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Ritual and Urbanism

Landscapes of Urban Memory: The Sacred and the Civic in India

Ritual and Urbanism

Landscapes of Urban Memory: The Sacred and the Civic in India’s High-Tech City

by Smriti Srinivas; Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2004; pp 366, Rs 525.


hat is at stake in writing an urban sociology of ‘India’s Silicon Valley’ not through its advent in global networks, but through rituals enacted across the city by Bangalore’s plebeian majority? Srinivas’ textured and meticulously researched monograph reads Bangalore against the grain of globalisation-centrism and its class-cultural biases, by centring its narrative on practices emerging out of the cultural and spatial dynamics of Karaga performance, which the author claims sheds specific light on memory, urban space, ritual and performance more generally.

The Karaga is an earthen pot, embodying the feminine principle or shakti of the goddess Draupadi as carried by a priest, who then becomes part of the Karaga, and it is also the spatial performance that this transgendered priestwith-shakti enacts through the Karaga ‘jatre’ or procession through the city. Using this embodied and spatialised event as the central focus, Srinivas sets out to construct a challenging historicalethnographic sociology of interplay between civic and sacred, past and present, country and city, nature and culture. Importantly, this book tries both to make broad theoretical claims about how to apprehend public space and urban practice outside eurocentric, secular frames, without sacrificing a painstaking attention to detail for the specialist of ritual and urbanism in Bangalore, built through many years of research in the city, and on Karaga jatre in particular.

Understanding of Memory

One of the most important arguments in Landscapes of Urban Memory is that the Karaga jatre embodies a specific understanding of memory as ‘smarana’: “embedded in many regions in recitations, oral narratives, and musical, mimetic, devotional and performative practices where one individually or collectively remembers and invokes the name or form of the divine, a historical metanarrative, or the deeds of ancestors, deities, paradigmatic individuals or mythic heroes” (p 27). This lived, kinetic, oral and aural form of collective memory provides a “kinesthetic imagination” (p 29), but what is particularly interesting is Srinivas’ argument that herein lies a set of social memories about human-environment relations and social relations of access to resources, particularly water resources in a network of tanks. Chapter 1 presents this argument in broad terms, and sets out the claim that something about the Karaga jatre’s centrality has to do with a particular social group, Vahnikula kshatriyas, who occupy a location “at the intersection between the lower end of the formal sector and the developmental state’s activities, and in the informal sector” (p 14). Something about Vahnikula kshatriya’s past in horticulture, we are promised, reappears in their participation in urban rituals that somehow become “civic rituals”, the title of this chapter. While there is little material on popular interpretation given to the reader, it is a provocative promise that draws one into the argument that Vahnikula kshatriya performance somehow provides a different understanding of Bangalore as a “gardener’s city” (p 33). Indeed, we are told that the procession draws together sights and sounds into a carnival that “acts as a kind of ‘newspaper’, gathering up events of the past year(s) and staging them” (p 34): another enticing claim that promises the reader a body of ethnographic research to appreciate popular consciousness.

Instead, the subsequent chapter, called ‘Models of the Garden City’, shifts into an interesting history of spatial relations. There are insights here, on the former centrality of tanks, and the complex set of events through which competing models of urban planning – “the fort-settlement and market tank model and the English parks and gardens model” (p 47) – gave way to postcolonial spatial planning that disrupted the earlier geography of horticulture. This chapter is meant to provide a social-historic basis, which can be indexed in practices of memory, an argument which takes the reader to a set of questions with respect to conceptions of memory and history. Given Srinivas’ careful contextualisation of the problematic in terms of a specific history of memory as smarana, the reader cannot revert to a universalist and mechanistic notion of memory in understanding how prior geographies are revived in contemporary performance.

Symbolic Economies

Rather than turning to these issues, the author shifts gears in chapter 3, to the symbolic economies that structure what the chapter titles ‘The Urban Performative Complex’. Through discursive analysis of priests and older residents, reflection on

Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006

the physical space of ritual, and a complex set of sub-arguments about intercession, inter-religious relations, Srinivas arrives at a structuralist conception of the “urban performative complex in Bangalore” as configured along “three axes”: “One axis is the network of goddess worship within which the Karaga jatre is embedded. The second is the constellation of the temples to the goddess and her “others”. The third axis, the axis of metropolitan sacrality, connects the symbols, practices, and constituencies of sites of locational sacrality with the sacrality of urban sprawl and is an emergent one, constantly being forged as the city grows” (p 94). This central claim is put forth axiomatically, it would seem, to a readership convinced of its terms and methods.

