went overland via Central Asia and across the ocean - the Indian Ocean. And different...during the monsoon period the overland trade took over, greater volume of trade during the winter it went greater volume of ...
During this period of trade expansion India became a destination for the Turks, the Afghans, the Arabs, the Jews, the Chinese, etc. And then the remains of the Chinese porcelain which we find spread right across the the Indian peninsula just speaks about the volumes of products, Chinese products that actually came into rich households. The towns of the Ganges acquired new components - the caravanserai, for the traders who stayed outside the fortified wall; the garrison camps for the military, the Lashkar and...which later the Europeans of course called the cantonments. New dialects came up. New languages became commonplace because of the mixture of communities. Urdu for instance was the new urban language of the garrison of the national area.
Romila then moves on to discuss the capitalist-colonialist city, the Cap-Col. These began as company towns in the ports and delta which had to be occupied by the company in order to control the trade. Essentially to take over the trade which the Arabs had and which the Indians were engaged in. Arabs were engaged in the...across the Indian Ocean trade and the Indian trading community was looking after the overland trade. What the East India Company... what the Portuguese and the British East India Company did was...what was important for them to do was to cut those linkages to create a railway system to the ports and actually take over the trade completely. So this is what happened prior to the period of 1857.
And they established towns, there's Calcutta that was established by the Company. When in 1857 the British Government stepped into India, they wanted a share of the spoils, they didn't feel comfortable with East India Company taking the whole lot. So the 1857 event was just the reason why they moved in. And they moved in to administer the land. A new version of the city that emerged as a result of this new occupation. And typically in these new Colonial cities where the Europeans lived, the Kasba or the settled traditional city was out of bounds, place of rowdyism, disease etc. And this thus began the period of rapid urbanisation and land and labour became objects of trading. We took so many of the...the British took so many of the labour to Mauritius etc. for plantations.
The Cantonment consisted of a Parade Ground, a Polo Ground. Now both these components were practical to keep the cavalry trained in readiness. So Polo and the Parade ground... Polo being the cavalry, the Parade ground being the infantry soldier, being in a state of perpetual readiness. And a race track also, again for the cavalry; barracks, the Officers Mess. And the Civil Lines had the Government House - the Governor, the Magistrate, the Tax Collector. It had clubs, it had theatres, jails, banks, hospitals, colleges, schools, churches, railway stations. So these were all new components coming into the Indian urban fabric which were totally...arrived there to serve the new colonial functions of gentrification, of the Indian population.
The expression of architecture also changed. The courtyard house was never preferred by the Europeans. So they inverted...so the courtyard house essentially is a built form with an empty space inside it and the British Bungalow is a solid inside with open space around. So they actually inverted the urban form of the house. Each house so to speak a castle of its own, and that essentially has remained with us. That perverse form of urban development has continued in our circles.
Romila then goes on to consider some of the qualities and characteristics of urban settlements across history. Typically it is the nucleus of the political centre, and the political centre that emerges out of the citadel model. There's a notable absence of public squares in the pre-colonial Indian city. There are processional parks, there are spaces for spectacles on the edge of rivers and along the streets but public square has been...as we understand from the colonial cities, is totally missing and doesn't exist. Sanchi, the sources of some of the knowledge we have of what urban cities looked in the early period of course come from reliefs of Sanchi where processions are shown, tall houses are shown. But nowhere is there a public space shown. In fact the Jallianwala Bagh, she mentions Jalianwala Bagh and says that the size of the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh was enormous because it's a very small space. The space where the public had gathered.
There's also an absence of market squares - Agoras in the Greek and Roman, of the Greek and Roman cities - are missing. They don't exist in the earlier Indian urban fabric. In the Indian city, the markets and the production areas were intermingled. And, I think that if you go to old Ahmedabad or old Delhi today, you'll see that the retail and the production of the artifacts are all mixed up. You don't have them clearly separated as the Greeks had. Basically it springs from the need of the merchant to have greater control on his produce and make sure that his work is being processed and he has them near him. The Warli or the Hatha was always outside the town, edges.
