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Mainstream, VOL XLIX No 31, July 23, 2011

They Made a Difference — Of Papiya Ghosh and Patrick Geddes

Monday 25 July 2011



There are individuals who have made a difference – to other individuals, to a community, to a nation. Hence the cliché “His/her name will go down in history.” But we must take into account how much time an individual is given. The reason I am here today, in a city I last knew in 1946, is because we are meeting to remember an individual who was born in 1953, whose life was brutally cut down when she was 53. The subject of my lecture is another individual, born almost exactly a century before Papiya (and the initials of whose name were the same as hers), who was given 78 years. Papiya Ghosh did so much in the half-century of life allowed to her, and what she did not have time to publish have acquired permanence, because of her sister Tuktuk’s efforts, as books. Patrick Geddes did most of what he is remembered for in the quarter-century after he was 50, and much of what he wrote remains in manuscript, unpublished, in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

There were points of similarity that I see between their personalities. Papiya almost made others forget how hard the daily details of life can be, by her warmth and generosity, her sense of fun and also, most importantly, her enthu-siasm in the work she did. Geddes was troubled and often exasperated by other people’s cynicism and inefficiency, but he was buoyed up by his enthusiasm and idealism. If she worked towards a good university, with dedicated teachers and excited students, a secular and humane society where all communities had equal dignity, and where women were accorded dignity, he dreamed of communities living and working together in harmony, where all professions had a sense of self-worth, where women were seen as contributing to making life whole and meaningful.

I think Papiya would have studied and resear-ched other disciplines with equal enthusiasm, but we are grateful that she chose to do history. Her research was not narrowly focused, and moved impressively from working on the Civil Disobedience Movement to the story of Bihar migrations, to larger issues of the diaspora and of the women’s movement. And all this was combined with a fulltime career as a teacher, and wholehearted involvement with her larger family. Geddes’ education was not a specialised one. In fact, he never completed any academic course after school, and had no college degree. But he was formidably well-informed, and he developed ideas on a range of subjects which to my generation and yours can appear unconnected, but which he linked together in the true spirit of a humanist—beginning as a scientist, studying botany, then biology, he made a transition to the social sciences, studying the new discipline of sociology, then geography and the history of human settlements. From biology he drew the notion of ecology, from sociology that of ‘applied sociology’ to which he gave the name ‘civics’. He brought science and the social sciences together—using ecology and civics, he investigated the history of how communities related to their local geographies and created habitats that developed into lively cultural organisms sustained by their inhabitants’ concern about civic issues. Thus he found that he was being labelled a ‘town-planner’ when in fact he was proclaiming himself hostile to modern European town-planning, controlled by engineers and architects. Geddes saw towns growing out of their regions, so that if the future development of a town had to be planned, a survey of the region was an essential prerequisite. The key words in Geddes’ thought by the time he was 60 were, therefore, the following: ecology, organic growth, region, civics. In the diagrammatic form he used, these were reduced to “Folk—Work—Culture”. His ideas were universal, his suggestions local. It was he who coined the slogan ‘Think global, act local’ 80 years before it became identified with the Rio Declaration of 1994.

Urbanisation in Europe and USA

IN the Europe in which Geddes grew up, local problems were being discussed and the answers being offered were thought to have universal application. From the middle of the nineteenth century Western Europe was experiencing rapid urbanisation. New towns were being established and old ones were expanding into the surrounding countryside and also becoming more densely populated. Many individuals were writing about towns—some looked back at older towns nostalgically, some were embarrassed about the growing disparities of income in towns, and by the sight of private wealth and public squalor. Some believed that perfect towns could be planned and built. A ‘perfect’ town was variously seen as healthy—good water supply, fresh air, gardens, well-ventilated houses, regulated traffic movement; or as ‘beautiful’—with vistas, squares and monumental architecture; as democratic—with the municipal building occupying pride of place. The richer classes were afraid of the anger of the poor and protected themselves with the help of an efficient civilian police, and lived in high-income neighbourhoods. Geddes, whose home was the vibrant historic city of Edinburgh, addressed all these dimensions in his lectures and essays. He found solutions not by using the engineer’s T-square, nor adopting the architect’s respect for the avenues and planned neighbour-hoods of imperial Rome or the bureaucrat’s belief in ‘law and order’. His was the sociologist’s interest in the community, and the historian’s respect for how communities in the past had developed viable habitats.

