In a recent lecture, Thomas Blom Hansen, Director of Stanford University’s Center of South Asia, provided a new map for making sense of cities
Cities are complex things. They are destroyed and rebuilt, they reveal themselves to some and snap shut at others, are lived in in a particular manner and dreamed of in another. The ineffable nature of cities simultaneously confounds and invites those who live in it, as well as those who study it.
A talk organised by the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University took an anthropological approach to shed light on the “charisma” of cities. Delivered by Thomas Blom Hansen, Professor in Anthropology at Stanford University and the Director of its Center for South Asia, the talk focused on post-colonial cities and their sensory, knowledge and power structures. The speaker has authored Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay and The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India.
The word charisma can be traced back to the Greek kharisma which means gift and thus something unique, but gifts can also be exchanged, shared and transferred, Hansen said. Taking this as the starting point, Hansen proposed a new understanding of charisma as not just the inalienable quality of a select few individuals, but rather one that is portable and shareable and can exist equally in cities, and its various sites.
“By this term we mean two things: on one hand the charisma of a city as in its ‘soul’ or mythology that is emitted from its buildings, infrastructure, the historicity of its sites and its anonymous crowds. On the other hand, there is also charisma to be found in the city – in its crowds, in the styles and reputations of its people, their knowledge, and the special skills and extraordinary acts the city enables and necessitates,” he said.
Dismissing a sociological approach to cities which is preoccupied with planning and governmentality, Hansen sought to understand the urban as a way of life. In this regard, he reflected on “how cities in both their fantasmic and physical forms are interspersed and acted upon by the people living in their midst.”
Using the conflicts over azaans in various cities of India as an example, Hansen explored how the city is the site of competing sounds. It is also the site of other competing senses such as taste, as the recent clashes in Osmania University of Hyderabad over a beef festival illustrate.
But the variety of sensory experience that a city offers bullies a dweller or a tourist into stupefaction. A city, therefore, remains largely unintelligible. In this context, Hansen spoke of the figure of the ‘urban specialist’, individuals such as hustlers, community workers, brokers and gangsters “who by virtue of their reputation, skills and imputed connections provide services, connectivity and knowledge to ordinary dwellers in slums and popular neighbourhoods.” According to Hansen, the charisma of these figures derives from their connections to powerful figures – politicians, bureaucrats, gangster kings, and religious institutions – and rumours of their deeds. Calling them diviners of the city, Hansen said “the full expanse and heterogeneity of the city can be read through these figures.”
These characters of the city are also at the heart of what Hansen termed urban infra-power. “It is a web of connections and structures of solidarity, fear, desire and affect that traverse communities and neighbourhoods.” These connections are neither fully visible nor concealed.
In conclusion, he noted that urban infra-power is also an ethos and a form of regulation which was made possible by the colonial habit of distanced governance which needed native forms of authority.
JNU’s School of Arts and Aesthetic will organize a number of talks in the coming months on varied subjects such as the Hindi film song, lost film cultures, the ornamentation of Jain temple icons, and the history of theatre in North Tamil Nadu among others.