Tania Sengupta, SABE

Historical picture of Calcutta India

I grew up in the city of Calcutta. My personal history, in an immediate sense, is thus one laden with the experience of growing up in the residual spaces of a mighty ex-colonial city. On the other hand, my father was a civil servant, intermittently posted in provincial towns located in interior areas of Bengal. My rather elastic life thus formed around moving between the metropolitan, ex-colonial headquarter-city, and the diminutive and quiet world of little fringe-towns. My interest in my research subject is thus rooted in my very personal and affective experience and memories of these places. It was only much later, having been trained as an architect and urban designer and then teaching in architecture schools, that I began an academic journey to understand the architecture and urbanism of these, what seemed to be largely ‘marginal’, provincial towns. The University of Westminster provided me the nurturing ground for this. I am presently a lecturer in architectural history and theory at the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL, a visiting lecturer at the University of Westminster and work on colonial and post-colonial cities, buildings and spaces.

Colonial rule in India has typically been imagined to be mobilised through grand imperial cities and monumental buildings. My research tells the story of marginal, peripheral places and everyday buildings within this dominant narrative. It focuses on the architecture and urban patterns related to day-to-day governance, including their linkages with domestic and public spaces, in provincial administrative towns (zilla sadar) of colonial Bengal from the late-eighteenth to the early twentieth century. These, I argue, represented the colonial establishment’s larger grip over a vast interior landscape and provided the vital scaffold for more central sites of governance. My work traces the developments in provincial administrative architecture that charted the transition of the English East India Company from a commercial venture to a territorial power, and finally the institution of imperial rule in India.

I place emphasis on different groups such as the central authorities in Calcutta, European officers posted in provincial towns, clerks and lower-level government employees, zamindars or feudal landlords, civil society groups, European and Bengali families, domestic servants and support staff. I argue that colonial governance in provincial areas did not happen merely from governmental sites but was dependent on a range of public spaces such as bazaars, temples, mosques. Finally, I make a case that these colonial spatial landscapes were far more complex than the black-town/white-town or native/sahib binary frameworks that many post-colonial studies have postulated. I surveyed around 150 buildings in nine towns, and used an interdisciplinary methodology combining formal and informal archives, popular and oral narratives and mapping social-spatial histories of individual families through conversations and on-site documentation.

The dissertation was one of four shortlisted for the Royal Institute of British Architects President’s International Award for Research: Outstanding PhD thesis 2011.

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