Is there a culture of the Indian street?


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IN spring of 2006, I stood on a bustling street adjacent to a central Mumbai train station while a group of architects presented a public space mapping project to an official from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). The architects pointed out the tens of thousands of pedestrians effortlessly weaving their way through a small space, the dozens of hawkers who strategically sit between concrete planters, the clusters of mobile vendors who work in the middle of the road but out of pedestrians’ pathways, the shopkeepers whose extensions blur the boundaries between the formal and informal, the flower vendors stationed on the path to a nearby temple, and the men on bicycles parked under an overpass offering cold drinks to thirsty passers-by. All these people constitute the anonymous cast of characters in what Jane Jacobs (1961 and 1992: 50) famously called the ‘intricate sidewalk ballet’ of congested, but healthy and vibrant, public spaces.

The architects tried to disabuse the official of the commonsense view that street commerce and foot traffic are at odds. Hawking and walking are interlinked, they argued. They are part of a single transportation modality that consists of a variety of uses and populations, something that produces visual confusion, but a functioning urban environment. As a result, automotive traffic is far more disruptive than hawker and shopkeepers’ encroachments. The density of the crowd and the commerce on the street’s edge discouraged all but the occasional taxi or truck, so these disruptions, fortunately, were infrequent. The street-sidewalk boundary had been blurred by people walking on the roadway – so the streetscape had become, in a way, a ‘shared space’ or, as it is called in Holland, woonerf.


However, what counts as urban design innovation in northern Europe is considered infrastructural failure when located in Mumbai. These streets are too congested, explained the BMC official, they are too narrow, used by too many people and for far too many different purposes. He confidently offered a solution: a massive elevated pedestrian walkway. With a sweeping gesture of his arm, he visualized the walkway’s arc, soaring above the swirl of street activity from the exit of the station to the nearby arterial road. As we watched him in stunned silence, we saw that no amount of spatial analyses would disabuse the idea that Mumbai’s streets are too crowded, too dense and too messy.

This encounter took place two years before the first of thirty-two (and counting) pedestrian skywalks were constructed in Mumbai.1 At that time the idea of a pedestrian bridge sounded preposterous, thoroughly out of touch with how the city’s streets function. Why was the solution to congestion sought in the sky, when there was one so clearly on the ground, we wondered? Was the skywalk meant to benefit pedestrians, or discipline them? It wasn’t quite clear. But these questions missed the point. Literally and figuratively soaring above the city, projects like this operate on a logic of urban fantasy and globally-scaled aspiration; the dream to rise above the ‘mess’ of the street, as an official is quoted saying (Siddhaye 2011), needs no technical justification.


It was 2006, no skywalk had been built, and yet, skywalks were shaping the reality of the city. Their imminent arrival shaped how people interpreted streets, their use, and the potential design interventions that can transform them. This encounter can teach us much about how the city works – about, for instance, the way local authorities shape the built environment, the nature of bureaucratic rule and transportation-related decision making processes – but more importantly, it demonstrates how urban fantasies continue to animate the reality of the street. It shows the presence of unactualized structures in the tactile environment of the city. This presence is a constitutive element of what might be called the ‘culture’ of the Indian street; the experience, function and aesthetic form of the street are inseparable from the spectre of dreams for what a modern, global or ‘world-class’ urban landscape should look like.

Writings on the street in India can be grouped into two categories. The first sees the street as a space of difference. These are writings by non-Indians and Indians alike that – whether as emblematic of the ‘exotic Orient’ (Kidambi 2007: 35), ‘premature’ (Bose 1965), or underdeveloped – see streets ‘seething with miscellaneous humanity’ (Low 1907: 23), as deviations from modern ideals. The second group sees streets and urban space as manifestations of power, arenas on which forces of global capital and ideologies of neo-liberalism unfold (Rajagopal 2001, Whitehead and More 2007 and Arabindoo 2010). And finally the third perspective, what might be called a ‘culturalist’ approach, frames Indian streetscapes in terms of their unique rhythms and logic of practice (Appadurai 1987, Ahuja 1997, Edensor 1998 and Mehta 2009).

