Magical Urbanism

August 26, 2009


That reality often exceeds imagination is well known. What is less often discussed is how imagination can transform reality. The urban realm offers infinite possibilities, at least in the mind. But what happens when multiple minds connect and start focusing on an idea from various perspectives, with the firm intention of actualizing it? What if that idea is stretched across the world, powered by information technology and substantiated by localized action? This is how wars, religious congregations, political campaigns, real-estate projects, festivals, movie shoots, parties and all types of creative-destructive events get realized.

A dark illustration of this capacity to actualize wild ideas is the Mumbai attacks on November 26, 2008. A small group of well-trained and hyper-determined youth navigated across the Arabian Sea and came ashore to Colaba, in South Mumbai. Equipped with state of the art killing machines, they put the whole city to a standstill for more than 3 days. They killed Mumbai’s top cops, hijacked police cars, twice and rampaged the city’s best hotels. Till the end they defied India’s best commandos. For a moment it seemed that the country’s entire army could not stop them. And the whole world was their audience.

The televised images of the attacks evoked a kind of senseless urban violence that had only been prefigured in Hollywood movies and video games like ‘Grand Theft Auto’ or emulated in US suburban school killings. The fact is that fantasies of radical transgression, including bombing and killing have always been part of a certain subversive imagination, which is particularly appealing to the youth. Especially those who have been brainwashed into negating their violent impulses, desires, drives, aspirations and ego-trips. Attraction to extreme violence, in fictional or actual form is often a response to an unbearable level of frustration caused by the repression of perfectly healthy impulses – impulses to do with expression of anger, creativity and active control of their lives.

It is unfair to expect any self-denial of these impulses from the youth. And it is even worse to lock them up in a world running on autopilot, where any sense of agency is deemed dangerous or impulsive. To them, such a world seems headed straight to a crash. So many youth across the world feel trapped in rigid urban and social structures; stuck in a reality that they are not allowed to reinvent. As a result they often respond passionately to fictionalized versions of reality, which are full of possibilities, including the most extreme and destructive ones. Most often these fictions remain in the realm of the imagination, but sometimes, when intent and determination are high enough, they do translate into reality.

All that is needed for this leap from fiction to reality to happen is an audacious idea, collective determination, a space for intervention and some special effects. That’s what we call the magic formula. It can be used in all kinds of ways. Not all of them as dramatic, psychopathic and morbid as the 26/11 attacks. In fact, it is so important to open avenues for creative-destructive expression and action in cities today. Otherwise youthful energy turns into frustration, alienation and violent expression of despair. We can use the magic formula to create a new reality, even when the odds are against us. The more we are able to do so, the less self-destructive we will be.

The space of youthful imagination is highly potent. It is like a fertile jungle continuously producing a million new audacious ideas. It is violent and exciting, destructive and creative, all at the same time. It is a space where one can get lost, discover, experiment and grow. A sacred grove of sorts, that one can come back to at any point in time to reconnect to a vital creative energy that helps accomplish wonders.

The workshops we organize draw on the radical aspirations of the youth to a different future. They open up a  time and space for individual and collective expression through bold interventions in the urban realm. They break up existing social, cultural and political hierarchies and modes of subordination, at least for a moment. The workshops are intensive 3 to 5 days long events which bring together people from completely different linguistic, cultural and economic backgrounds. They exchange local and global knowledge in search of uniquely suited solutions for specific sets of issues. The result comes in the form of a multimedia explosion (interviews, videos, stories, music, drawings, architectural renderings, photoshopping, images, etc) that sends shockwaves throughout the system. Successful workshops lead to the creation or consolidation of local initiatives, which we continuously support by deploying Web-based networking and communication tools. These can help maintain the momentum of the workshop by keeping human connections alive and by giving global visibility to local projects.

Our next workshop will happen in Mumbai in the last week of November. In May, we are planning a workshop in Geneva in the neighborhood of Les Paquis, where residents are struggling with a new brand of street violence (yes, Switzerland has it too!). In June, we may be doing a workshop in the Bay Area in California with our friends from the Center for the Living City. After this we are hoping to do something in Amsterdam, Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires. Lots of explosive creative potential out there!

