February 11, 2014

Spotlight: Faculty Fellow Lisa Mitchell

Lisa Mitchell is an Associate Professor and Graduate Chair of the Department of South Asia Studies and the Director of the South Asia Center. She is an anthropologist and historian of southern India. Her interdisciplinary research and teaching interests include democracy and public space; the city in South Asia; technology, media, and discourse networks; knowledge production and intellectual history; language politics; colonialism and empire; and Telugu language and literature. Her book Language, Emotion, and Politics in South India: The Making of a Mother Tongue (Indiana University Press 2009 and Permanent Black 2010) was a recipient of the American Institute of Indian Studies’ Edward Cameron Dimock, Jr. Prize in the Indian Humanities.

1. You are a scholar of southern India, with a particular interest in public space, political protest, and cities. How did you become interested in these areas?

Like many Americans, I grew up in an extremely monolingual context. Unlike four out of every five Americans, however, I did not grow up in an urbanized area, but instead grew up in a series of rural small towns in the Midwest, which may explain my interest both in cities and in multilingual cosmopolitanisms. When I went off to college, I was very much looking forward to expanding my knowledge of the larger world. I was somewhat disappointed, however, at the Euro-American focus of most of my courses in college—in literature, history, political science, etc. In my second year, I took a government class on North-South relations (which at the time was the politically correct way of referring to countries that had earlier been described as “developed” and “developing”). I thought a course on North-South relations would introduce perspectives from both types of nations and help to address some of what I felt was missing in my education up to that point. I expected that we would read some authors from “northern” countries, and some from “southern” countries, but instead we read entirely American authors, with the exception of one British author—not exactly a balanced perspective. At that point I decided to seek out some sort of opportunity that would help me to gain some insight into other perspectives on history, politics, literary production, and culture, and I enrolled in the University of Wisconsin’s College Year in India program. I spent a summer in Madison, Wisconsin studying the Tamil language, followed by ten months in Madurai, a city of about one million people in southern India. While there, I continued my Tamil language study at Madurai Kamaraj University. During our term breaks, I had a chance to travel to other cities in India, including Madras (now Chennai), Hyderabad, Bangalore, Calcutta (now Kolkata), Delhi, and Varanasi, and also Kathmandu in Nepal.

It was while I was in Hyderabad and Bangalore that I was struck by how commonplace multilingualism was in urban India. Domestic household workers with little or no education would routinely move in and out of three, four, even five different languages. This was so different from my experience of language use and acquisition in the United States that I chose to examine language ideology and multilingualism in three cities in India for my MA thesis. Today there are over 1,600 different languages recognized by the decennial Indian census, with 30 languages in India spoken by more than one million speakers. Out of these, 22 are recognized by the Indian constitution as official languages. In the mid-1950s, the division of Indian states was redrawn along linguistic lines. My first book grew out of this earlier research to focus on historical changes in ideas about and representations of language during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that helped lead to the creation of the first linguistic state in independent India in 1953. Of central importance in contestations over linguistic statehood in India was the status of cities. Madras (Chennai), Bombay (Mumbai), and even Bangalore are all examples of cosmopolitan, multilingual cities that have experienced heated contestations between speakers of different languages over who should control the city, and Hyderabad is currently at the center of conflicts over the creation of yet another new state, Telangana. So although my first book project, Language, Emotion, and Politics in South India: The Making of a Mother Tongue, was ostensibly concerned with language, it also began to investigate the role of politics and public space in contemporary urban India. This has led to my second and current book project on Public Space in the History of Indian Democracy, a project that really grew out of the first book. 

2. What is your new book about?

The new book looks at the spaces of transportation networks, particularly roads, railways, and the intersections and junctions that connect them. However, it treats them not as forms of transportation, but rather as mediums of communication, with particular attention to how they have helped to enable new forms of politics in India.

As part of the last chapter of my first book, I interviewed many people (at the time mostly in their seventies and eighties) who had been young men in the 1950s during the movement that led to the creation of the first linguistic state in independent India. In these conversations, I was struck by how important railway stations had been to the political activism of the 1950s (and to earlier political movements). Upon closer examination, I realized that all of the activists who had been killed in police crackdowns on the linguistic state protests (in at least four different towns) had been killed in or adjacent to railway stations along the main Madras-Calcutta railway line. Indeed, railway stations tended to be central meeting places for political gatherings, something hardly surprising when you consider that they were natural gathering places anyway, and political mobilizations tended to spread along this main transportation artery. Newspapers, exam results, and the mail all arrived by train, and many people would routinely meet their friends at the station for their morning or evening cup of tea or coffee, and catch up on and discuss that day’s news. Whenever a rumor was circulating, people would make a beeline for the station to learn more. Since radio broadcasts were government-controlled and newspapers were seen to reflect the interests of particular political factions, people considered news collected from travelers getting down from a train arriving from the place where something had just happened to be the most reliable form of news. Stations were the links with the outside world.