This essay focuses on the third perspective because, despite the problems, it continues to be compelling. It also is the approach that resonates with contemporary debates on global urbanism and the need for new vocabularies of urban analysis derived from historical experiences outside the West (cf. Robinson 2002). The culturalist perspective is important because it highlights the specificity of urban experience; however, at times, its effect is to rigidify difference. Is this inherent to the project of locating urban particularity? It might be, but only when we focus on different street practices, as opposed to difference as a mode of experience that shapes the street. I argue that the specificity of the Indian street lies in the problematic of difference – the perceived disjuncture between lived experience and universalizing norms of urban modernity – that animates ordinary life and governmental efforts to transform the city alike.


Representations of the street: The Indian street has not fared well over the past two centuries. From Naipaul’s street scenes consisting of ‘depressed-looking, dark people …eating, indifferent to everything but their food’ (Naipaul, quoted in Chakrabarty 2002: 65-6) to Gandhi’s observation that Bombay ‘looks as if it were the scum of London… [with] all the shortcomings of London but… none of its amenities’ (quoted in Hazareesingh 2007: 124), descriptions of Indian streetscapes have been framed in dystopic terms. Travellers’ and journalists’ accounts describe streets that are dense, dirty and chaotic. They describe terrifying experiences of navigating crumbling surfaces, dodging garbage, shit and hawkers on long-ago vanished sidewalks, all the while avoiding the dangerous anarchy of India’s infamous exhaust-spewing traffic.


In much travel writing on India, the street offers a glimpse into another world. ‘When we reached the native town how changed was the scene… Europe was left behind and the East was realized – the narrow, winding streets, the open shops, small but highly characteristic, where the owner, Hindoo, Mahomedan, or Jew squatted among his wares’ (quoted in Kidambi 2007: 35). This chronicler of late 19th century Bombay observed not just a broken world – a world of poverty, dirt and despair – but an inverted one: a world, as an observer put it at the turn of the century, in which people ‘do all sorts of things in public which to our thinking should be transacted in privacy’ (Low 1907: 23-24).

Here, difference is indexed by sensory experience– ‘On entering its huge bazaars for the first time, one is immediately deafened by the din that prevails, and half suffocated by the smells that impregnate the atmosphere’ (Rousselet, quoted in Dwivedi and Mehrotra 1994: 50) – as well as by the organization of everyday life. ‘The shops are simply boxes, set on end, with the lids off… [where one can] stand and watch the baker rolling his flat loaves, the tailor stitching and cutting, [and] the coppersmith hammering at his bowls and dishes’ (Low 1907: 24) while all around people can be seen ‘dressing, shaving, washing, and sleeping, and, in spite of the caste rules and religious restrictions, even a good deal of eating’ (Low 1907: 23).

Indeed, on most streets in urban India people are walking, but they are also working, cooking, talking, eating, sleeping, reading or simply hanging out. People brush their teeth, wash their face, chop vegetables and clean dishes. On the quiet residential street in front of the apartment where I stay in northwest Mumbai, the day begins with a woman selling tea next to her husband, an occasional banana vendor. Their grandchild plays on a scooter while his father washes his autorickshaw. By the late afternoon, a cigarette and paan vendor appears across the road. Around the corner, a vendor toasts sandwiches opposite a man selling nimbus and leafy green vegetables from a small pushcart. A raddiwala cycles by, collecting old newspapers. An itinerant barber, his equipment stored in a small briefcase, sits in the shade of a shoe repairman’s roadside stall. A block away, a cluster of women sell vegetables perched against a fence, a man fries pakodas from a small metal stand, others prepare chaat and vada pao. Beneath an old tree, magazines are displayed next to two young men repairing tires, stacks of which are used to support a table for their neighbours’ food preparation.

How are we to interpret these street scenes? Is this mix of activities a sign of infrastructural and governance failure– a view shared by the local residents’ associations and much of the Mumbai media? Or, do they index a sensibility, a ‘refusal to become citizens of an ideal, bourgeois order’ (Chakrabarty 2002: 77). Or, as Arjun Appadurai (1987: 13) writes, are the streets and associated practices ‘cultural resources’ which ‘lie at the heart of public life in contemporary India’?