If you have a feeling that tells you to act now, to project yourself onto the world around, express your dreams, defeat your fears and realize your aspirations, please join any of our workshops. Better still, call us to your neighborhood… invoke the Urban Typhoon. Unleash the global imagination in your hillside favela, your suburban township, your artist hamlet, your satellite town, your generic city, your urbanizing village… They are all fascinating and full of potential. All they need is a little magical urbanism.

Chowpatty: Place To Be

August 25, 2009

Girgaum Chowpatty is one of the most politicized sites of the city, notwithstanding a court ruling some years ago that declared the beach strictly for recreational purposes only. Even then, the ruling had qualified that the Ganesh visarjan ritual was a ritualistic recreational act, and made official one more moment in the neighbourhood’s long lasting trysts with politics.

After all, the Saarvajanik Ganesh mandals were an innovative attempt by Tilak at politicizing what was essentially a domesticated ritual. He made it a Mumbai event, one that would bridge divides between castes, classes and even religions to help prepare a united front against colonial powers. It was a master stroke. In one swift gesture, the meaning and significance of recreation, ritual and politics got merged into one quivering mass of humanity.

Tilak’s move was truly radical – he wanted the ritual to break through caste barriers, question prejudice and become a forum for discussion and debate. After 1893, community participation in the festival became huge, with poetry recitals, performances, intellectual discussions, music and dance becoming integral to the events and the tenth day procession to submerge the idol in water bodies becoming one more way of bringing the divided city together.

The Girgaum beach would never be the same after that, much to the chagrin of the elites who lived across on Malabar Hill and other posh neighbourhoods in the vicinity. Very much like their descendents today – who were the prime movers in banning political rallies near the beach – supposedly for causing traffic jams. Most of them didn’t seem to care that the site had been anointed by politics and that it was a historical space precisely because rallies helped the city come together in the name of some worthwhile cause or the other.

A few decades after Tilak’s move, another resident in the neighbourhood managed to transform the beach into a moment of ferment. Gandhi, who lived down Laburnum road, had inspired most of the neighbourhood to support his clever moves. When he started the famous Dandi march as part of the satyagraha to protest against the infamous salt tax in 1930, Girgaum Chowpatty resounded to his call with great gusto. Thousands and thousands of Gandhi’s followers descended on the beach to symbolically create salt echoing his act in Dandi, Gujarat. And when the followers were lathi charged and attacked by the police, they found an unexpected ally across the road – in the form of Wilson College. According to some records, its principal, opened the gates and transformed the space into a refuge for the Gandhians in open defiance against the colonial rulers.

For several years after that the beach was constantly used by Mumbaikars to voice their concerns. Especially since the powers ruling their lives, resided close by and could be heckled on their way home in the evenings. Along with Azad Maidan and Shivaji Park, the city repeatedly bristled with concern about different issues ranging from Dalit radicalism, to peasant movements, to fighting against the brief stint with authoritarianism during the Emergency in the mid 1970’s.

It was thus a pleasure to see how the gay movement too kept up an old Mumbai legacy celebrating the reading down of Article 377, and held one of the biggest gay pride marches in the country that made Girgaum Chowpatty resonate with politics. Once more the neighbourhood supported a stand against a colonial moment and celebrated along with the marchers fighting against discriminatory prejudice.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, August 26, 2009

Audacious Learning: The Dharavi School of Urbanology

August 17, 2009

Institutions have been much misunderstood entities. In strict anthropological terms they refer to any stabilizing of ideas, beliefs, practices, traditions, lifestyles, knowledge practices and skills that one generation wishes to pass on to the next.  By this definition, families, guilds, community associations, art schools that are based on the practices of a teacher – all qualify to be institutions. Musical traditions in South Asia codify themselves around gurus and become institutions of sorts. In Japan, martial arts, tea ceremonies and other arts and cultural practices center around the sensei and institutionalize themselves over generations. Much of knowledge, insights and learning have been generated through such inherited and evolved practices.