Each chapter of the book takes up a different form of political practice involving public space and traces a longer history of that practice. Most histories of Indian democracy begin only with Indian independence in 1947, or, if they make any reference to democracy prior to independence, refer only to formal democratic institutions and processes like municipal elections or the establishment of legislative proceedings. But if scholars of Europe like Jürgen Habermas can consider the coffee houses of England or the salons of Paris as fundamental to the emergence of Western forms of democracy, then it’s equally important for us to recognize other forms of public spheres that have inflected the ways in which democracy has emerged in a context like India. As the world’s largest democracy, it’s inadequate for us to analyze democracy in India simply as an institutional transplant from elsewhere and evaluate it against the ways that democracy functions in America or Europe. Instead, my book advocates close examinations of existing forms of political practice that span both the pre- and post-independence periods. I trace the ways that specific forms of political practices changed during the colonial and post-colonial periods, but also examine continuities that bridge the moment of independence. The book looks closely at activities like political processions; M. K. Gandhi’s addresses to crowds that would gather in railway stations as he traveled by train throughout India during the anti-colonial movement; road and rail blockages used to telegraph political messages over long distances to political leaders; ticketless travel to political rallies; and dharnas or sit-down strikes, popularized on the global stage by Gandhi, but clearly already in use long before his birth. The project has been an exciting one, as it’s enabled me put into conversation theoretical approaches to the study of public space and the built environment, ethnographic approaches to the mapping of discursive, communicative, and political networks, and historical approaches to the significance of public space within the success of anti-colonial movements and the development of democracy.

3. What are some of your other research interests?

With my second book now nearly complete, I’ve recently begun a new project on the cultural history of cement in India, provisionally titled Three Bags of Cement: Concrete Dreams in the New India. I’ve been intrigued by the role of cement and concrete in India for some time now. Way back in the early 1990s, I remember travelling by bus from the city of Chennai (at that time called Madras, the capital of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu) to the temple city of Tirupati in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh. As we crossed the state border from Tamil Nadu into Andhra Pradesh, I remember that the only way I could tell we’d crossed the border is that the advertisements for cement (King and Coromandel brand, in particular) switched from Tamil script to Telugu script, reflecting the dominant language in each state. At the time I was struck by the fact that cement was virtually the only commodity that was being advertised in the countryside. Whenever we’d approach a town, you’d see other kinds of advertisements, but in the countryside, it was almost exclusively cement advertisements, and I was a bit puzzled by this.

Then two summers ago at the end of a research trip to Hyderabad for my project on public space and Indian democracy, I found myself traveling on the airport AeroExpress bus back to Hyderabad’s new airport, twenty-two kilometers outside the city. In the time since I’d last been in Hyderabad, a new, elevated expressway had been constructed to connect the city with the airport. And what was the number one commodity being advertised on both sides of this new expressway? Once again, it was cement—this time, at least fifteen or twenty different brands. At that point I knew that cement had to be part of my next project. I spent this past summer doing some preliminary groundwork for the new project to identify specific locations for my research. This involved interviewing and spending time with people at each point along the cement commodity chain. I spent a day touring a cement factory in Nalgonda district, tracing cement’s manufacture from limestone quarry to bagging, loading, and dispatch. I interviewed and spent time with distributors and cement salesmen; real estate developers, contractors, and builders; site managers, masons, and laborers; architects and interior designers; and various types of consumers of cement, both domestic and commercial. I also talked to those involved in protests against bauxite and laterite mining (used in manufacturing cement), illegal river sand mining (combined with cement to make concrete), and the construction of Hyderabad’s outer ring road, which has involved appropriation and rezoning of agricultural land and sparked rampant land and real estate speculation.

What I eventually plan to do is trace three bags of cement through their production, circulation, and consumption processes, using each to illuminate various economic, social, and cultural processes at work in contemporary India, as well as key sites of conflict and contestation (e.g., land, minerals and other natural resources, labor). One bag of a particular grade might end up in a road construction project or a big dam, a second in domestic real estate construction, and a third in commercial construction, illuminating three different domains central to processes of urbanization and the creation of built environments in India today.

4. You helped plan the “India as a Pioneer of Innovation” conference held at Penn in November. What were some of the key findings that came out of this conference?

One of the highlights of the conference was its true interdisciplinarity. Zeke Emanuel, the Vice Provost for Global Initiatives, was committed to making it possible to bring scholars and policy experts from different schools at Penn and from outside the academy together in order to create conversations between groups who don’t often speak to one another. As the director of the South Asia Center, I’m looking forward to the Center’s role in building on these conversations to enable Penn’s longstanding expertise on India (and the South Asian region more generally) to be made more available to broader audiences outside of the University. Penn’s commitment to the study of India emerged over a century ago, and the University was the first to establish a dedicated academic department devoted to the study of the South Asian region after the Second World War. Currently we’re about to unveil a new set of research priorities that further highlight India’s significance within the history of global capitalism and business enterprise, India’s role in the development and circulation of scientific and other systems of knowledge, the history of South Asian urbanization and the role of both formal and informal urban economies, and the crucial role of the Humanities in all of these processes.