Indian streetscapes: Considering the way monumental architecture continues to stand in for ‘heritage’ in urban India, Appadurai’s call for an appreciation of street life is remarkably prescient. For Appadurai, streetscapes exhibit a ‘public culture’, a place where notions of place and affiliation are forged. ‘With the possible exception of the railroad, streets capture more about India than any other setting. On its streets, India eats, works, sleeps, moves, celebrates and worships’ (Appadurai 1987: 14). Streets are also ideal sites from which to explore connections among popular media, politics and society in a context of intensifying transnational image circulation, the subject of his more well-known later work (cf. Appadurai 1996).


However, imbuing ordinary landscapes with cultural value is different from interpreting streetscapes as sites of distinct cultural sensibilities, a view that informs other writings on the street. We see this view, for instance, in Soraya Ahuja’s Where the Streets Lead (1997), an account of the aesthetics and experience of the street in half a dozen Indian cities. This text interweaves fictional narrative with architectural analyses to reflect on the configurations of ordinary life and built environments: ‘I looked down at the patterns formed by the cars, the people, the signs, the crossings, buildings and lights. Here lay the boundless conurbation of streets operating in perfectly controlled chaos. This was the Indian street for me’ (Ahuja 1997: 47).

To Ahuja, Indian streets are defined by a profusion of personal encounters: ‘The food carts and people around them and the simple act of eating made the place appear intimate’ (Ahuja 1997: 50). The transformation of public spaces into private spaces occur everywhere, from the quiet residential streets to the imposing, monumental architecture of South Mumbai: ‘a continuous arcade that connected all the buildings… was crowded with hawkers of all sorts, and indicated a characteristic inherent in the culture of the Orient, to personalize a public domain, so that the demarcation between the private and the public was loose and nebulous, unlike in the West’ (Ahuja 1997: 50).

A mix of the intimate and the anonymous is central to other writings on the Indian street. Consider, for instance, Kaiwan Mehta’s Alice in Bhuleshwar, a memoir of the author’s wanderings through the old Mumbai neighbourhood of Bhuleshwar that mixes postmodern pastiche with ethnographic musings: ‘The crowd of people and cycles, cars and handcarts does not allow one to look around for long. The negotiations that one employs to navigate these streets dominates one’s experience of the area’ (Mehta 2009: 2). This is a deliberately fragmented approach that, in the spirit of de Certeau (1984), is an effort to dwell in the mental maps of the city. ‘Every gali belongs to a sweeper, and he proudly owns the burden, as much as he curses the stench in his life’ (Mehta 2009: 13). Emerging from the crush of the commuter trains, Mehta writes, ‘We step into new neighbourhoods, making them new again. We move through main lanes and streets every day, sometimes negotiating the traffic, at other times, garbage, and often even the marriage procession of a man we do not know but recognize’ (Mehta 2009: 4).


This imaginative potential of the public spectacle, sensory experience and social mix also animates Tim Edensor’s essay, ‘The Culture of the Indian Street’ (1998). To Edensor, mixed use streetscapes pose a conceptual challenge to urban analysis that normalizes the highly monitored, strictly demarcated streetscape of the West. In contrast to ‘western’ streets, which are ‘constructed out of an aesthetics and rationale which fears mixing of function and the disintegration of boundaries’ (Edensor 1998: 213), streets in India are characterized by an overwhelming sensory experience, public spectacle, a jostle of bodies, objects and practices, in which ‘passage is marked by disruption and distraction… offered by these heterogeneous activities and sights’ (Edensor 1998: 210). Indian streetscapes contain a ‘haptic geography wherein there is continuous touching of others and weaving between and against bodies’ (Edensor 1998: 212).