It’s only in the nineteenth century, with the emergence of the modern bureaucracy that a distinction came to be made between the primary and secondary nature of all organizations, with the former being part of the realm of domesticated, ethnicized or personal spaces and the latter being shaped by impersonal, universal principles that were sharpened by the development of bureaucracies. What such a distinction meant for knowledge and cultural practices was quite special. It privileged the development of modern day institutions only if they walked down the path of bureaucratic organization and relegated traditional knowledge practices to an informal realm – contained and preserved by traditional customs and private resources. As a result, the state, and subsequently large resource rich establishments, shaped the emergence of modern day educational, cultural and arts institutions, and made them more bureaucratic and impersonal. This was also the process through which the idea of tradition as a hyper-conscious space became more prominent pushing forth for a whole lot of speculation about the invention of traditions. This went hand in hand with the invention of other firmed up dialectical categories, including personal-impersonal, ethnic-modern, primary and secondary organizations, informal and formal practices, pure intellectual pursuits versus engaged and politicized practices, scientific versus religious truths so on and so forth – dialectical categories that plagued intellectual worlds for centuries but started to harden around this time.

Of course, in the real world, the informal and formal, the traditional and the modern played themselves out in complex ways. Thus modern day educational institutions could have large bureaucracies embedded in them along with age-old feudal practices and authoritarian teacher-patriarchs. Research practices could move between subjective and objective truths, between science and faith in various permutations and combination.

Eventually, these inner contradictions were contained by the idea of modern day institutions as respectable entities due to their validation as formal, organized and bureaucratic centers of learning and research. The more respectable they were the more they had to distance themselves from the other side of the wall; the informal, the personal, the engaged, religious, traditional…

What it did to the idea of institutions was particularly problematic. Any well organized bureaucracy, no matter what its ideology, beliefs, practices and track-record as a research center, could be passed off as an institution. Today, business enterprises running knowledge-for-cash programs are considered respectable institutions all over the world – going by the synonym of universities.

And small research centers, which connect knowledge to practices and are conscious of the power equations they are embedded in (they have no protection in the form of bureaucratic shields) have to prove themselves several times over before they can be understood as institutions.

The Dharavi School of Urbanology – see for the latest update – is an institution in a more resilient sense of the term – when institutionalization meant a settling down of the ideas of practitioners who would like to learn more from the emerging generation.

It is located literally in the residual space of the grand journey of concepts that shaped the history of ideas and modern day institutional practices – the informal, hyperurban, dense space of a city – right at the other end of the spectrum.

What better place for a school of cities to be located in?

Its tiny. In the tradition of small centers of learning that could be found in narrow streets of old Edo, Alexandria, Baghdad, Benares centered around the beliefs and practices of people firmly committed to their dynamic beliefs.

It is a modern day myth that these were traditional spaces which preserved old forms of knowing. On the contrary, they preserved only by changing, evolving and adapting, unburdened by the categories of respectability and validation that modern day institutions are obsessed by.  They were centered on their practices and produced insights through them – with the same effectiveness as those hot on the pursuit of pure knowledge.

The Dharavi School of Urbanology challenges notions of institutions as it goes on to establish itself with literally nothing.

Do come and nourish it with your passion, experience and playfulness.

Walk the City

August 12, 2009

It is only when the rains debilitate Mumbai that we discover the possibility of navigating the crowded streets of our city on our feet. People have traveled huge distances wading through gutter water making them associate the act exclusively with civic breakdowns. However, several research findings indicate that a good many of Mumbai’s daily commuters actually walk to work everyday on a routine basis. That’s’ because most of them live in informal settlements and relatively close to work.

In fact Mumbai’s streets are a visual proof that people use their two feet all the time. Few roads or streets are free of walkers. The presence of roadside hawkers indicate the vibrancy of the streets in this regard only too well and most regular walkers adapt to their presence. One of the most successful infrastructure projects that civic authorities undertook in recent times are the walkways near Bandra and foot overbridges across roads and highways. The aim may have been to keep people out of the roads for the cars – but they have helped nevertheless.