Missing also was the significant space for secular entertainment. No evidence of any...I mean we're talking about Grecian and about Roman senses of the term, missing in their own... No amphitheaters, nothing, no gardens- public gardens, gardens were private, no halls - large halls. So spaces to gather were actually restricted to the elite and to what she calls the caste, the clean castes. And then she has a little description of the Rais (wealthy) of those days. The man about town. The central figure of the council. The man who is central later to question in Urdu poetry. The wealthy, relatively secular person who went about town. And she sees the Kamasutra, like played by the men of the time. So much of the texts and poems and literature develop in conjunction with this man about town, the Rais person who has time for it. This is nothing, you've seen many representations of the Rais. There with the man about town, the Rais, is the courtesan, the trained courtesan, the free woman who has broken the social observances in the middle and extols her sexuality but exists only in cities. Her other half in the countryside is the Buddhist or the Jain nun who denies her sexuality.
Because of trade and administration as well as patronage, there is a premium attached to literacy. Urban literacy is not closed and restricted to ashrams and monasteries and khargas. It is open to all. The language of expression of course changes. In the earlier recorded towns, Prakrit was used and is a language of the Purushottam inscriptions. Tamil is used in the southern cities and is used for trade texts. Ya shoga inscriptions in Afghanistan use Greek and Aramaic which were the language in west Asia. They have actually found Greek texts on astronomy prepared in Alexandria but were only discovered in Ujjain. During the Gupta period, the language changed to Sanskrit. This was a time when Indian society began to get feudalised with smaller kingdoms, and their capitals become the elements of the pan Indian society and economy. This was the time when the Brahmin and the Kayastha migrate to the state capitals, coming from Bengal, UP and Kashmir.
The artisans and professional temple builders also began to migrate and settle on the outside...outskirts of the provincial capitals in bastis, like slums. This multi-polar urban development of the provincial states also attracted those seeking royal and merchant patronage - the Bhakti Movement, the Satta, the Sufi practitioners whose male patrons were from the city. Monasteries, ashrams and khargas then began coming around in the outskirts of the town, and some of them were very actively engaged in politics and king making.
At the conclusion of her talk she gives some notes about the cities of today which essentially she says continue with the colonial pattern. There's a separation of the new-rich and the political power from the old city but here's a presence of three, she says three distinct categories of the middle class. The upper bourgeoisie - those who should pay super taxes and live in prime locations. Elements of the cantonment culture. And then the second category is the bourgeoisie - the large, congested middle class varying income levels, aspirants to the upper swarm but often confined to the edges of the middle class, upper-middle class suburbs. And then she, thirdly, she terms them as sub-bourgeoisie, the underclass, the urban poor in the demarcated areas that are the slums. Again outside the city but the city keeps enveloping them.
So similar to trends of earlier times, but now a difference of magnitude. So there's a structure between the presence of the city, the post-colonial city and the hinterland - the Umland. The city can go along the...move...this is her reference to Delhi which kept moving, it's now stuck...and it takes over as a parasite the surrounding countryside. Now the builders lobby determines where the city is going to be, newer ????colonies?? in the vicinity. This sharp distinction between the indigenous and the alien as in Bombay?? But then the question asked, who defines whose...in a process of history, who’s the heir?
So we have moved from cities to megapolises and this has changed how we look at cities of old, and our own patterns of life. But we have to move further to satellite clusters and patterns of life that so far we've only read about in science fiction. That's her concluding remark. I'm afraid that I am not going to be able to take many questions because will be not connected with what she may have had in mind. History has a curious definition. Tolstoy said that history...historians answer questions that nobody asks. So, I'm afraid I'm not going to be answering your questions.
Sudhanva: Well, thanks Romi, that was wonderful. I do know that Romila had really sent her notes which have been extensively...sort of written out, in fact as a paper by Romi. Thank you very much. That was really wonderful. So as Romi said we wouldn't take any questions on this but I'm sure there were lots and lots of ideas there and illuminating insights that will stay with us for a long while. We'll take a break now for tea, and we'll come back in ten minutes for the final session - Spaces of Future. And in fact, Romila's talk in fact ends on that note, on the note on science fiction. So...yeah...thank you.