Geddes and India

GEDDES became familiar with India and Indians gradually. He was a schoolboy of 15 in 1869 when the Suez Canal brought Asia closer to Europe. From this point the traffic of people on this route increased. Geddes was in his twenties when he met Annie Besant, and 46 when he met a young Indian whom we know as Swami Vivekananda, and his associate Sister Nivedita. A few years later, in 1902, Sister Nivedita received a letter from the Indian industrial entrepreneur, Mr Tata, asking for advice on setting up an institute of science. She discussed this with Geddes, who wrote two reports in response, analysing universities in Europe and suggesting how India might develop a new kind of research institute. This reminds one of the Utilitarians in the 1830s seeing India as a suitable site for their experiments with a new polity, and the Arts and Crafts Movement in the 1860s looking hopefully towards India at a time when British crafts were being steam-rollered by the industrial revolution.

To understand what took Geddes to India, we have to understand what took him to town-planning. In 1904 he had published a Report where he suggested that a munificent bequest from the Scottish-American millionaire Carnegie be used to transform the tiny town of Dunfermline into a vibrant centre for social reform through education, set in a stunningly beautiful city where gardens would serve as botanical laboratories as well as playgrounds and museums. The Dunfermline Report contained in miniature many ideas which he was later to suggest in other contexts and for other cities. In a few years, Geddes became known not just in Scotland but in Europe, because of the ‘Cities and Town-Planning’ exhibition he put up in 1910 at the First International Conference of Town-Planners, and which later travelled to many cities. The Governor of Madras, Lord Pentland, happened to see it when he was on home-leave, and he invited Geddes to bring it out to India. Thus it was that Patrick Geddes and his son, Alasdair, reached Bombay in mid-October 1914.

The Scientific Renaissance in India

IN the India of 100 years ago there were ideas and nascent institutions which were conducive to an atmosphere of a scientific renaissance. In the decade before the outbreak of World War I many Indians were familiar with ideas and movements in Europe, particularly notions of scientific improvements in agriculture. Tata set up the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and Jagdish Chandra Bose was planning to set up one in Calcutta. In Bihar the Pusa Institute of Agricultural Science was set up, headed by Albert Howard who, in 1914, helped institute the Indian Science Congress. In Bengal, Tagore was dreaming of creating a university which would open India to the world. Sister Nivedita wrote her sensitive Web of Indian Life in 1904, and J.A.Turner Sanitation in India in 1914; both books were to shape Geddes’ thinking, as were the ideas of Howard and Tagore. Geddes could not have come to India at a more exciting time—all his interests were being discussed—biology and botany, science and education, as well as communities and urban design—for from 1912 two subjects of debate were the appropriate designs for New Delhi, the new Capital for British India, and for Jamshedpur, the first swadeshi industrial town, set up in 1908. Mr M.K.Gandhi was to land in Bombay a few months after Geddes. The Gandhian phase of the nationalist movement and the Geddesian phase of the town-planning movement were to happen simultaneously, and it will be worth exploring the similarities and differences between Gandhiji’s ideas of rural reconstruction and Geddes’ suggestions for connecting towns with their regions.

Geddes in India

PATRICK GEDDES and Alasdair travelled to India on a different ship from the Clan Grant on which his exhibition panels had been dispatched. This was fortunate, because the latter was sunk by a German submarine just before it reached Madras. Luckily for Geddes, his friends in Britain assembled another set of panels and sent it out, and he was able to show the exhibition after all. There had in the past been many exhibitions sent out from India to Britain, but Geddes’ was one of the few in the reverse direction. The Exhibition was Geddes’ passport to India. He returned in 1916 to spend two-and-a-half-years, and twice in the 1920s. In these years, the Bauhaus Movement in architecture was taking shape in Germany, Russia was going through a major political and social revolution, in Chicago University new theories of urban form were being hammered out. Geddes must have known of all these, but his life in India was an extraordinarily busy one. This was partly therapy—he sought to immerse himself in work to forget the two terrible tragedies that he had to suffer in 1917—the death of his son and comrade, Alasdair, on the battlefront, and of his wife and helpmate, Anna, in Darjeeling. In the course of his four visits he saw more of the country, talked to more people and wrote more reports than any official ever did. Officials, rulers of the ‘native states’, Sanskrit scholars and scientists turned to him for advice, some seeing him as a fount of wisdom, almost as a sort of magician who could help solve urban problems and build elegant suburbs. The rest of this essay is an attempt to understand the ‘Geddes Effect’.
Geddes after Geddes