This is a geography that challenges the pedestrian, drawing him into the urban realm. ‘The body passing through the Indian street is continually imposed upon and challenged by diverse activities, sensations and sights which render a state at variance to the restrained and distanced distraction of the western street’ (Edensor 1998: 213). Eschewing earlier interpretations of dense streetscapes as signs of civilizational inferiority (e.g. Low 1907) or infrastructural failure, Edensor sees them as models for what has been lost in the West. To him, mixed use, the blurring of boundaries between public and private, and the rich sensory experience are signs of streets that are ‘less circumscribed and framed by the power of capital and bureaucracy’ (Edensor 1998: 219). reinterprets messy streetscapes as redemptive spaces. Jarring streetscapes invigorate, they heighten the senses and invigorate social engagement. Indeed, this is a street spectacle that challenges ‘the passive’ ideal that, since the late 18th century, has dominated the European urban experience (Sennett 1994: 16-21; cf. Edensor 1998: 214).


It goes without saying that the exuberance of India’s streets has potential to heighten engagement of the external world in a way that suburban U.S. streetscapes – obsessed, as Richard Sennett (1994: 18) argues, with effortless navigation and a kind of ‘freedom from resistance’ – do not. There is democratic potential too – India contains streetscapes that allow a wide diversity of urban practices, as well as the potential to generate greater awareness of the harsh realities and inequalities of urban life (what do ‘clean’ sidewalks hide better than poverty?). But, as with all culturalist analyses, there is a danger of imputing stasis, harmony and boundedness on what is, in fact, a much more contested and fluid realm. Edensor’s analyses of street life suggestes a unified and circumscribed cultural world; the streetlife he describes are presumed to be ontologically distinct from streetlife elsewhere when, in fact, they are produced out of centuries of exchange and interaction, including with those in the ‘West’ (cf. Mcfarlane 2008).


Edensor provides a much needed fine-grained account of Indian streetscapes, and in doing so, he achieves what all good urban ethnography should do. But in its invocation of difference, the essay raises a larger question about the possibilities of transnational urban analyses: is it possible to describe particularities of urban experience – to decentre urban environments in Europe and North America – without reifying culture? Or, is reifying culture inherent to the project of identifying specificity? I suggest that, as long as we reconceptualize the notion of street ‘culture’, this does not have to be the case. Rather than a distinct realm of practice and sensibility, we might instead refer to a realm of experience and interpretation in which ‘difference’ is not a stable, external sociological category, but a frame of reference that produces the street and its associated worlds in the first place.

In India, difference lies in the haunting spectre of what is perceived as the incomplete project of modernity in the city. Questions such as the one framing Partha Chatterjee’s (‘Are Indian Cities Becoming Bourgeois at Last?’ 2004) essay on middle class urban politics (and from whom I draw the title of this essay) speak to this predicament. Indian cities are modern in an obvious sense, and yet the constant public discussion about lack of civic sense, misuse of public space and the appearance of streets is partly a reflection of anxiety over whether they are full participants in world modernity; for many of its users, the streetscapes that Edensor celebrates represent a problem because they deviate from a supposedly universal urban aesthetic ideal. Thus, while writings on the culture of the Indian street are concerned with ‘understanding… difference and "otherness" ’ (Edensor 1998: 220), the politics of contemporary urban India suggests that what is needed is to understand how otherness operates on the street. What is needed, therefore, is not just ethnography of different street practices, but how street practices in India are produced through awareness of difference from the ‘West’ by those using, working, loitering, managing, writing, and governing it.


Without denying the intimacy, mix of activities, proximity of bodies and blurred boundaries in urban India described by Edensor and others, we cannot celebrate the vibrancy of streets in India without losing sight of the fact that they are animated by a continual contest over how a modern streetscape should function. As with the BMC skywalk, dreams of urban landscapes elsewhere and notions of what a modern city should look like continue to animate ordinary life. These are not ‘cultural’ attributes in the anthropological sense, but are spawned from an imagination of cultural difference.

Indeed, even what these writers identify as ‘culture’ is in fact a set of contested street practices in which, for instance, daily needs conflict with modern ideals; thus the ‘total confusion of the private and the public’ (Chakrabarty 2002: 66) is not a static empirical reality, a sign of cultural specificity but, to many in urban India, including civic groups, NGOs, pedestrian rights activists, residents associations, municipal officials, police, journalists and celebrities, something that needs fixing. Likewise, the constant stream of letters to the editor complaining of Mumbaikars’ lack of civic sense, the ‘citizen’-led campaigns against littering, spitting and patronizing street vendors, do not represent a static cultural tradition, but are highly charged politics in which are wrapped up larger questions of democracy, citizenship rights, and conflicts over the ‘right to the city’ (Lefebvre 1996).


