By Nidhi Singh nee Batra, Sn. Prog Officer-PRIA
Whenever I have thought of a city – I thought of it as one large urban theatre, where every actor has a role and a place, a stage which has the latent characteristics of being democratic. But in my recent visit to the slums of Raipur where PRIA is working towards strengthening voices of civil society on Urban Poverty– that image of a city has become extremely questionable.
Entering a ‘territory’ is difficult. Slums are one such ‘territory’. The moment one enters, there are all eyes that look up at you, stare at you with multiple questions and you know that you have impeached a boundary or a limit.
In ethology the term territory refers to any sociographical area that an animal of a particular species consistently defends against conspecifics (and, occasionally, animals of other species). Animals that defend territories in this way are referred to as territorial.
I have come with an architectural and urban design background where we have romanticized a city, seen it with pink glasses that even in a poverty stricken city, one finds immense beauty – and a joy of living. In all that romance, one tends to see urban- and urbanization as that in some essence blurs various boundaries. Limits of caste/religion/culture all get blurred to together form ‘an urban way of living’.
Lewis Mumford’s definition of the city says:
“The essential physical means of a city’s existence are the fixed site, the durable shelter, the permanent facilities for assembly, interchange, and storage; the essential social means are the social division of labor, which serves not merely the economic life but the cultural process. The city in its complete sense, then, is a geographic plexus, an economic organization, an institutional process, a theater of social action, and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity. The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theater and is the theater. It is in the city, the city as theater, that man’s (sic) more purposive activities are focused, and work out, through conflicting and co-operating personalities, events, groups into more significant culminations.”
(Mumford 1937: 185)
The city with its architectural corpus is the theater in which urban life, urban drama unfolds. This urban drama continuously re-makes that architectural complexity, while creating a collectively shared understanding of the past, shared memories that become attached to particular architectural spaces. The city, with its monumentality and architectural poetics “intensifies and underlines the gestures of the actors and the action of the play” (Mumford)
But in a city of such immense soul, there are ‘territories’. What I want to question is whether this act of forming ‘territories’ really urban?! And I am here not saying that it is just the poor who have marked territories, it is also the rich- it just depends where you are an outsider and where are you a resident.
What I am internally questioning is how do we define/ rather ‘imagine’ and perceive ‘urban’? Cities have a very explicit imagery- and these images flash in your mind when you think of ‘urban’. Are enclosed territories- formed because of location, background, economic status, work profile – a feature that ‘I’ relate to as urban?
One thing is for sure, these enclaves of the urban poor, have a social order of their own – their urbanity might differ from your urbanity. And it is this very reason – distinguished urbanity- that makes ‘slums’ a contested space.
Humans probably just keep seeking order, uniformity and want the other to follow the more ‘accepted’ norm. And this is in so much contrast to our initial understanding of ‘City as a theatre’ were social drama unfolds…The fact that there are contesting urbanities – all having a role in one collective locale – is what exactly makes all these actors ‘urbane’. Even though lifestyles/ life practices may differ – it is ‘how’ to understand the ‘differences’ that is important. Most SRA/ Rehabilitation schemes fail – because they ‘fail’ to understand these ‘differences’. I was an intruder in the slums of Raipur- at least let’s not make the dwellers be intruders in their own city.