Sunday, June 28, 2009

Mathur and da Cunha's SOAK revisited

Earlier this afternoon I looked around SOAK again. Dilip da Cunha had written to me suggesting a discussion after reading my previous post, and he sought me out while I was at NGMA. I was gratified to be able to share perspectives.
While our exchange of views did not change my interpretation of the show, I did regret restricting myself to what I felt were its negatives. There is much to commend about the energy and dedication the authors have put into their research. Their ideas about rejigging the way Bombay deals with the monsoon deserve serious consideration by municipal authorities. Though I disagree with da Cunha and Mathur's reading of the city's history, I'm sure that, should their proposals be put in practice, they would be preferrable to the slipshod actions of BMC planners.

During our back and forth, both authors suggested I had misread their writing. After looking at their texts carefully once more, I am satisfied I have not done that, aside from employing straightforward assertions instead of sentences that use phrases allowing for wiggle room like 'not necessarily' and 'cannot be assumed'.

I've transcribed a few panels from the show to provide a taste of the da Cunha / Mathur style and mode of thought. Each bit of text is in italics, and is followed by my own analysis.

"Mumbai's history, in most accounts, pivots on its European occupation -- the Portuguese from 1534 to 1665, but more significantly the British from 1665 to 1947. Little is said in these accounts about an attitude to and vocabulary of terrain that was constructed through this occupation, a vocabulary that rests on a fundamental belief not necessarily shared by previous occupants of Mumbai, namely that land and sea should be divided.
This division was instituted by European seafarers, but more concertedly by English marine and land surveyors in the late 1700s with the drawing of a line on a map. This line traverses rocks, swamps and beaches of an aqueous terrain, asserting entities that are taken for granted today in descriptions, planning and everyday administration of Mumbai. Three of these entities are significant: the island of Mumbai, the coast of the Indian subcontinent, and a major concern following the 2005 flood, the Mithi river. The reality of these entities cannot be questioned. But they are essentially things singled out from the dynamic, at times chaotic terrain of an estuary by an eye driven to simplify, perhaps at a cost that is being paid for by floods in Mumbai today."

Mathur and da Cunha provide no evidence to show that the belief in dividing land from sea was "not necessarily shared by previous occupants of Mumbai". I don't understand how fishermen could ply their trade or sailors could navigate their boats without having a clear idea of what constituted land and what sea.

"Until 1843, there was general agreement that Bombay Island was once more than one island, but no agreement on how many. In 1843 R.X.Murphy put speculation to rest by providing an empirical basis for arguing that the island once comprised seven islands. Based on a study of place names, which suggested a water edge, his conjecture matched a place called Heptanesia that the Greek geographer, Ptolemy, in the second century located off the coast of land that he referred to as India inter Gangem. It is today popular fact. Indeed the islandness of Mumbai has even gone indigenous, with stories of native settlers -- the 'Kolis' -- inhabiting an island; and their goddess Mumbadevi being the 'goddess of an island'. Yet the islandness of Mumbai in the fluid terrain of an estuary cannot be assumed. Mumbai was willed to be off shore."

When Mathur and da Cunha state that "the islandness of Mumbai has gone indigenous", they mean that locals have come to believe the fiction constructed by Brits. In their view, the idea of Mumbadevi as the goddess of an island did not come about because kolis independently understood that the temple was built on an island, but because they swallowed incorrect colonial ideas. Again, there is no evidence provided for this rather strong assertion. My own feeling is that fishermen would know very well what was an island and what was not. Why presume they do not have this knowledge?
The final sentence of this section is unambiguous: "Mumbai was willed to be offshore". In other words, the city was never an island or collection of islands; the idea of Bombay as an island is a social construct, a colonial construct. I disagree. As far as I know, it was never possible under any tidal conditions to walk from Colaba to Vashi or Alibaug back in the 17th century. Bombay was, indeed, a collection of islands, and the locals knew this because humans can walk on land but not on water.
The temptation at this stage is to think, "surely they can't actually be suggesting Bombay was not an island". But that is precisely what they are suggesting, which is why I wrote in my earlier post of contemporary academic theory being fundamentally foolish (I have removed that word because it was too personal. I want to emphasise it is the theory itself I consider foolish, not any individuals).
A kindred example of this kind of argument is Rahul Srivastava and Matias Echanove's contention that what we call slums are, in fact, not slums at all. You can read my posts about the Srivastava / Echanove theory here and here. Rahul is an associate of PUKAR, one of the organisations that has backed SOAK, and he wrote a glowing preview of the show in his column in Mumbai Mirror.
I mention this to indicate that the da Cunha / Mathur line of thought is part of a tradition of looking at urban development. I wrote sympathetically about it in a post about demolitions in Ahmedabad. Unfortunately, among some academics, the tradition has degenerated into an anti-rational conspiracy theory.

