One of the most notable buildings in Bombay from the colonial period is its Town Hall. This Greek Revival building was designed by the military architect Colonel Thomas Cowper and completed in 1833. Prominently located in the heart of the historic Fort district, the Town Hall demands attention with its wide flight of steps that dramatically rises above the raised basement (also referred to as “ground floor” in government records). These steps reach the main portico on the first floor where solid, fluted Greek Doric columns stand majestically as they hold up entablature. Today the building houses the Asiatic Society and its library as it has done since the building’s inception, hosts lectures and conferences, and its large hall works as a public reading room.In many ways this important building exemplifies the unique, entangled histories of Bombay. Thus, for today’s talk the speaker will explore this building, in particular the changes it underwent during the period between 1811 to 1918. The first part of this talk will consider what the institution of the “town hall” meant in colonial Bombay by examining the hall’s varied functions, as well as highlight the qualities of its public spaces and points of access. By focusing on the controversy in 1871 over the placement of a statue in the town hall, the speaker’s analysis reveals the specificities of the “public” that made claims to Bombay’s Town Hall as a public space. Even though the “public” was invoked by native elites in making arguments in favour of the placement of an important statue in the Town Hall, it was really a battle for the inclusion of native elites into the ruling oligarchy of British elites who controlled the Town Hall. The talk substantively builds on this examination of Bombay’s Town Hall in the colonial era to also engage with and reflect upon the culture of Indian cities in the last couple of decades. Thus, in the latter part of the talk, the speaker takes up the subject of the Town Hall building in its context from independence and especially since the 1980s.
Dr. Preeti Chopra is Associate Professor of Architecture, Urban History, and Visual Studies and former Director of the Center for Visual Cultures at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. From the School of Architecture (CEPT), Ahmedabad, (B. Arch.), Dr. Chopra holds a degree in architecture and from the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Chopra also holds degrees in Landscape Architecture and City and Regional Planning (M.L.A., and M.C.P., 1993) and Architectural History (Ph.D., 2003).
Her research and teaching interests include architectural and urban history of the modern period, the spatial landscapes of empire, visual cultures of South Asia, postcolonial theory and cultural studies. Her first book was titled A Joint Enterprise: Indian Elites and the Making of British Bombay (University of Minnesota Press in 2011). She is currently working on a second book on colonial Bombay, A City More than its Parts: Indian Bombay and its Colonial Assemblages. In addition, she has begun working on the history of partition and affective relationships, which is the focus of her third project examining multi-generational families and the architecture of everyday life in postcolonial Delhi. Besides these book length projects, Dr. Preeti Chopra has published chapters and articles on subjects such as the naming of city districts, French colonial urbanism in Pondicherry, the Bombay Town Hall and the formation of suburbs.