Cities That Smell of Leather and Earth

December 6, 2016

All through the world, from Japan to China, the African continent to Europe, economic specialization and attempts to organize crafts, manufacturing and trading processes, have been integral to urban life. In Europe, medieval guilds that interacted, resisted or cooperated with the State and the Church have impacted political and social trajectories involving, power, monopolies and conflict for centuries. Even after the spread of industrial capitalism and the rise of corporate globalization, European cities still show traces of the influence of guild-based systems. This can be seen in the way economic activities from wine-making to copyrighted design, from brands and labels to architectural styles, try to bridge traditional practices and modern demands. While contemporary urban planning practices and norms do not always respond as flexibly to economic activities as they did in the past – the legacy of strong lobbies and traditional elites controlling the urban landscape is still visible.

According to scholars such as Max Weber, the role of guilds played a special role in the emergence of a certain kind of economic urban character – distinguished significantly by an attempt to control urban life, create protectionist systems as well as maintain secrets connected to trade activities.

The development of patents and intellectual property rights are specifically connected to the history of guilds, which have been equally vilified by both, right and left wing economists in equal measure. However – Weber points out that the special quality that European guilds had was their direct connection with city based spatial regimes, local resources and in-house apprenticeships, which were often open for anyone with skills who belonged to the city, town or village. At the same time guilds were also closed when it came to taking in people from outside – sometimes discriminated on the basis of region or language.

This was unlike in India where exclusion was based on a more abstract principle, caste. Caste was capable of making someone from the same village or town socially distant. Someone from a different caste could be from your village or neighbourhood but physical proximity did not transcend social distance.

What this caste based exclusion did was make people move more. India’s relationship with physical mobility, with individuals, families and communities constantly circulating across the subcontinent has been historically documented by scholars like Sanjay Subramaniam and Ravi Ahuja. People forged linkages with caste based professions across vast regions. This explains how Indian traders and labourers travelled the world over through navigation systems or spread extensively across the sub continent.

Of course, wherever people went, they took with them the same structures of hierarchy. Sometimes they could rise up the social ladder, but mostly the social structures reproduced themselves in new geographies. Which also explains how most Indian cities often tend to reflect spatial configurations like the traditional village, with poor and rich communities developing co-dependent relationships. The emergence of a slum narrative in a city like Mumbai is a reflection of such forces. Several – though not all – slums tend to be dominated by communities which are weaker in socio-economic and ritual terms. Leather workers and potters in particular are the most marginalized groups because the material of their crafts is deemed impure.

In the European context, while ghettoization and segregation did exist, especially in terms of the designated outsider – there was a deeper process at work in which economic associations played a strong civic role in shaping urban centers.

The guilds may have had several problems, as they were often monopolistic, exploitative of labour and resistant to the control of mercantile capital from elsewhere, which explains their antipathy to right and left economic practices. But they did leave a huge impact on urban Europe in terms of the development of cities and towns, and towards the modernization of several crafts and artisanal practices. The continued dominance of European design in contemporary production and manufacture, the strong control of local natural resources, innovation in technology, the persistence of high living standards in terms of habitats are to some extent continued legacies of systems that paid attention to artisanal skills, valued excellence and were open to all within the shared space. Leather based brands as well as pottery from Europe – represent a completely different trajectory then what we see in India.

European urban landscapes are definitely a direct consequence of the way in which economic associations played their role in shaping them. Combined live-work spaces and neighbourhood streets as economic sites of exchange were as integral to the experience of medieval European cities as in contemporary Asian ones. While modernization of urban planning practices destroyed older, hierarchical and exclusive systems, it is undeniable that the strong role of economic associations through guild systems also shaped the way in which these transformations happened.

In India spatial configurations have rarely had a unified articulation, split as they always have been along divided social lines. The co-existence of the rich and poor in Indian cities is as much a factor of codependence thanks to specialization of roles than anything else. While professional associations are highly organized across territories, almost always affiliating with their own kind, the principle of urban space is inevitably splintered within – making inequalities starkly visible.

A neighbourhood like Dharavi sits in a place like this. It is not simply a physical space. But one that is shaped by social and historical contours to which it belongs. Leather workers and communities involved in tanning, processing and making finished leather goods as well as the potters have shown great enterprise and been victims of traditional marginalization.

Our practice explores how factors deeper than simply distribution of resources, urban planning or political intention can change cities. These deeper factors have do to less with psycho-cultural mechanism than with historical factors that shape two important aspects of urban life – livelihood and shared living.