Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 29, 2007
Jyoti Hosagrahar Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism New York: Routledge, 2005. 256 pp.; 45 b/w ills. Paper $165.00 (9780415323758)

Delhi today is the capital of the nation state of India, and many think of it as the capital of much of India since the late twelfth century, when Muslim political authority established itself in north India. This is, of course, an oversimplification, for there were periods when Delhi was not the capital of any particular regime. All the same, the city has captured the imagination of a number of scholars working on South Asia. Jyoti Hosagrahar’s book, Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism, adds to the already rich literature on Delhi by probing the intersection between colonial authority and local residents during the period following 1857, when India was declared a British colony, until 1947, when India became an independent nation.

The book is divided into seven chapters, opening with a brief introduction (chapter 1) that calls into question the use of the binary terms modern and tradition in the colonial context. The final chapter is an overview of her complete discussion. The thrust of her argument is that British authorities wished to impose on Delhi a European sense of the modern, in both city planning and architectural form, but that this could not be done successfully, since the Indian context was quite different from the original European one. Hosagrahar argues that Indian users of the city and its buildings would find ways to subvert the imposed modernity, thus giving it a changed meaning. In other words Hosagrahar sees British attempts to introduce European modernity in city design and architectural form as a hybrid product in the end.

In chapter 2, Hosagrahar traces the transformation of Delhi’s domestic housing from the seventeenth century, when the walled city of Delhi was the capital of the powerful Mughal house, to the early twentieth century. The seventeenth-century haveli, usually translated as mansion, consisted of a series of living complexes surrounded by an enclosure wall. Within these walls lived the Mughal aristocracy and their enormous support staff, including servants and artisans. By the middle of the eighteenth century, when Mughal authority and, by extension, the economy were considerably curtailed, many artisans began to work independently, thus reducing the need for these very large mansions. A hundred years later, Delhi was one of several sites of a wide-scale rebellion, commonly called “The Mutiny,” whose aftermath terminated the Mughal dynasty and made all parts of India that formerly had been under the East India Company into a British colony. Former Mughal Delhi was largely emptied of its inhabitants, although Hosagrahar does not tell the reader where they went. Land and housing belonging to the Mughal elite were seized and either given or sold to those Indians believed to be faithful to the English. In place of the old Mughal aristocracy, a merchant class rose to become the dominant group residing in Delhi, which at that point was a walled city of about six square miles. Increasingly the typical house decreased in size as their builders were people of modest means.

In the name of safety, all of the houses and other structures in front of the former Mughal palace (the present-day Red Fort), converted earlier by the British into a military garrison, were demolished. Straight, European-style roads were plowed through a city that had largely been characterized by cul-de-sacs and winding gullies. The northern part of the city, once a series of beautiful gardens, was turned into a huge railway terminal, a British symbol of modernity.

Leaving the local population to live in the former Mughal capital, whose residential space became increasingly cramped, the British established their own suburb north of Delhi’s walls, which they called “Civil Lines.” Here detached houses on spacious lawns were built, allowing the British to emulate the English country house. Although not mentioned by Hosagrahar, that model had already been established in Calcutta, then India’s capital. Elite Indians, too, moved to Civil Lines although the British remained the dominant population there. As Indians moved out of the former Mughal Delhi, their haveli were turned into warehouses or into residences for multiple families.

Entitled “Negotiating Streets and Spaces: Spatial Culture in the Public Realm,” chapter 3 focuses on areas that the British perceived were for public use. This definition was not necessarily agreed upon by the locals living in the former Mughal city of Delhi. All streets were considered to be public spaces in the British concept; however, Hosagrahar argues that longstanding Indian practice dictated that streets could be used as the extensions of shops and dwellings, while in places where homes sat on cul-de-sacs, the entire area might be considered the personal property of those families. The Delhi municipality made numerous rules to control the use of public spaces, and the local population found an equal number of ways to go over the heads of officials, including eschewing building permits and simply constructing additions that impinged on public places.

The British also wished to put their own imprimatur on the public face of Delhi. In addition to the railway and straight roads, which were used as promenades, they decided to build a Town Hall in a decidedly European style. To do this, a splendid Mughal building and garden were demolished on the showcase avenue of the city; in its place was constructed the Town Hall that employed the architectural vocabulary of the classical world. Hosagrahar posits that the building was intended to reflect the order and civilized nature of the city under British authority. The building included a college, museum, reading room, and ceremonial hall as well as the offices of the newly established Delhi Municipal Committee. Apparently the local public was not really welcome to use the Town Hall. Hosagrahar mentions the committee often, but it would be useful to know what this body had the authority to do and if its function changed over the period of time discussed.

In addition to the Town Hall, the former Mughal capital increasingly was filled with institutions such as hospitals, banks, and schools that were modeled on Western approaches to disease, fiscal management, and education. Over time, Hosagrahar suggests, Indian forms of medicine, monetary control, and education were transformed, thus diminishing the significance of longstanding societal roles. Not only were the new institutions Western-inspired, but also a careful control was placed on their design to insure an architectural style reflective of Delhi’s British overlords.

Chapter 4 concerns British attempts to sanitize the old Mughal city, making clear that priority was given to installing sewers, modern latrines, and piped water, first to Civil Lines and then to Baker’s and Lutyen’s New Delhi, a city to the south of the former walled city of India and designed as the new British capital. There is much rich material in this chapter, in particular on the role that sweepers played in providing the British authorities with what was otherwise private information about Indians’ personal lives, thereby bringing this period to life in ways not done before.

Delhi was declared the official capital of British India in 1911, causing land values around the city to escalate. Schemes to promote European-style housing outside the walled city were developed, often with limited success, for in the end, Hosagrahar argues, the colonial regime was more committed to controlling land use and increasing its value than it was to building and maintaining communities. In short, the colonial government was an extremely wealthy landlord.

Chapter 6 considers the modern housing for both rich and poor that the British authorities created for the newly developed lands. For the wealthy, townhouses in a central area of Delhi were developed that followed European, park-centered models. The poor were less fortunate, and developments for them were characterized by small cramped units in undesirable areas far from central Delhi. Those units for the poor were an attempt to depopulate the increasingly overpopulated former walled city; however, the residents preferred the old way of life in which social networks, among other considerations, were embraced, and most resisted moving, leaving these projects to immigrants from outlying villages seeking employment in Delhi. The British units were theoretically scientific in their design, but paid no attention to cultural values esteemed by Delhi’s citizens. Hosagrahar’s work probes the scientific aspect of these projects’ design, and she argues convincingly that the architects had, in fact, only arbitrary standards for their construction.

Indigenous Modernities presents a highly interesting and engaging study of the development of Delhi during the hundred years that India was under colonial control. Hosagrahar does an excellent job with the British material, although her consistently negative analysis of every colonial policy seems naïve. Hosagrahar’s evidence of local subversion is not as convincing as her evidence for British collusion, doubtless due to a lack of archival documents. Finally, the book’s citation system is not user friendly since full citations are repeated in each chapter. A bibliography, not included, would have been more helpful than the lengthy detailed endnotes. In spite of these minor concerns Hosagrahar has provided new insight on urban planning and architectural development in Delhi.

Catherine B. Asher
Professor, Department of Art History, University of Minnesota

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