The Realm of the Irrelevant

I love this picture.

Image credit: From author’s collection (2009)

Not because it’s a beautiful piece of photography, or for any remotely artistic reason (though, I have been known to take the occasional good shot). This is just a street in Mumbai, India. It is also a picture of a ruins in the middle of a vibrant urban centre. Ruins from the Raj, to be precise. It still strikes me as an odd picture – something which one would think of as being the subject of a picturesque eighteenth century painting, complete with rogue tree growth – squished between two modern buildings. C’est très étrange.

So why do I love this picture? Well, for one thing, it is so obviously postcolonial. Life has gone on after British rule crumbled. The ruins of this building must have housed a few shops, as can be seen from the dilapidated signs visible through the arches. New buildings have come up beside it. People pass it by, hardly aware of its presence. It has blended into the postcolonial landscape of Mumbai.

Not every colonial era building looks like this in Mumbai today. Far from it.

Image credit: author’s collection (2009)

Yep. Exactly.

2009 was the first time I went to Mumbai. It was probably also the first time I went to India with a significant awareness of British colonial rule. I knew to expect some kind of architectural remains of the Raj, but nothing really prepared me for what I saw.

This kind of colonial architecture is trying to make a statement. I think it does a pretty good job of it too. But does it necessarily have the same effect today that it did in, perhaps 1920, decades before India’s independence? Today most of these buildings either house municipal or state governmental offices, or boutiques. Lots of those.

I started reading a fascinating book on postcolonial urban spaces in Africa (which, really, I should have finished a week ago, but sssshhhhhh! don’t tell anyone!).

Verandahs of Power, by Garth Andrew Myers. Taken with my superb cell phone camera.

In his introduction to the book, Myers talks about the House of Wonders in Zanzibar (on the cover of his book). The building was built by an Omani sultan (Barghash bin Said, to be precise) on the island in the nineteenth century, but was converted into a colonial governmental office by the British later in the same century. This was by no means unusual – many European colonial powers took advantage of of the architectural symbolism of power already present in the places they were colonizing to indicate that they were following an already well established line of rule. After the end of British colonial rule, and the socialist revolution which terminated it, the building was converted into the House of Remembrance, an ideological college established by the new government. The symbols of Omani and British power were thus co-opted by the postcolonial government.

Two things stood out to me in Myers’ introduction: the first was the effect that the building had on the local population in the memories of older residents of the city who remembered Zanzibar’s colonial days – but also those who associated it with the power of the socialist regime (Myers, 2). The other was the way in which postcolonial realities have “reframed” buildings like the House of Wonders – or even the peculiar ruins which I photographed in Mumbai – framed between two post-1947 buildings…see what I did there? The end of colonial rule made these buildings, and the power they had been invested with, completely irrelevant (Myers, 3).  Nobody gave a damn about them any more. They were just kind of there.

So that’s cool (or at least I think so). I’m looking forward to delving into this subject further in the East African context (I haven’t picked a city yet). But (and perhaps you knew this was coming), how does this relate to hill stations? The thing about cities like Zanzibar and Mumbai is that they were very much colonial cities. These were spaces where Europeans expected to have to deal with “natives” (I hate that word), and structured their day to day lives around this. Food, architecture, clothing, entertainment, everything was planned with this reality in mind. In hill stations, however, this was not the case at all. These were little bubbles (or at least they were supposed to be) where Europeans could run away to to escape from all of those headaches. You can see that quite clearly in the architecture, which is more reminiscent of European styles than those in Mumbai and Zanzibar (since those seem to be the two examples of the day).

Ghymkana Club Interior, Mumbai (Image credit: author’s collection, 2009)

Which of these looks cosier?

Kodaikanal Club, formerly the English Club (Image credit: INTACH Kodaikanal, 2012)

So the purpose of each architectural style, in the colonial city and in the exclusively European hill station, was quite different. It seems like they’ve both been treated largely the same way though: they are both pretty irrelevant to postcolonial lives and landscapes. Or at least sort of (which I will get to in a later post, maybe).

What I’m hoping to figure out in my paper on postcolonial urban spaces in Africa is just how this happened. How were these buildings relegated to the realm of the irrelevant? I’m still kind of fishing for answers (probable because I’m behind on research…oh November, that happy time in a student’s life!), but I would love to see what you, dear reader, may think! Any thoughts? Please sound off below!

2 thoughts on “The Realm of the Irrelevant

  1. I think that your first photo opens up so much for discussion! It reminded me at first of a place in Rouen, where I worked in France. It was hit pretty hard during the Second World War by bombs and fighting in the streets, so many churches were damaged. Of one, only a small section of wall remains, right next to a ridiculously modern building and a transit station with shiny new bus shelters and busses. It isn’t grown over; the stone – empty window frames where stained glass once rested – is fairly white and clean, the tiny patch of grass it stands on well-tended. It’s a tiny reminder of the War and what once was in the heart of modern Rouen.

    • Thanks! That sounds like a really interesting architectural monument of sorts to a memory of Rouen’s recent past. It’s fascinating to see how different communities treat buildings that have fallen out of use, and the multiple meanings they hold for different people. The ruins you mentioned, and the one pictured above, are both examples of two (arguably) traumaitc heritages in very public spaces. I wonder what they ways they have each been preserved say of the socio-cultural needs of the two communities with regards to those unpleasant pasts.

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