Social History

In contrast, chapter 4 shifts back to the social history of the Vahnikula kshatriyas who are key participants in the Karaga jatre. The reader now learns that Vahnikula kshatriyas affiliate as part of a larger constituency of Tigalas, and that certain Tigalas carry association with the Tamil country, with mythic connections to a hero borne of fire, to gardening and to participation in the Karaga jatre. Indeed, Vahnikula kshatriyas, as Tamil speakers in a predominantly Kannada-speaking population would seem to have been drawn into various moments of nativist politics, not least in the present. The chapter presents a great amount of detail on ritual practices, on the non-brahmin movement, and on Tigala classification as a backward class. What is striking through this history is that “Tigalas seem to have identified themselves firmly with the vicissitudes of Karnataka state politics in spite of their mythic and historical connections with Tamil Nadu” (p 119). At the end of it all, Srinivas argues that Tigalas have maintained some sense of a “paracommunity” (p 136) despite difficulties in maintaining access to horticultural land, which is presumed to be some kind of key attribute of this caste grouping. This is another very painstakingly documented chapter, with a conclusion that is open to possibility.

If Srinivas is reticent in making strong claims about caste dynamics and politics, the analysis of ritual practice and oral epics in the following two chapters grasp the evidence forcefully. Here, once again, Srinivas’ approach is structuralist, as in treating performance as a set of “kinetographs”, defined as “a representation of spatial movement in time that emerges from the ritual process” (p 139). As the term implies, kinetographs are embodied mapping practices, which extend what Srinivas earlier called “the kinesthetic imagination”. Srinivas’ argument now is that the Karaga jatre is itself an elaborately trained and orchestrated set of embodied mapping practices that has expanded along with the city of Bangalore. Srinivas turns from this provocative set of claims to a closer analysis of priest and other authoritative narratives, as well as of various aspects of the jatre process. By the end of the chapter, Srinivas presents a set of kinetographs – “alternation, circumambulation, procession and the suburban cycle” (p 182) – as derived from Srinivas’ analysis of spatial and symbolic systems rather than from interpretation of participants forms of cultural production. Again, this is a painstakingly documented argument, but not without its specific theoretical and methodological orientations. The analysis of the epic, Karaga Purana, in the following chapter, is striking for the absence of reference to gardeners, tanks and other bodies of water, and it is used by Srinivas to demonstrate divergence between kinesthetic and oral forms of memory and the different historical periods they index. This is a very interesting insight, with broader ramifications for work on memory, history and performance.


Landscapes of Memory concludes with the promise that the Karaga jatre provides a different model of “the civic”. This is a laudable goal, for all the presumption it carries about doing away with eurocentric models. However, the book concludes by broadening rather than narrowing the multitude of arguments in its empirically rich chapters. Indeed, the conclusion meanders through meditations on Bangalore’s continuing transformation into the 1990s, obligatory references to Manuel Castells networked utopia, and many things besides. There are important insights embedded in these final thoughts, for instance, in Srinivas’ observation of the increasing salience of Karaga jatre alongside the decline of horticulture and the movement of former gardeners into the informal economy, with little room for mobility into the formal public or private

Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006

economy (p 246). This would seem to imply that the Karaga jatre is a kind of assertion that seeks not just to map, but to ritually threaten transformation of dominant spatial relations, or at least to argue for a different Bangalore that is not entirely lost to those who can profit from the Silicon plateau. One of Srinivas’ concluding lines is that “the recognition that constructs of place of these communities, related to civic amnesia or embedded within a grid plan, return regularly to civic consciousness is a deeply political act” (p 251). If I understand this correctly, Srinivas suggests that to represent subaltern performance is to be “deeply political”, and of this I remain unconvinced. While understanding the conditions of subaltern carnival in Indian cities, in terms of both limits and possibilities, remains an extremely important task requiring a wide variety of intellectual skills including several demonstrated in Srinivas’ rich book,Landscapes of Memory demonstrates that the task is always fraught and evanescent. It is perhaps appropriate that the subaltern does not speak in this text, and that the last lines are a call for more, and more intellectually eclectic, forms of research on space, politics, ritual and performance.



Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006

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