Divya Subramanian (Columbia University)

Parks and Annotation: Global Urban History and the Archive

Calcutta High Court, adjacent to the Town Hall Library and Archive

What does it mean to write the history of Indian urban development from a reading room in London or New York? Archives have their own colonial histories. Like museums, their collections are artifacts of cross-cultural exchange, indelibly marked by power. As the field of global urban history continues to grow, and as urban historians increasingly turn to the archives of international organizations and philanthropies, it has become entirely possible to write “global history” without setting foot in more than a small portion of the globe.

Critiques of global history’s archival shallowness only go so far. Not everyone can travel to far-flung archives, especially scholars working outside the Global North, whose work is often treated as inherently provincial. Archival digitization initiatives, already a useful tool for scholars, have the potential to radically transform access. And in a post-pandemic world where reconsidering flying has become the norm, jetting off to an archive in search of a possibly non-existent tranche of documents seems even less justifiable.

Perhaps uniquely, though, urban history demands an awareness of place. In Kolkata to conduct dissertation research, I encountered an unusual gatekeeper on my first day at the West Bengal State Archives—a large rust-colored goat, wrapped in a burlap sack for protection against the mild Kolkata winter, blocking the entrance to the building. I was looking for material on the Calcutta Metropolitan Planning Organisation (CMPO), a regional planning body founded in 1961. Over the next two decades, the CMPO partnered with the Ford Foundation to produce a series of ambitious urban plans for the Calcutta metropolitan region. Calcutta became an essential stop on U.S. urban planners’ itineraries, with New Deal-era planners from Catherine Bauer to Ed Logue weighing in on Calcutta’s urban “crisis,” which they viewed as analogous to the problems facing postindustrial U.S. cities.

But U.S. planners were not the only ones searching for an answer in Calcutta. The British architect and draughtsman Gordon Cullen served as a member of the Ford Foundation’s planning team in Calcutta from 1962-63. The key figure associated with the Townscape movement, a British planning movement that emerged in the 1940s and advocated for urban density, mixed-use planning, and picturesque street life, Cullen sought to preserve the vibrant urban character of Calcutta’s markets and bazaars. His plans for sites including New Market, Dalhousie Square, and Burra Bazaar represent the scaling up of Townscape principles at the level of the regional plan; together with his assistant, the Indian architect Santosh Ghosh, he built on the legacy of Scottish planner Patrick Geddes, whose 1919 plan for Burra Bazaar was an early example of town planning that was sensitive to indigenous urban forms.

The Ford Foundation ultimately shelved Cullen’s ideas—and the concept of a static urban plan altogether—in light of the city’s extreme levels of deprivation. Disillusioned and weary, he never returned to India. But examining his work reveals Calcutta as a forgotten site for 1960s urbanism—a space for reconceptualizing the urban in response to the perceived failures of urban renewal in the U.S. and Western Europe.

As it happened, my first day at the State Archives was also my last: there were no materials on the CMPO. The Archives’ assistant director, Dr. Ananda Bhattacharya, sent me instead to the Town Hall Library and Archive. Located next to the exuberant neo-Gothic High Court complex in B.B.D. Bagh, the Town Hall, which was undergoing renovations during my visit, is the planned home of a museum of Kolkata’s history. The library and archives present a wealth of material for scholars interested in the city’s urban development from the late colonial period to the 1970s, including reports of the Calcutta Corporation and the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority. The archives are open six days a week (Monday-Saturday) and researchers can use the on-site card catalogue to request documents for immediate delivery. Photography is allowed for a small charge, but strictly monitored. For lunch, researchers can try the variety of street-side eateries in the area or the Café Coffee Day around the corner on Kiran Shankar Ray Road.

Receiving my first batch of documents in the Town Hall’s dim, air-conditioned basement, I felt a familiar rush of excitement. After months trawling through microfilm documents on Kolkata in the United States, I was no longer distanced by both space and time from my subject matter. As I turned the report’s fragile pages, though, it hit me. It was the same document I had seen in New York.

November 2020