Streets and modernity: In outlining the conceptual stakes in a study of the Indian street, it is necessary to explain that by ‘street’, I refer to an element of the built environment that simultaneously operates as an abstract entity and a lived experience. This is the concept of the street, to follow de Certeau (1984), that sees the street consisting of an assemblage of technical expertise, law and things, as well as the experiences, practices and imaginaries of its inhabitants. These are, of course, merely analytic categories that highlight how urban landscapes are produced. At any particular moment, the meaning of a street is informed by the official practices that make it an abstract entity, just as ‘the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers’ (de Certeau 1984: 117).

The street is an object of spatio-legal regimes and a technocratic gaze – of policy makers’, planners’ and engineers’ visions – but it also operates as a powerful metaphor. ‘The street’ connotes the mundane, the gritty, and the real. It is a space of everyday interaction (e.g. Whyte 1943), urban savvy, morality (‘street justice’) and popular political sentiment (as in the journalistic cliché ‘the Arab street’). Curbs, parks and sidewalks seem to lack this poetic potential, although the public square comes close.


The street is also where the political categories of liberal democracy manifest themselves. As Marshall Berman (1986) writes in ‘Take it to the Streets’, political and spatial categories co-produce each other. The ideals of modern subjectivity – individuated personhood unencumbered by history, social ties, or obligation, for instance – are spatialized. We see this, for instance, in the removal of embodied practices (eating, washing and cooking) from the street (Valentine 1998), in the 19th century European ‘city… [which] has drastically and irreparably devalued it [the street] as a place of social experience (Moretti 1983: 127), and in the valorization of strolling, aimless wandering and flânerie in art and literature. In the modernist imagination, walking gets transformed from a mundane act to a normative spatial practice, while the pedestrian becomes the normative urban inhabitant; individuated and unencumbered, stripped of the past, someone who embraces contradiction and the challenges of the new.

In this way, the street occupies a privileged place in accounts of urban modernity. To Walter Benjamin (2006), the experience of the street stands in for the contradictions of capitalist modernity – the simultaneous experience of the attractive and the repulsive, the sacred and the mundane, the transformative and degrading (Kaviraj 2004). In Baudelaire’s poetry, for instance, ‘[t]he archetypal modern man... is a pedestrian thrown into the maelstrom of modern city traffic, a man alone contending against an agglomeration of mass and energy that is heavy, fast and lethal’ (Berman 1983: 159). The street is where one encounters the technology, sociality and politics of the modern world.


This is where the street in India poses a challenge. Analyses of urban modernity rest on a literary tradition which normalizes the ‘modern city as a crowd of strangers’ (Williams 1992: 85) and a gaze of ‘the alienated man’ (Benjamin 1986: 40) that does not quite characterize streets in India (or, perhaps, any street other than those geographically and chronologically located in 19th century Paris). If the experience of the modern city is defined by alienation, then how do we interpret streets in places like Bombay, which are represented as ‘part village community, part cosmopolitan city street’? (Mazumdar 2007: xx). Similarly, what do we make of streets that do not produce a ‘veil through which the familiar city beckons… as phantasmagoria’ (Benjamin 1986: 40) but, as we see in Hindi film, ones that ‘evoke… a whole range of experiences related to loss, nostalgia, pain, community, and anger’? (Mazumdar 2007: 4-5).2 

‘The great novelty of urban life… does not consist in having thrown the people into the street, but in having raked them up and shut them into offices and houses’ (Moretti 1983: 127); and yet, it is precisely the vast mix of people and activities in public that writers identify as a characteristic feature of the Indian street. Is the answer to these questions simply to say that the category of the modern is irrelevant? Or, that the Eurocentricism of mainstream urban theory can only be overcome by expanding the category to include radically different urban forms and practices? Alternatively, I suggest that we might see difference from the category of the modern (however much of a myth that category is) as constituting a predicament that is an extricable part of the experience of the urban Indian streetscape.