Walking sometimes reveals how relative notions of distances can be. It was only after suffering through traffic jams that lasted two hours between Girgaum and Prabhadevi during evening rush hour that made me realize that the same distance could be traversed in precisely that much time by walking as well.  Of course that stretch included two great promenades – the Haji Ali  and Worli Sea Face roads.

Walks have been regularly incorporated in the city’s tourist – especially heritage trail – agendas. Rahul Mehrotra and Sharada Dwivedi’s Fort Walks is an excellent guide through the city’s colonial past. Enterprising guides have developed the ‘Slum tours” through Dharavi. PUKAR, Mumbai’s very own innovative urban research collective uses walks as a method of inquiry. Walks become part of the research process. Recently, members of the center held a special walk through the erstwhile Mill areas of Mumbai, providing participants a glimpse of the rapidly transforming neighbourhood. This was done as part of a global event in the memory of an American urbanist Jane Jacobs who used the idea of the walk as a way of reclaiming neighbourhoods for its residents.

It’s a sure fire way of making places safer without acts of surveillance if you simply learn to use the streets in a feet-on way. Of course, it may be impractical in terms of being a regular act in a Mumbaikar’s life. In many ways it sounds almost improbable.

But already the infamous traffic jams – especially in the suburbs have transformed several commuters from stations to their colonies into regular walkers. A bit more investment in the basic infrastructure for this activity will surely bring in several more and make it a pleasurable activity.

Walks have been overtly political acts as well, especially in the form of demonstrations and of course through Gandhi’s legendary marches. The political dimension of the walks merges with its cultural one – becoming often a ‘carnavalisque’ reclaiming of public spaces. And while most Mumbaikars would baulk at this idea, given how impatient they are with any act that slows them down, one time of the year they find themselves joining in is round the corner. When the elephant headed God makes his devotees (who love walking to him to Sidhivinayak temple anyway every Tuesday) dance along during the chaturthi celebrations.

For several years one has had mixed feelings about this great celebratory invasion of Mumbai’s streets. I have found myself walking through miles of static traffic in thunderous music and – after exorcising the bourgeois impatience of a regular commuter – even danced along – especially when a subversive techno parade joined in a procession in a true spirit of the carnival.

Maybe this Ganpathi festival – Mumbaikars can join in by politicizing the already politicized event a bit more – and make it a celebration of the act of walking as well –by everyone who has a political axe to grind – and reclaim the streets of the city in another way.

Random Thoughts: The Noble Savage

August 7, 2009

The idea that nobility can exist in the tribal mind is linked to the conviction that the authentic tribe exists.

The category tribal often got juxtaposed against that of the civilized mind in twentieth century thought and pushed anthropologist Levi Strauss to talk about the noble savage. In his brilliant commentary he ultimately pointed out that the urban civilized mindset has much more in common with its imagined counter-point – the thoughts and way of thinking of the savage.

He took great pains in pointing out that this observation is distinct from that of the idealized tribal that many modern intellectuals value: the rousseauseque idea of the savage world as being noble, something for the modern world to idealize.

What the Levi-Strauss argument did was to deconstruct the categories tribal and savage itself and yet allow them to be imbued with enchantment and magic. To be able to see aura and enchantment in the mundane is the most unique of all gifts.

However, it is a complex gaze. It simultaneously unravels categories such as the noble and the civilized as absolute ones. It opens up the way to look at the ordinary (ordinary in every sense) as being imbued with aura as – having the ability of being both noble and savage together, and having several other qualities that make up the complexity of human experience.

To elucidate:

To be excited by the fact that you are meeting a royal – can be mechanically balanced in a modernist mind – by being equally excited on meeting a tribal. This can be represented as being just and egalitarian.

However – since these communities never exist in their pure sense (all royalty is complexly constructed by convenient omissions and additions and all tribal communities have evolved and adapted and been connected to global spaces and histories as well) – to come to terms with the disappointment on meeting someone who is neither royal, aristocratic or civilized nor is savage, tribal and authentic is the biggest challenge of all.

Those who manage to do so are indeed liberated from the vast landmine of categories and labels that litter the contemporary world.

There are few who manage to do that and it is a moment to be cherished when you meet them!