Wednesday, February 15, 2006

SOAP


SOAP, or SOP - Statement of Academic Purpose.

When you squeeze your intellectual life upto this point, and what you plan to do with it for the next few years (and the rest of your life) into two pages.

What follows is most of the text of mine - I applied to a few places in the States this past December, and have so far recieved one offer of full funding for a PhD in History, to study the politics around ruins in Delhi...

A bit pompous, I must admit, but a fun read I think.

I came to Delhi when I was eighteen years old. I fell in love with this modern city full of broken walls and derelict domes. I knew, I know the sadness it takes to resuscitate Carthage.

I studied history for three years in Delhi University, environs rich in remembrance, but only as ‘historic’ as one chose them to be. I chose them to be historic, to be weighty with the burden of past ‘events’; with the outbreak of rebellion in colonial cantontments, with the establishment of imperial durbars, with viceregal marriage proposals, and so on. It was a solitary, geeky pleasure - to inhabit a landscape so different from everyone else’s.

I read as much as I could about the history of the city, fascinated as I was by its profusion of ‘medieval’ ruins, manifest traces of the past. I started taking people for walks through landscapes thick with events, my city as palimpsest, reconstructed from chronicles, histories, architecture. (I have written up a set of these walks for students of Delhi schools) I was and continue to be part of the loose movement of conservation of Delhi’s built heritage.

I went on to study photography and the theory and practice of film-making at Jamia Millia Islamia. I began to think of visuality and power. I became acutely aware of the way in which (some) ruins were made into monuments, how the past was appropriated into urban planning, into the grand designs of Empire, and of the post-colonial nation state.

My training as a documentary film-maker also made me very interested in conversations, with the stories people have to tell, with what could be characterized as ethnographic/anthropological encounters. These brought me to the realization that my relationship with the city was not an isolated one; that for many people in the city, its history is very important. That Delhi is not a historical city because of the chronicled events that happened here, but because how important ‘history’ is to those who would make claims of this city, who would call it their own.

The histories that attach themselves to Delhi’s ruins (as opposed to its monuments), are unrecognizable when seen from the archive. For these are not ruins left by wars and bombings as in Europe. These are the traces of long abandoned cities, ruins abandoned by events. Rulers vanish from their palaces to be replaced by vanished saints. The heroes of conventional received histories become the villains. Normative notions of community and communal categorization get thrown out of the window. Time behaves strangely. Not homogenous, certainly not empty. The moments we recognize from the chronicles – 1857, 1947 for example – are strangely reconfigured, and share narrative space with the foundational myths of villages, with stories of migration and violence, with more recent histories of land acquisition and oppositions to it.

In the landscape of a global city, the forlorn remains of the past play a strange and compelling role, standing, as it were, at the messy, overlapping intersection of at least three distinct discourses. One is the discourse of property. The ruins are property, standing on lands claimed by the state for purposes of development and planning and the creation of ‘national’ histories. These claims are challenged in the court of law by referring to the land records of the pre-colonial and colonial states, and to waqf grants. The second is the discourse of memory and identity. People’s genealogies, their stories of being and belonging, are often attached to the ruins they live next to. There are customary, religious usages to the monument which are sometimes invented to challenge the state’s bids of acquisition. The third is the discourse of heritage, which seeks to preserve the ruins as built heritage, to replace them in their context in the chronicles, to preserve them from ‘encroachments.’

The heritage discourse is very popular in Delhi these days. The ‘local’ histories of ruins are unknown. The politics of land acquisition seldom talked about. Any work on ruins at this point which is distinct from both statist and heritage discourse would be invaluable even if only as documentation.

My work on ruins/monuments, oscillating between the ‘archive’ and the field, between records and conversations, between the domains of the historian and the anthropologist(and film-maker), has so far been brief projects on two sites in Delhi - The village/ruin/monument/refugee camp of Purana Qila/Indarpat and the village of Lado Sarai. This work has resulted in a published paper, presentations at international conferences, and a ‘documentary’ film which has been included in the syllabus of Delhi University.

In between, I’ve been busy doing other things. For the past year and a quarter, I’ve been working at the Sarai program of the Centre For Study of Developing Societies. Sarai is a space which encourages both research and practice, and thrives on conversation and debate. While here, I’ve worked and written on multiplexes, on cinema, on Don Quixote. I have extensively photographed, written and walked the city in affective, rather than ‘academic’ registers. But it is, to invert a trope, the ruins that continue to haunt me....

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