[excerpt] In Gillo Pontecorvo’s landmark 1966 film, the French colonial city of Algiers strikes a dramatic posture, split in two by a fortified barrier administered by imperial forces.1

 The cordon sanitaire between the European quarter and the ‘native’ qasba partitions the disciplined spaces of the colonial city, setting apart what appear to the moviegoer as materializations of radically different concepts and histories of urban design, planning and sociality. This enforced physical and cultural incommensurability between ‘white town’ and ‘black town’ encapsulates a powerful stereotype that inflects urban history research on a range of empires, places and times.2

The paradigmatic image of the racially partitioned colonial city has been dismantled in recent scholarship on British India as more a figure of political desire on the part of colonial administrators than an accurate description of urban cultural geography.3

 Mounting evidence of the ‘dual city’ model’s limitations provides an opportunity to reconsider to what extent colonial urbanism constituted a coherent set of ideas and practices. The current essay surveys several recent books on modern South Asian urban history that represent, perhaps, the first wave of a major emerging field in the historiography of the region.4 All of these works provide rich material for considering the transformation of cities there during the colonial period. Rather than describing a fixed material form or attributing unified instrumentality to the making and governance of cities, it develops a thematic and descriptive account of trends that shaped urban worlds in the colonial subcontinent. These dynamics suggest that urbanism in colonial South Asia was fundamentally about spatial segregation of populations.

  • 1. G. Pontecorvo, director of La battaglia di Algeri [The Battle of Algiers] (Italy, 1966).
  • 2. On boundaries in French colonial cities in North Africa, see J. Abu-Lughod, Rabat: Urban Apartheid in Morocco (Princeton, 1980) and P. Rabinow, ‘Techno-cosmopolitanism: governing Morocco’ in P. Rabinow, French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment (Chicago, 1995), 277–319. See also J. Abu-Lughod, ‘Tale of two cities: the origins of modern Cairo’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, VII, 4 (1965), 429–57. For classic elaborations of the ‘dual city’ model, see S. J. Lewandowski, ‘Urban growth and municipal  development in the colonial city of Madras, 1860–1900’, Journal of Asian Studies, XXXIV, 2 (1975), 341–60 and S. M. Neild, ‘Colonial urbanism: the development of Madras City in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’, Modern Asian Studies, XIII, 2 (1979), 217–46.
  • 3. See especially S. Chattopadhyay, Representing Calcutta: Modernity, Nationalism, and the Colonial Uncanny (London, 2005).
  • 4. I consider in detail the following books: Chattopadhyay, op. cit.; W. J. Glover, Making Lahore Modern: Constructing and Imagining a Colonial City (Minneapolis, 2007); S. Hazareesingh, The Colonial City and the Challenge of Modernity: Urban Hegemonies and Civic Contestations in Bombay City 1900–1925 (New Delhi, 2007); P. Kidambi, The Making of an Indian Metropolis: Colonial Governance and Public Culture in Bombay, 1890–1920 (Aldershot, 2007); and S. Legg, Spaces of Colonialism: Delhi’s Urban Governmentalities (Malden, MA, 2007). Other works that fit within the emerging canon of modern South Asian urban history include J. Nair, The Promise of the Metropolis: Bangalore’s Twentieth Century (New Delhi, 2005); J. Hosagrahar, Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism (London, 2005); G. Prakash, Mumbai Fables (Princeton, 2010); P. Chopra, A Joint Enterprise: Indian Elites and the Making of British Bombay (Minneapolis, 2011); and N. R. Rao, House But No Garden: Apartment Living in Bombay’s Suburbs, 1898–1964 (Minneapolis, forthcoming).