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Thursday, January 20, 2022

Exploring a City

A biography of the old,complex,controversial land,Ahmedabad.

Written by Amrita Shah |
March 19, 2011 12:24:15 am

Ahmedabad: From Royal City to Megacity

Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth


Pages: 368

Rs 450

Travellers visiting India during the Mughal period described Ahmedabad as a grand city. “One of the fairest cities in all the Indies,” wrote John Jourdain in 1611.

The city,founded in 1411 by Sultan Ahmed Shah of the Gujarat Sultanate and ruled variously by the Mughals,the Marathas and the British,was once an exporter of textiles,indigo and saltpetre and a great trading centre serving both the silk and spice routes. It was also,following the setting up of the first mechanised cotton textile mill in 1861,the second largest producer of cotton textiles in the country after Mumbai.

Gandhi’s decision to set up his ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati,on his return from South Africa in 1915,propelled it into the heart of the freedom struggle,while the Nehruvian era left its mark on the city in the shape of various institutions — of design,management,scientific research,space applications and architecture — and buildings designed by leading figures of the modern movement such as Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn.

In more recent times it has come into prominence for more controversial reasons. It was the epicentre of the 2002 violence which makes it the city with possibly the highest fatalities in communal violence in post-independence India. It is also India’s seventh largest city and an emerging exemplar of the neoliberal model of urban development.

Despite its historic,political,economic,cultural and social significance,Ahmedabad has tended to be somewhat overlooked in the intellectual mapping of India. We may know more about the city than the Calcutta-based educational inspector who told the English social reformer,Mary Carpenter,in 1868 that “you may as well speak in England of what is done in the school of some remote village in Russia,as to us here of such a place as Ahmedabad”; but what we know is still not enough. The best known biographies of the city in Persian and Gujarati were written before 1929. And while much has been written about aspects of the city,such as its architecture,the only substantial biography in English was published in 1968.

Ahmedabad: From Royal City to Megacity by Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth,released in the 600th year of the city’s founding,goes some way in redressing this neglect. Yagnik is a former journalist and founder-secretary of Setu: Centre for Social Knowledge and Action,an Ahmedabad-based organisation that works with marginalised communities,and Sheth teaches at the city’s Centre for Environment and Planning Technology.

A biography of a city,particularly one as old,complex and controversial as Ahmedabad,is a hard task to undertake. The authors’ dedication to past historians of the city and the hope they express of encouraging others to write accounts of the city is evidence of a modest and generous approach that reveals itself also in the accessibility of the text which is interspersed with visuals,poems,maps and boxes. This is primarily a social history but the scope is encyclopaedic,accommodating in its sweep myths,religion,architecture,the rise of the mercantile city,natural calamities,invasions,brocades,language,community living,the British encounter,education,images of the city,textile mills,urban reform,the Swadeshi movement,city expansion,riots,political upheaval,industrial crisis,caste divisions and the forces of globalisation. The book is also strewn with interesting trivia — that Ahmedabad was a prolific mint for silver coins in the Mughal empire; that small-value transactions were carried out in badams; and that a volunteer brass band began to play God save the king when Gandhi was setting out on the Dandi march and stopped abruptly realising the inappropriateness of their choice.

The problem with a wide-scope book such as this one is the brevity with which it must tackle a range of phenomena,leaving one feeling occasionally dissatisfied. The strongest sections are those that deal with the pluralistic heritage of the city as seen in the proliferation of Sufi and Bhakti saints and in the fusion of architectural elements in the 15th century and those that deal with the 19th and early 20th centuries when the expansion of education,the advance of printing technology and the presence of bureaucrats sympathetic to the local language and culture combined with the naturally receptive Ahmedabadi mindset to produce an assertive and public-minded citizenry that would involve itself in matters ranging from drainage to women’s education. The section on Gandhi also offers an insight into his impact specifically on the city and into less commonly discussed areas such as his initiatives in the area of education.

Interestingly,while the last couple of chapters deal with increasing social divisiveness and the uglier aspects of development,the book concludes on an optimistic note,harking back to its past magnificence and the strengths and resources of the city in strong evidence at the turn of the previous century. Ahmedabad,as the authors remind the reader at the end,has been hit by vicissitudes in the past but it has pulled through and emerged stronger by the actions of its people. It is in the syncretic traditions of the past and in the citizens,“enlightened and ordinary”,that they repose their hopes. It is a contestable plea but a heartfelt one.

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