M. Mann: A British Rome in India

A British Rome in India. Calcutta, Capital for an Empire

Mann, Michael
Anzahl Seiten
214 S.
€ 78,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Debjani Bhattacharyya, University of Zürich

Bombay/Mumbai has it’s Mariam Dossal. Her book "Theatre of Conflict, City of Hope: Bombay/Mumbai, 1600 to Present Times" takes us on a visually stunning journey through the city’s history, without necessarily simply becoming a coffee table book. It is rich in history and has become essential reading for anyone embarking on the history of the city. The book’s footnoted text offers rich references for digging into its past. Calcutta, on the other hand, has rich coffee table books offering in equal parts visually variegated history replete with colonial nostalgia or postcolonial poverty voyeurism. Finally, in Michael Mann’s "A British Rome in India: Calcutta Capital for an Empire" (Wernersche Verlagsgesellschaft 2022) we have a book that compares to what Dossal offered Bombay/Mumbai. Mann sets out to write an architectural history of colonial Calcutta from 1772 to 1836, but rather than offering simply rich visuals and a descriptive history of Calcutta’s spatial history, he also wants to use architecture to understand evolving notions of political authority, rituals of governance and what he calls the political will of the empire. Thus, city planning is used to read the colonial elite’s self-understanding, as well as the transformation of their “values, virtues, habits and customs” (p. 10). This book is as much about the history of Calcutta, as it is about the British imperial ideology.

Divided into six chapters with numerous images, plans and paintings of the city that has hitherto not been brought together in a single book, Mann explores, following Henri Lefebvre’s theorization of spatial production, the architecture, paintings and the built form to write about the making of the social and political space of the city. What he asks would be a city that is fitting as the capital of the expanding British Empire. This is not simply an urban history, but a history of imperial authority told through its rich archive of mortar, stone, epitaph, ornaments, paintings, etiquette rules, and the built form. He focuses particularly on the place-making practices – in both its material and theoretical sense of the concept – of political rituals, which were geared primarily to the heterogenous class of British colonists – mercantile elites and white subalterns in the city.

Chapter one deals with the early history of the city and investigates the history of the emergence and development of Palladianism and picturesque which formed part of the early aesthetic repertoire of the British as Whigs began to dominate the British landed aristocracy following the Glorious Revolution 1688–9. The second chapter follows the how the changing vectors of power were spatialized in the city. The 1771 establishing of the diwani in Bengal (revenue and civil justice) and the defeat of Tipu Sultan, a formidable opposition to the East India Company changed the security needs and political stature of the newly-minted revenue farmer. This had a direct impact and shaped urban planning over the next decades. Through detailed documentation and cartographic analysis, Mann traces the early attempts of cadastral mapping and acquisition of property for “public” or town planning purposes and the creation of a “’colonnaded’ political center” (p. 80) that fulfilled the dual purposes of designing a political language of authority and nurturing a social space. If the second chapter focused primarily on the streets, public parks and tanks, the third chapter moves us to what he conceptualizes as built sovereignty by exploring the history of representative public buildings in the city. As in the other chapters, Mann moves deftly between London and Calcutta’s public buildings and their references to neoclassical Roman architecture and design to exemplify the attitude of East India Company’s “thalassocratic elite, whether in London or in Calcutta, sharing the same classical education, cultural values and contemporary tastes, to present the British Empire in India as a modern successor of the ancient Roman Empire by launching an architectural and artisanal program of hitherto unprecedented dramaturgy and orchestration” (p. 108).

Chapter four moves us to a slightly different terrain away from the center of the city to its urban fringes to explore the garden houses built by the British elites and the styles that were mobilized to create a “British Rome” abroad. Chapter five delves into the “politics of pomp” that defined opulent public spectacles, state ceremonials, and created a new “colonial calendar” of festivals, commemorations, and celebrations (p. 130). Mann investigates the representative impulse by exploring not just the built environment for such ceremonies of imperial splendor. He also analyses the plans that accompanied them and the reportage about them. He brings to life in rich details the etiquettes, hierarchies and the minutiae of rules that required strict observance for the politics of pomp to come alive in the colony. The final chapter takes us through the rich history of death rituals and commemorations that goes with any imperial settlement. Modern day Kolkata is home to splendid graveyards where the early colonists who died prematurely are buried. Mann explores how the high rate of mortality meant that funerary practices came to occupy an important role in the city, where commemorative structures were meant to “visualise, materialise and publicly demonstrate the distinctiveness of the deceased” (p. 158).

In shifting between the ideologies of empire that governed Calcutta’s urban history, this book is more than about the city itself. Historically instructive about the parallel developments in London, Mann manages to write a history that looks at these two cities not as copies of one another, nor as detached histories, but rather a unique grafting of imperial ideas and ideologies that changed London and shaped Calcutta and gave the city of palaces as Calcutta was known its unique hybrid forms of Palladian architecture. He shows us how neo-classical built forms, like the classical spires of the iconic St. John’s Church was hybridized into pathure girja (stone church) harkening back to ancient Rome, but also to Gaur, the precolonial kingdom in Bengal. Theoretical novel, meticulously researched and brilliantly illustrated this book will be of interest to historians of urban planning, British empire and students interested in the history of Calcutta. In developing a methodology of reading visual sources and built environment as a source and evidence out of which to write urban history, "A British Rome in India" makes an important contribution to urban historiography. More importantly, its lucid prose and visual richness will also appeal to a wider audience.

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