Visions of India's Past

Visions of India

Photo by Scott Gruber

CISA Director and Doshi Chair Subrahmanyam takes up cause of 'unloved' cities Delhi and Chennai.

Delhi becomes a national capital, and nobody's city.

In Paris one evening around suppertime in 2000, Sanjay Subrahmanyam could be found chatting in Portuguese with the staff in the kitchen of a Brazilian restaurant, in French and English at a table of academic colleagues, and in a mix of South Asian languages outside, where immigrants from the subcontinent sold flowers. UCLA Asia Institute Director R. Bin Wong described this scene Oct. 13 to a standing-room audience of students and faculty waiting to hear Subrahmanyam lavish learned attention on two “unloved” Indian cities. Wong's point was not to remind the crowd at hand that Subrahmanyam speaks about ten languages, though he does, but to introduce a man of “great substance and warmth” who mixes easily with all manner of crowds.

In method as well as tone, Subrahmanyam lived up to the introduction. His approach to eighteenth-century Delhi and Chennai (better known then as Madras) was to embrace the "lived experiences" and excesses of large and loud characters who inhabited the two cities.

Subrahmanyam is the Navin and Pratima Doshi Chair in Indian History at UCLA, co-editor of Indian Economic and Social Review, and author of ten books, nearly 200 articles, and an assortment of op-ed pieces solidifying his role as a public intellectual. He is an expert in South Asian economic history whose work, as Wong explained, has adopted an increasingly global perspective, with a considerable emphasis on the histories of Europeans who went to the region.

Sponsored by the Asia Institute, the Center for India and South Asia (CISA), and the UCLA Department of History, Subrahmanyam's lecture on "The Past of Unloved Cities: Delhi and Chennai in the Eighteenth Century" kicked off programming for CISA, which was established in July with Subrahmanyam as its founding director.

Guests at the lecture included Navin Doshi and Dr. Mohinder Sambhi, who recently endowed a chair in Indian music at UCLA in honor of his late wife.

Imagined Spaces

Subrahmanyam grew up in the northern metropolis of Delhi and claims roots in coastal, southern Chennai, so the theme of his lecture was personal. He described the cities as "stepsisters" or "ugly ducklings" of Indian popular opinion, places on which to heap abuse and fear no contradiction. Ostensibly, the talk aimed to balance the cities' current negative images with an account of their past fame derived from autobiographical accounts left by those who lived there.

The substance of the lecture was, however, more subtle than the wind-up. Subrahmanyam drew a picture of eighteenth-century Delhi and Madras (Chennai) as cities loved and hated at once, as prisons and places of self-imposed exile, and as societies that were, at least with respect to commerce and day-to-day security, more alike than students of the region often suppose.

When residents of Delhi and Madras fled pain and pursued pleasure, Subrahmanyam's presentation implied, their movements defined the shapes of the cities better than any map.

So pleasure trips away from Delhi of one, two, or ten days were integral parts of the life of that city. At another extreme, scores of people with slight claims on hereditary rule lived out their days immured within Delhi's walls, few with hopes of ever becoming a sultan.

The first story that Subrahmanyam followed in his hour-long lecture was that of Mirza 'Ali Bakht Azfari, who, late in the eighteenth century, became a poet and prose writer after escaping Delhi through a breach in a wall. He ended up in Madras after years of wandering, free but strangely nostalgic for aristocratic Delhi, where, he wrote, he had learned about the world.

Indeed, to the extent that Delhi has been loved in more recent times, Subrahmanyam ventured in response to questions that followed his lecture, it has been loved as an object of nostalgia. The Delhi that moderns praise is a past Delhi, especially as it existed before the 1857 rebellion against the British.

Patriots and Nationalists

Subrahmanyam posited that the popular reputations of Delhi and Chennai had been casualties of the replacement, as described by the English historian Christopher Bayly, of local patriotisms of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by modern Indian nationalism.

Bayly's account of "the longer trajectory of senses of belonging" is useful, Subrahmanyam said, but "actually neglects to tell us ... what happened to the old patriotism once Indian nationalism came up."

Subrahmanyam suggested that some cities, especially Mumbai (Bombay) and Kolkata (Calcutta), succeeded in writing themselves "into the history of nationalism." These became "cities where one could be both patriotic and nationalistic."

"The problem with, I believe, Delhi and with Chennai was that they were in many respects written out of the history of Indian nationalism" in spite of Delhi's coming to be the capital. Today, Delhi is one of three municipalities in the National Capital Territory, which is itself often referred to as Delhi.

"Delhi becomes a national capital, and nobody's city," Subrahmanyam said, a process that he also observes in Chennai's history.

Published: Wednesday, October 19, 2005