A second highlight was the way the conference placed contemporary innovations in India into broader historical and socio-political contexts. The unique history of British colonial law’s impact on business practices in India, particularly the influence of colonial legal structures on kinship and family networks, is an example of the significant but often overlooked forces necessary for understanding contemporary India, as are the artisanal roots of contemporary industrialization, and the role of the informal urban economy in innovation in Indian markets and within the state. The conference helped bring these forces back into conversation. 

5. You teach a class on the city in South Asia and are currently working on a reader on this topic. What makes this topic timely now? What deficits in the literature of urbanization in the region would you like to see filled?

People are often surprised to learn that South Asia has been urbanizing at a much slower rate than many other places in the world, with India and Nepal both having urban populations of around 31 percent, Pakistan 36 percent, Bangladesh 28 percent, and Sri Lanka only 15 percent (compared with Indonesia and China at 51 percent, Russia at 74 percent, the United States at 82 percent, and Brazil at 85 percent). Seasonal and cyclical migration also plays a more significant role in processes of urbanization than in many other parts of the world. Still, with one-fifth of the world’s population (now over one 1.6 billion), this still means that the region is faced with comparatively large urban populations. When I first started teaching my course on the city, scholarship on India was still largely fixated on its villages. The global attention to India’s economy over the past decade has redirected attention to a few major cities in South Asia, reflecting what Saskia Sassen has identified as the growing spatial concentration of many highly specialized professional activities and control operations. This has prompted a surge of interest in urban India within the academy as well. My class, for example, now attracts students from across the University, including Wharton, Engineering, and the College, and from a wide range of majors, including students who would previously most likely not have sought out a course on South Asia. Although we’re starting to see some excellent studies of a few specific major cities in South Asia (Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Kolkata, Lucknow, Lahore, and Karachi, to name a few), there has been little effort so far to address urban themes that cut across or are shared by multiple cities in the region. I had a difficult time finding academic work that could do this, particularly scholarship that could be used with an audience not already familiar with the region. In the seven years I’ve been at Penn, I’ve slowly been able to put together a series of readings that help students understand not just particular cities in the region but also more general issues, trends, and challenges that are shared across multiple cities, placing them in the broader context of South Asia’s unique social, cultural, economic, and political history.

6. What do you see as the biggest challenges this region faces in terms of urbanization?

Educational and employment opportunities for a demographically youthful population with rapidly expanding aspirations are one of the major challenges facing India’s cities. India, like other South Asian nations, has one of the largest proportions of people in younger age groups in the world, with more than 40 percent of its population currently under the age of eighteen. At the same time, due to the liberalization of the economy in the early 1990s, and the rapid expansion of mass media in India over the past two decades, this younger generation has grown up with aspirations and expectations vastly different from their parent’s generation. Although private educational institutions are currently a growth industry in India, both the quantity and quality of educational opportunities have been unable to keep pace with demand, leading to a generation of young people who are unable to gain the skills they need for the jobs they desire. The lack of desirable opportunities in turn feeds into and fuels much of the urban unrest that South Asian cities have experienced in recent decades, something that frequently presents itself as linguistic, ethnic, or religious conflict. Untrained observers sometimes assume that such conflicts are due to “age-old” differences in identities but, in fact, much of the identitarian conflict in contemporary South Asia has actually grown out of frustrations over the lack of opportunities and been further stoked by political interests.

7. As Director of Penn’s South Asia Center, you are very familiar with cross-University centers like Penn IUR that develop and promote programs, activities, and research across departments and schools. You are Penn IUR’s newest Faculty Fellow—how do you think Penn IUR can help further your work?

I’m trained as an anthropologist and historian, but didn’t initially start out as an urban studies scholar. My increasing engagement with urban issues in South Asia has already benefitted from my engagement with Penn IUR and my colleagues here. I’m particularly pleased to be involved with the Humanities, Urbanism, and Design (H+U+D) Initiative that was launched here at Penn this year with a major grant from the Mellon Foundation. Not only have I been introduced to important bodies of literature by my urban studies, planning, and design colleagues in Penn IUR, but a number of my graduate students have also benefitted from opportunities to present their work in Penn IUR colloquia and poster sessions. I also hope to co-teach a course with another IUR colleague in the future as a way of putting our respective areas of expertise more directly in conversation. The South Asia Center has just launched a new modular study abroad initiative called “C.U. in India,” in which students can do part of their coursework in a classroom at Penn, followed by an intensive two-week study trip in India over the winter break. I would love to co-teach a course on Indian or Comparative Urbanisms with a colleague from Penn IUR and have it culminate with a hands-on trip to India.

Media Contact:

Deborah Lang
Communications Director

Bring our latest initiatives, publications and events to your inbox.