BEFORE we proceed with this analysis, it has to be stated that Geddes has had a chequered after-life. Geddes was a prophet who was honoured in his lifetime, and then ignored for the next 50 years. From the 1930s to the 1980s, town-design was by engineers using advanced technology, and architects building steel-and-concrete highrise structures. Geddes’ ideas did not appeal to them. They ignored his biological, sociological and historical insights.

It is not that Geddes’ ideas died with him. There are instances of individuals who have changed the course of events but who have left very little by way of documents for those who follow—a case in point is the remarkable Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya. This is not true of Geddes. His archives is so vast that it has not been completely catalogued yet, and is divided between the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, the Strathclyde University Library in Glasgow and the Edinburgh University Library. There was a time when his Reports were available in the library of the Calcutta Improvement Trust but, as has happened with so many libraries in India, they cannot be found there any more. With the exception of a few scholars and architects, there is no-one in India to whom the name of Patrick Geddes conveys anything. This is to some extent true of the West, too. His closest associate, Lewis Mumford, who wrote the classic, The City in History, in 1961 ignores India entirely in the book—something we cannot imagine Geddes doing. Or maybe he was actually being faithful to Geddes’ method: “As in all my other studies of the city, I have confined myself as far as possible to cities and regions I am acquainted with at first hand, and to data in which I have long been immersed. This has limited me to Western civilisation [and] since my method demands personal experience and observation, something unreplaceable by books, it would take another lifetime to make them good.”

The same Mumford wrote: “The tasks that [Geddes] undertook as a solitary thinker and planner have become the collective task of our generation.” In the last twenty years people have become exhausted by large cities. In Europe there is a resurgence of interest in Geddes and his humane approach.

In India, I would argue that there is a very strong need for all of us, not just planners, to be aware of his way of thinking, even if one does not have to adopt all his prescriptions.

Indian Towns as Organic

NO-ONE before Geddes had remarked that towns in India were rooted in local geography and history. Pre-colonial towns had been seen only in terms of monumental architecture, and colonial towns (including cantonments) admired for straight avenues, imposing buildings and street-lighting. Geddes, whose Evolution of Cities had appeared in print in 1915, saw the Indian town as a place of collective activity and festivals, as growing organically, not imposed from above with a geometry kit (his papers, replete with references to the towns he visited, do not mention the Harappa towns, excavated in 1921)—“an inseparably interwoven structure [not] as an involved network of thoroughfares dividing masses of building blocks, but as a great chessboard on which the manifold game of life is in active progress”. (Tyrwhitt 1947) It was more important to see how townsfolk used urban spaces than to lay out roads which were ‘corridors’ or houses which had stipulated dimensions but no organic link with the neighbourhood. He saw town and countryside as complementary. These ideas were to be echoed by the philosopher and architect Buckminster Fuller (“Small is beautiful”) and by the Greek town-planner Constantinos Doxiades who involved communities in discussions on the futures of towns.

Historic Towns

GEDDES travelled extensively in India. He did not spend time buried in museums or archives, though he collected photographs, town maps and architectural drawings. He was quick to notice that many Indian towns were in a state of decay—not because of any intrinsic fault, but because, as his associate Lanchester put it, because “traditional Indian planning” could not be read, since the municipalities instituted by the colonial government were not trained to recognise the qualities of older towns. Traditional methods of water storage and sanitary regulations were ignored, inhabitants had been displaced from many neighbourhoods, road-widening had reduced pedestrian areas, individual houses had been allowed to encroach on public land and to enclose roadside trees.

