Journal of Arts & Ideas, no. 22 (April 1992) p. 57.


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A Collision of Class Cultures

D Santo Datta

Sumanta Banerjee, The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 1989, 248 pp.,Rsl80.

The best way to enjoy a good book is perhaps not to review it. The Parlour and the Streets is such a book, and its subtitle should not discourage the readers, although it may suggest some dry academic tome bristling with glossaries and footnotes. Despite its 24-page-long notes and references. The Parlour and the Streets is not heavy-going; one does not have to wade through it. On the contrary, one glides through it, from the first to the last chapter, and ends up thinking.

During the last ten years, numerous books, collections of essays and commemorative volumes on or referring to the history and culture of Calcutta have appeared. Significantly, the Calcutta of the nineteenth century in particular has been the subject-matter of most of the writers' searching analyses, descriptions and generalizations.

Why do the writers find this pre-industrial urban formation a freak in the history of slow and discontinuous urbanization in India so interesting?1 A parvenue among other cities, with roots in ancient and medieval India, Calcutta is only three hundred years old. No important trade routes had ever used this malarial swamp as a halting point in any period of history, and its port and harbouring facilities developed only in rhythm with the colonial commerce of the East India Company.

Till the historic success of the East India Company's military adventures in Bengal, the civic amenities and numerical size of population in pre-industrial towns in the region depended, as in other urban centres all over India, 'on the ups-and-downs of military campaigns and the prosperity of local rulers and grandees'.2 In fact, the socio-economic structure of townships during the long and turbulent period is an indicator of the level of technology applied to the prevalent mode of production in pre-colonial India.

The townships were marked by the absence of urban self-administration, and the question of an independent development of urban culture or independent 'political action' was out of the question. N.K. Sinha emphasizes aspects of such underdeveloped

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