Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Festivals, Spatial Transformation and Space Making in the City

This essay explores the idea of space making in the city using festivals as a point of departure. Festivals offer an opportunity to examine space making processes that are implicitly historical and sociological. Even in their temporality, the architectural forms and spatial transformations that accompany festivals and celebrations are emblematic of architecture as contemporary history. Space making is understood in different ways in urban theories. In simple terms, space making means the ways in which and the processes thereof associated with making and remaking of spaces by people in different contexts. This essay links the idea of space of place, as developed by Manual Castells[i] and links it to the architectural and spatial processes that unfold during festivals that are contemporary yet bear the imprint of history. This essay is a beginning towards a deeper understanding of space making in the city, a study I propose to take on in future.

Contemporary History and Space making in the city

The increasing profusion, exuberance and visibility of festivals intercepting cityscapes in different times of the year could be seen as counter processes to the anxieties about urban spaces in literature. Castells, for instance expresses this anxiety when he introduces the idea of ‘space of place’ being taken over by ‘space of flows’ because of the onslaught of global socio-political and economic processes. Space of place is particularized, tied to specific contexts with the characteristic features of that specificity, historical and sociological. In other words, the space of place bears the imprint of the particularised historical and cultural identity of a space. This particularity is increasingly getting diluted and sometimes lost under the influence of global forces. Resultantly, urban spaces come to resemble each other more and more architecturally, giving away their distinguishing and particularised features that essentially make them place. These spaces that resemble each other are what are known as space of flows.

 Festivals, with their attendant spatial transformations, however temporary, allow for space making in the city in diverse ways. Historically, festivals have been doing this in the city context. In general terms, all festivals are rooted in certain historical contexts that can be traced to myth and folklore, and traditions. The celebration of festivals implies revisiting the myths, folklore, rituals and symbols of history in more ways than one. The spatial transformations that accompany festivals, in their myriad manifestations, revisit cultural and historical identities in different ways. In the process of this revisit, they actually facilitate the space making of place, however temporary. The idea of place inherently carries the idea of historicity in it because place in space making processes include reaffirming particularised and shared histories tied to specific geographical and cultural contexts. Festivals intercept the banal existence of city life. Through the celebrations and spatial transformations, history is revisited in unique ways. This revisiting of history simultaneously reaffirms the idea of place in space making in the city.  Urbanites, otherwise, overwhelmed by space of flows (imposed by the compulsions of lookalike informational societies) actually get opportunities to revisit the space of place during the time of festivals in cities. 

Festivals dotting through the months of August, September and October temporarily transform city spaces in unique ways, making and remaking history every time through such transformations. August heralds the colourful celebrations of Gokulashtami with groups of young enthusiastic Govindas trying their best to break the handi (earthern pot) full of goodies, set atop, by forming human pyramids.[ii] The rewards for such efforts are plenty ranging from cash prizes to huge rounds of applause, singing and dancing. The day of the festival is marked by a sudden halt to all activities, post lunch hour. Schools, colleges and some offices shut down early, streets are crowded and roads are overcrowded with traffic and people trying to get home and partake in the festivities. The spatial transformation of cityscape is visible in every nook and corner. Month September heralds the homecoming of the deity Ganesha with all attendant grandeur, again bringing with it spatial transformations all over the city. These spatial transformations vary in colour, texture and scale, with each passing year creating history every time.

Based on onsite observations of a recently concluded festival in Mumbai, the rest of the essay examines how spatial transformations as contemporary processes of space making unfold in the city thereby partaking in history making.

Durga Puja in Mumbai

The festival of Durga Puja has evolved over the years in Mumbai city. Not only has the annual festival of the Bengali community in Mumbai proliferated over the years; the scale and visibility of the festivities have also increased simultaneously. Gone are the days when the five days celebration was a simple affair, marked with the active participation of a few host families. Today’s festivals are larger, grander and more visible. This is reflected in the attendant spatial transformation of the festivals that allows for creative architectural expressions.

In 2000 it was the Durga Puja in few locations, mostly patronised by celebrities that boasted of the pomp and show comparable to that of the native home of the Goddess- Bengal. Circa 2013 and Durga Puja celebrations with its accompanying temporary architectural expressions and spatial transformations have reached new heights. As one moves northwards in the city, such transformations intercept many locations.

Most of these celebrations take place within the confines of well serviced neighbourhoods tucked in one corner or another. With a bit of digging in, I found out that the celebrations, specifically the spatial expressions are the outcome of months of preparations carried out at length by well organised associations. These associations are professionally managed and boast of myriad philanthropic activities. They usually comprise members who are well heeled and well networked. It is but natural that the yearly festival provides an opportunity to its mentors to connect to their ethnic roots and express their sensibilities and aesthetics during the course of the celebrations.

The picture above depicts the Durga puja pandal of a housing society in the Western suburbs in Mumbai. After months of discussion the theme of the pandal was finalised to replicate a temple located in Belur, West Bengal.

The organisers of the Durga puja   enthusiastically listed out the events and performances that would carry on, side by the side, the rituals and prayer offerings to the deity. Temporary stages, replete with audio and visual effects added another dimension to the architectural and spatial expression of the festivities. And such events spilled over throughout the daytime and also during the evenings with people working backstage round the clock. 
The entire corner of the neighbourhood, which would otherwise be deserted during other times of the year, transformed completely with the spatial expressions that marked it, for over a week.

 With a system of awards in place to appreciate the architectural and creative expressions of Durga puja, organisers leave no stone unturned to outdo one another. Every effort is made towards better visibility and appreciation. The celebrations also get ample coverage in print and electronic media. Celebrity visits add the much needed glamour.

Reaffirming the place in space making through festivals

With the advent of theme pujas architectural expressions and spatial transformations have acquired a different tone altogether. The theme changes every year and so does its spatial expressions and attendant celebrations. Thus last year the theme was to recreate the legacy of the zamindar bari (large palatial structures built during colonial times housing the aristocratic propertied classes). The theme itself provided ample scope to tinker with one’s architectural creative imaginations. The spatial transformations that accompanied the theme transported one back to Bengal’s colonial history. Invariably, themes are chosen in a bid to connect with one’s cultural identity, rooted in particularised and shared histories. It is no coincidence therefore that all the themes chosen over the years for Durga puja celebrations in the city are in some way or the other connected to Bengal and its history and culture. The architectural expressions are also another way of reaffirming one’s cultural identity in a multicultural city. The festival allows for spatial transformations as contemporary processes of space making that unfold in the city thereby partaking in history making in a significant way.

[i]  Castells, M. (1996) The information age: economy, society and culture. Vol. I (Oxford: Blackwell)
[ii] Gokulashtami is the festival celebrating the birth of the Hindu deity Lord Krishna. Lord Krishna has several names and Govinda is one of them. During the celebration of Gokulashtami,youth partaking in the celebrations are also known as Govindas.
[iii] The photographs used in this essay are those of the author.

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