Shortly after his arrival in Madras, Ratcliffe asked him if he had heard of the Silpa Sastra and referred to Ram Raz’s English work, Essay on the Architecture of the Hindus, published in 1834. Annie Besant encouraged him to visit the Tamil towns, for which he was to coin the term ‘temple cities’ in an article he wrote in 1919. To Geddes’ delight, his lectures and conversations spurred Indian scholars to fill out the details of Ram Raz’s essay by translating various texts of the Silpa Sastra—M.A. Nanthalwar, B.B. Dutt, V. Ayyar and, later, Sris Chatterjee. Radha Kamal Mukherjee, Professor of Sociology at Lucknow University, was influenced by Geddes’ writing on temple cities.

Housing in India

IN the late nineteenth century it was assumed that inhabitants of towns would be provided homes—hence the term ‘housing’ as a responsi-bility of the government. Coming as Geddes did from Edinburgh, where the differences between localities was not starkly class-based, he was sensitive to the needs of the poor. His interaction with officials in India led to them enlisting his help with the new Improvement Trusts and the relocation of ‘slums’. He was invited to prepare a report on housing for workers in the collieries of Bihar and Orissa. With A.C. Sinha, President of the Indian Society of Engineers, he designed low-cost housing for the Lucknow Improvement Trust. (Robert H. Home, Of Planting and Planning: the Making of British Colonial Cities, Spon, 1997, page 173) He also made suggestions for workers’ houses in Jamshedpur, where the architect R.C. Temple had rather mindlessly designed a suburb on the lines of Hampstead Garden City, which did not impress the workers, who were anxious to get higher wages.

Planning Interventions

FROM 1915 to 1924 Geddes was pestered with requests from officials and rulers of Indian states to devise master plans, and he did not say ‘No’ to any of them. He was not the first expert from Britain to be enlisted—in 1911 E.P. Richards was invited by the Calcutta Corporation to make a plan for their city, and in 1914 Edwin Lutyens was given the commission to design New Delhi. J.F. Munnings was to design New Patna as the capital of the new province of Bihar and Orissa in 1920. Richards proposed cutting long straight avenues through Calcutta, Lutyens designed a small city with miles of wide streets, houses set in large gardens, and a landscaped centre with monumental buildings. As for Munnings, he laid out New Patna “spaciously but unassertively, with an engaging rather than extravagant white house for the Governor. `Extreme symmetry` was generally a symptom of this school of design under British public architecture and the Patna Secretariat was no exception. It was built in a neo-classical kind, only faintly tinctured with the Orient. The Patna Secretariat had a tall tower in the middle and exactly symmetrical wings connected to the main block by shallow bridges.” Geddes did not feel sympathetic to any of these designs. He thought them wasteful, a statement of power. He would have been delighted to be given the New Delhi assignment,and would probably have prepared a Dunfermline-type report. But that did not happen—the officials did not shortlist him as a candidate. Sadly, there are no buildings, neighbourhoods or institutions in India associated with Geddes—unlike Lutyens (New Delhi) or Corbusier (Chandigarh), or even his own colleagues, Lanchester (Madras) and Griffin (Lucknow).

Geddes’ most detailed Report was the two volumes on Indore. The others varied in detail, some being only a few pages long. It is easy to criticise him—some of his suggestions were sketchy, some of his suggested road realignments led to increased congestion, but as against these there were ideas which could be used—that workers should be allowed to design their own homes, that Diwali be celebrated as the Festival of Cleanliness, that sewage be used as manure, that open areas be created as pauses in a crowded city, that roads follow river-alignments to enhance the beauty of the landscape, that there be areas where women and children could feel safe and relaxed. Luckily for Geddes’ peace of mind, he did not live to see how the motor-car would become a monster that would destroy the spirit of Indian towns.