Any discussion of the culture of the Indian street has to take into account the fact that today’s Indian streetscapes are an accumulation of a century and a half of municipal, police and elite residents’ efforts to transform them. This does not mean the street has been subsumed into a logic of architectural modernism; but equally, nor does the street represent a complete inversion of it. From the introduction of motorized transport at the turn of the century, which authorities hoped would have the effect of ‘teaching the native to look ahead and to perceive that the middle of the road is not the place for an aimless saunter’ (quoted in Hazareesingh 2007: 66); mid-century bureaucrats’ discussions of the necessary sidewalk maintenance ‘if the pedestrian is to be kept off the road’ (The Greater Bombay Scheme 1945: 25); and to more recent efforts to discipline street users such as the erection of fences meant to keep pedestrians separate from automotive traffic, efforts to reshape the street practices in India have largely failed (cf. Chakrabarty 2002).

On the street in northwest Mumbai discussed above, the new fence meant to discipline street users – to produce rightful pedestrians – was immediately appropriated by washermen and hawkers, so that it now serves as the physical infrastructure for the street’s informal economy (e.g. Koolhaas et al. 2000). In part, this can be read as a sign of modernity’s ‘obsession to impose a thoroughly rationalized order on to the world’ (Clarke 1997: 3); the fence ultimately had an opposite effect, as more people chose to walk amidst traffic than be hemmed in by this unforgiving architecture (cf. Ranade et al 2005).

If there is a culture of the Indian street, it is in its relationship to the project of modernity. This is not so much a shared sensibility, but a contested terrain that consists of conflicts over how streets can be used (can the side of the road be used for hawking, or is it solely for walking?), efforts to discipline the public (e.g., ‘Don’t Spit! Don’t Litter!’ Rao 2012) and infrastructural interventions (such as skywalks and pedestrian fences) that ebb and flow, that remake streets as much as streets remake them. These are not conflicts over whether or not the streets are modern or ‘Indian’, but over the ‘configuration of the modern’ (Kaviraj 1997: 92) in the first place.


Streets in India are shaped through this constantly shifting negotiation over the form and content of the city; they neither mimic modernist urbanism nor do they invert it. In this way, urbanist modernism as an architectural form, and urban modernity as a consciousness, represent both problems and possibilities. Practices such as flânerie are premised on a landscape of urban alienation; of being in the crowd but never being part of it.

Streets in urban India offer a spectacle that captures wanderers’ imaginations (cf. Edensor 1998), but this spectacle is premised on pulling the spectator into other worlds. To some, for example, Naipaul (Ezekial 1974), the impossibility of distanced observation, autonomy and anonymity signals an unsettling lack of modern consciousness; but more compellingly, it can challenge the universalizing concepts of urban space and analysis. Thus concepts such as flânerie as urban methodology (cf. Featherstone 1998), problematic outside the idealized modernist landscape of 19th century Paris, can be helpful in other ways – in, for instance, allowing us to see how streets are inhabited by the ‘phantasmagoria’ (Benjamin 1986: 40) of urban lifeworlds elsewhere.


What sets the street in Mumbai or New Delhi apart from streets in North America and Europe is thus not a different ‘culture’ or street practice (we can see bits of the Jane Jacobs’ ‘street ballet’, as well as the drudgery of architectural modernism in New York City as much as in Mumbai), but in the way fantasies of other cities haunt everyday life. Read the New York Times and the countless urbanist blogs on New York City, and you get the sense that the future of that city emanates from within itself. By contrast, the model for the future Indian street is in Singapore, Dubai and Shanghai; its potential to become a modern city is presumed to be in its ability to emulate urban landscapes elsewhere.



1. Mumbai’s skywalks were built by the MMRDA, a statewide agency responsible for infrastructural development that is independent from the BMC. Nevertheless it is clear from this encounter that BMC officials were aware of the MMRDA’s future plans.

2. That is not to say that representations of the street in India as spaces of social isolation and alienation are impossible. See, for instance, Karin Zitzewitz’s (2009) readings of Sudhir Patwardhan’s Bombay paintings.



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