"The articulation of a line between land and sea has largely gone unnoticed. It was a taken-for-granted visualization in the milieu of colonial power and landed property. Today, it is deeply embedded in everyday language and an intrinsic part of imaging Mumbai and imagining its future. Questions have been raised regarding the form of this line from the time Mumbai was occupied by the English. More recently, the purpose and enterprise of its drawing have been discussed. But little is said about its presence, about the battlefront that it sets up between land and sea, and between land and water in general which, in Mumbai, includes the monsoon".

Notice the rhetorical sleight of hand by which a (questionable) argument about the relationship of land and sea is widened to include the rain. It is unclear to me why the drawing of a line sets up a 'battlefront' between land and sea. Maps were necessary for navigation, and they did their job very well. A good map is an accurate and useful representation of reality, not an instrument of imperialist power. Mathur and da Cunha themselves make use of maps of Bombay for their proposals, and those maps, too, divide land from water.

"The monsoon in Mumbai is a moment of fresh water saturation that people once made every attempt to extend through the year. They built bunds to hold monsoon waters where they fell and they made wells to increase the porosity of the surface and allow (and access) saturation at lower levels. But by far the most ingenious way of extending the monsoon was the talao.
Far from being passive collectors as they are often considered to be, the talaos of Mumbai are active landscapes that operate to extend the monsoon at the level of the sea. They deploy surface runoff, earthen embankments, and importantly, the pressure harnessed by tapping into fresh water aquifers sandwiched between strata of blue clay, limestone, littoral concrete, basalt and saline aquifers to keep salt water on the surface at bay. Accessing fresh water aquifers without disturbing saline strata is an art fraught with chance. It was to become a lost art as the search for an assured and abundant water supply led to the idea and project of big dams, reservoirs and pipes, and to making a surface that was not about saturation, but runoff to the sea via rivers and drains."

A fake contrast is set up here. What is this 'extending of the monsoon' that Mathur and da Cunha speak of? All it means is that water that falls in the rains is available for use at a later time. Any sort of storage, then, is a form of 'extending the monsoon'. In which case, the huge reservoirs built by the British and by administrators of independent India are also methods of extending the monsoon. It's true that talaos operate "to extend the monsoon at the level of the sea", while the big reservoirs are on higher ground, but why should one be preferrable to the other in and off itself?

"Contrary to its common use to mean drain, a nullah is a surface of overflows. Its identity hinges on the operation of devices that hold monsoon waters. When seen individually these devices are simple structures like bunds built to allow a spill-over at a certain height. Seen collectively and in operation, however, they activate a surface that gathers and dissipates with a complexity and temporality that beguile the eye. Their workings do not form lines like rivers that run through settlement but rather the field of settlement itself."

I don't understand what is so complex and temporal about the working of nullahs. I confess I have never found them beguiling and never will, but if the squalor of slums can be romanticised, why not the working of drains? The last sentence is this passage is puzzling. "Their workings do not form lines..." what are these workings? "... do not form lines like rivers that run through settlement...". I thought rivers existed prior to settlement. They 'run through settlement' because settlements are formed on their banks. "...but rather the field of settlement itself". You got me. I have no idea what this last phrase is meant to mean.


Anonymous said...

The show should have been put up in a science museum. It hardly contributes as visual arts, other than the installations and the photographs. But the hard work put into the research is comendable with rare maps. It's called the National Gallery of Modern Art. Hope they put up some worthy shows.

Anonymous said...

Ya, actually you feel that way when you visit the Soak.... But I had been fortunate that the authurs were there and they had a small group to whom they were presenting the facts. And then, all fell into place. NGMA has rightfully hosted SOAK. Where else, could you present the art of city planning.... more so if it has to be Mumbai.

DS said...

I finally saw the exhibition and no the authors were not present to present facts.I cannot see why an exhibition of this sort is at The National Gallery of Modern ART. This is stretching a brief too far.They would be far more honest if they said that Bombay's lack of sufficient museum space is the reason why it's being shown here. Cannot imagine a MOMA or TATE hosting such an exhibition however worthy the research or cause.
Lastly felt SOAK could have done with a lot of de silting.