Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

Marginal Interiors: Architecture, Space, and Governance in the Colonial Indian Mufassal

in partnership with the South Asia Center

Tania Sengupta
Associate Professor & Director of Architectural History and Theory, Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London
Thursday, March 24, 2022 - 12:00
A Virtual CASI Seminar via Zoom — 12 noon EDT | 9:30pm IST

About the Seminar:
This talk reflects on the mutual formations of two proximate strands that figured the spatial histories of the eastern Indian interiors in the nineteenth century: first, the architectures and spaces of British colonial provincial governance, and second, the wider formations of the mufassal (provincial regions) as physical and cultural sites. Dominant imaginations of architectures associated with colonial rule—including that of India under the British—have tended to form around the material and conceptual tropes of major cities and iconic buildings. This is true both of received histories narrating heroic achievements of the colonists as well as much of postcolonial architectural studies exposing grand architectural and urban schemes as inscriptions and deliverers of colonial power. In reality, the East India Company’s military-fiscal rule in India meant a foundational role of revenue extraction from interior agricultural regions and entrenched dependencies on everyday revenue governance. This was delivered, in the eastern Indian province of Bengal, through revenue collection nodes—what came to be known as zilla sadar (district headquarter) towns—that dotted the Bengal mufassal. Focusing on the colonial revenue cutcherry (office) that formed the pulsating heart of these towns, Dr. Sengupta unpacks a type of "minor architecture": ubiquitous and ordinary spaces and practices of day-to-day colonial governance, looking at European officers, Indian clerks, and other lower order employees. Rather than analyzing formal representation that has often tended to dominate the reading of colonial architectures as architectures of reified power, she explores the granular spatial and material cultures of colonial revenue knowledge and clerical practices of Indian employees. Moving between different scales—the mufassal/zilla sadar and the cutcherry—the lives of provincial offices emerge here through their relationships with the wider everyday provincial life and spaces. She also thinks about the problems of descriptions of these provincial towns, their often banal, ambiguous, indeterminate character; their relationship with the "colonial-metropolitan" and as sites lodged within rural-urban relationships; and how they simultaneously embodied two apparently contradictory spatial ideas: marginality and interiority.

About the Speaker:
Dr. Tania Sengupta is an Associate Professor and Director of Architectural History and Theory at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London (UCL). Trained and having worked originally as an architect and urban designer in India, her present research focuses on architectural and spatial histories of South Asia through postcolonial and transcultural frames. She explores themes such as architectures of (colonial) governance; provinciality and rural-urban relationships; spaces of domesticity; race and the built environment; gender and feminist readings; questions of field and archive in architectural history; cities and spaces of everyday life; and social relationships of architectural knowledge and expertise. Her recent research on paper-bureaucracy and clerical life-worlds in relation to British colonial office architecture in India received the 2019 Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) President’s Award as well as the 2019 RIBA President's Medal. Dr. Sengupta is Co-Chief Editor of the journal Architecture Beyond Europe and co-curator of the curriculum "Race" and Space: What is "Race" Doing in a Nice Field Like the Built Environment? (Society of Architectural Historians GB Colvin Prize shortlist 2021). She is an active part of several race-related and decolonial initiatives within and beyond UCL.