GEDDES’ work in India “derive[d] much of its stimulus and practical value from his insight into the relationship between education and other aspects of civic duties and the social and economic context of all kinds of education”. He was excited by Pusa and the Indian Science Congress, and his association with J.C. Bose’s Institute. He saw the town plan for Indore as an opportunity to build a good university for the capital city of the Holkars, and his friendship with Tagore as a means to work on a curriculum for Viswa Bharati. In 1918 Rabindranath responded enthusiastically to Geddes’ suggestion for a course on ‘The Cities of India’—but, to date, there is no such course in any Indian university. Bombay University offered him a chance to shape the study of sociology in India, and it was no surprise that he renamed it the Department of Sociology and Civics. He was involved in the discussions on Gujarat Vidyapith (‘the Non-Cooperation University at Ahmedabad’) and on the design and content of the Nizam’s proposed Osmania University. Geddes took on more than any individual could, and was happily oblivious of the changing course of the nationalist movement. To work in British Indian towns as well as for autonomous Indian states, and to try to match Tagore’s way of thinking (true, both of them had escaped formal education, and Tagore had hopefully given Geddes a copy of Tota Kahini) but, as Tagore concluded ruefully in 1922, “All my activities have the character of play in them… your own schemes have a different idiom.”

Geddes the Person

IN 1920 Jagdish Chandra Bose (of whom Geddes wrote a biography in 1921) told Geddes, “The value of your life has been eminently diffusive. You have done the impossible things and touched deeply many lives. But the very fact of your versatile intellect has made it hopeless for anyone to see the thing as a whole…Your sayings appear as paradoxes to those who have not the wit to follow them.” In Bombay University, he faced bafflement, resentment, jealousy. Institutions do not applaud mavericks, they are happy with conformists. But there were those who did not allow personal irritations to cloud their judgment. Pheroze Bharucha spoke of Geddes movingly, “He inspired you; he brought the best out of you; he rekindled the creative spark in you. It is as a Teacher that he will live in our hearts and memories.” Are these words not appropriate for Papiya? And is not Geddes’ favourite term ‘synergy’ just what Papiya was able to generate in all those with whom she came in contact? So it is that Geddes’ connection of Place, Work and Folk finds an echo with someone born two decades after he passed away, who connected with friends, family, colleagues, students and strangers with the same immediacy as he had done, who lived every moment of her life as fully as he had done.

Suppose Papiya had been given the same life-span, and we were standing in 2031 instead of 2009… When I look at the photographs of Papiya with her mother, I can see her as an older woman, radiating warmth and hospitality, and with the satisfaction of many years of making a difference behind her, and the knowledge that Indian history-writing was the richer for her having been part of the adventure. But again, one wonders whether she did not achieve it all in the time she had, living life as fully as she had. “One crowded hour of glorious life/ Is worth an age without a name.”

[Text of the Papiya Ghosh Memorial Lecture (organised by the Papiya Ghosh Memorial Trust) delivered by the author at Patna, December 3, 2009]

Sites and Towns in India for which Geddes prepared reports:

1. Burra Bazaar, Calcutta; 2. Ahmedabad city; 3. Ahmedabad, Bahai Temple; 4. Surat city; 5. Bharuch town; 6. Thana, Bombay; 7. Bandra, Bombay; 8. Nadiad town; 9. Bellary town; 10. Tiruchirapalli town; 11. Kanchipuram town; 12. Coimbatore town; 13. Salem town; 14. Madurai town; 15. Thiruswaranpet, Madras; 16. Tanjore town; 17. Srirangam town; 18. Nellore town; 19. Cocanada town; 20. Indore city; 21. Lucknow town, two reports; 22. Lahore city; 23. Baroda city; 24. Kapurthala city; 25. Nagpur town; 26. Balrampur town; 27. Patiala town; 28. Dacca city; 29. Bihar and Orissa Collieries; 30. Kanpur; 31. Kanchrapara Model Railway Colony, Calcutta; 32. Ahmedabad Bahai temple; 33. Hyderabad, Osmania Univer-sity; 34. Santiniketan, Viswabharati University; 35. Lucknow Zoo; 36. Colombo.

The Dainik Jagaran of December 3, 2009 reports that a Master Plan for Patna is to be prepared in the next two weeks!

The author is a retired Professor of History, Jamia Millia Islamia Central University, New Delhi. She is currently a consultant with the INTACH.

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