City Talk: Language and the Urban Sensorium

Sponsored by Center for South Asia; The Urban Studies Program; Department of Anthropology; Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies Stanford Humanities Center


Friday, October 28, 2011
10:00 am –
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Department of Anthropology, Room 51-A
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City talk: Language, Sounds, and the Urban Sensorium in South Asia - October 28, 2011

The most distinct experiences of city life are all in the realm of the senses: the sounds and smells of traffic, crowds, smells of many different kinds of food, the sound of unknown tunes and tongues. Many visitors who are unused to the massive soundscape of big cities find it difficult to sleep there. Many cities have distinct smells, such as Mumbai’s unmistakable odor of swampland and open sewers or the fumes from aging vehicles that almost overwhelms the senses in Calcutta. Smells and sounds also constitute points of serious contention, such as the debates on the use of loudspeakers on minarets in many Indian cities.

Equally important are the languages spoken in the city and the signs that make it intelligible o some, but not all. Most of the larger cities in South Asia are homes to multiple language communities and often entire parts of these cities are defined by distinct vernaculars. For many urban dwellers this means that large parts of one’s city for practical purposes are only partially intelligible, and its public spaces – streets, stations and markets – defined by discrete communities. This segmentation of urban space into discrete community spaces has deep roots in the colonial management of urban space. For most urbanites in the region, their city has never been seen ‘as one’, as was and remains the governing ideal in European urban planning philosophy.

This seminar will explore the historical formation of the South Asian city as a ‘city multiple’ that produces a deeply segmented and layered experience of urban life, an experience that depends on a discerning ability to ‘read’, classify and interpret strangers and others in the urban landscape.

Speakers: Barney Bate, Yale University, Sharika Thiranagama, Nikhil Rao, Ajay Gandhi, Lotte Hoek

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Free and Open to the Public

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