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Bärbel Högner, Chandigarh nach Le Corbusier: Ethnographie einer postcolonialen Planstadt in Indien

Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 2017
Kathleen James-Chakraborty
Référence(s) :

Bärbel Högner, Chandigarh nach Le Corbusier: Ethnographie einer postcolonialen Planstadt in Indien, Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 2017

Entrées d’index

Index géographique :

Asie, Asie du Sud, Inde, Chandigarh

Index chronologique :

XXe siècle
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Texte intégral

1What in 2018 does the division between east and west mean and does it still remain possible to equate one with tradition and the other with modernity? If an inhabitant of a small European city whose medieval street plan is still discernable attends a performance of a Bach cantata and Christmas or Easter services, is he or she hopelessly mired in tradition? And must Indians who consider themselves modern necessarily forsake all localized belief systems and social practices to achieve that goal? These are some of the questions posed by Bärbel Högner’s recent book on the city of Chandigarh, the first major study of the provincial Indian capital written in German.

2Chandigarh nach Le Corbusier: Ethnographie einer postcolonialen Planstadt in Indien operates on at least three different levels. On two it is quite successful; the third is more problematic. Högner is a talented photographer, some of whose views of the city have already appeared in a previous collection Chandigarh. Living with Le Corbusier, published in 2010 by Jovis. In Chandigarh nach Le Corbusier the four interleaved sets of color photographs, along with the often frustratingly small black and white snapshots that stud the main text, provide an engaging photo essay on the city. Although Högner’s views include classic shots of the city’s most celebrated buildings, she excels in particular at showing the city as it has been inhabited across the course of our own century. Laundry is hung out to dry, festivals are celebrated, the dead are remembered, cricket is played, visitors from other parts of India compete in a road race. At times the emphasis is on the exotic, but more often the architecture and the everyday and the dialogue between them are Högner’s focus. At this level Högner offers a lively portrait of a city that cuts across class lines and does not unnecessarily romanticize her subject. At this level there is a welcome contrast with the photography published in journals like Architectural Review documenting major new works of African and South Asian architecture. This almost always enlivens the stark forms of the buildings with the colorful ethnic dress of local women, usually from the working class, and can even add elephants into the mix. As a photographer, Högner never condescends in this way. She accords equal respect to architecture and to people, and thoughtfully captures the variety of both.

3Högner is also an ethnographer, and the intellectual heft of this book comes from its reporting of her doctoral field work in the city, undertaken over a decade ago. She is an engaging writer, and her descriptions of her life in the city, chasing down a relatively wide range of informants, living in close proximity to her upper middle-class sources, and investigating various aspects of the city’s relatively short history are much livelier than the standard anthropological monograph, not to mention much better illustrated. She is particularly good on the city’s high rate of traffic deaths, facilitated no doubt by the city’s long straight roads, an unwelcome cost of progress in a country where road conditions often remain much more problematic than they are in this showcase city. There is also a thoughtful analysis of the city’s first laundromat, the threat it posed to the livelihood of the working-class dhobis who do much of the city’s laundry, and its relatively rapid closure. Högner’s portrait of the lives of highly educated professionals and of their understanding of how the city has changed over the course of more than six decades also contributes to the welcome addition that this second level of the book makes to the literature on the city, which until recently focused more on its design and construction than its inhabitation.

4Although she makes no claims to be an architectural historian, Högner also provides in the opening section of the book, an account of the history of the founding and initial construction of the city. Although this is based mostly on secondary sources, she also conducted archival research at the Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris. Högner’s extensive bibliography demonstrates that she has read widely on the history of modern urbanism and architecture including Brazil as well as India. Nonetheless the stumbles she makes here compromise the effectiveness of the book at the third level at which it seeks to operate, that is as a study of how space and architecture impact modernization and westernization, two phenomena that for Högner are more closely intertwined than they appear to this reviewer.

5The first hint of trouble is the degree to which she insists on crediting Le Corbusier with the design of the city, paying much less attention to the three European architects – Pierre Jeanneret, Maxwell Fry, and Jane Drew – and their Indian colleagues who designed all but three of its buildings. It is possible, not least because of security restrictions, to spend months in Chandigarh without even visiting the Secretariat, Legislative Assembly and High Court at the city’s far northern extreme. Architecture is always a collaborative act, and city planning even more so. Assigning so much agency for the city to one celebrated foreigner, even as she interviews a handful of his Indian collaborators, skews responsibility for its forms away from those who commissioned, paid for and constructed as well as inhabited them.

6The larger issue posed here is the degree to which the residents of Chandigarh have been made modern by the buildings and spaces they inhabit, which Högner clearly understands as European imports. Chandigarh is certainly distinctive among Indian cities, and Högner rightfully highlights the pride many of its residents take in those differences, but she often seems unaware or under appreciative of the range of indigenous Indian modernity. Nonetheless many of the details of upper middle-class life that she recounts here would be familiar to residents of cities across India, including having grandfathers with university qualifications in engineering, even if the tangled streets lined with high rise apartment buildings often appear very different. But although she pens a useful comparison of Chandigarh with Bhubaneswar, laid out at almost the same time by another European, albeit one who spent much more time in India, the German-born Otto Königsberger, she might have done more to compare it with both Jaipur, a pre-colonial planned city, and New Delhi, in response to which it was so obviously designed, but whose garden city antecedents its also shares.

7Högner set out to explore what she often saw as an explicit tension between being modern and being Indian in the context of a city that was indisputably both. A wider view of both terms, and a more self-conscious understanding of how they might play out in the country from which she came, in which fashions in ethnic dress and music can change as rapidly as they do in the Punjab, would have added even more nuance to her account.

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Référence électronique

Kathleen James-Chakraborty, « Bärbel Högner, Chandigarh nach Le Corbusier: Ethnographie einer postcolonialen Planstadt in Indien », ABE Journal [En ligne], 14-15 | 2019, mis en ligne le 28 juillet 2019, consulté le 22 septembre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/abe/5632

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Kathleen James-Chakraborty

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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