Do you know Ahmedabad? -Bhadrayu
I am writing this to those who I think are connected with or interested in the city of Ahmedabad in some way. I was born there and spent many long vacations there and have been quite attached to the place. I just finished reading a book on the history of the city and I thought I might note down some interesting observations from the book: “Ahmedabad: A Study in Indian Urban History” by Kenneth L. Gillion, Univ of Calif Press, 1968. This reading was inspired by a reference in “The Idea of India” by Sunil Khilnani.
The book covers the history of the city from its founding in 1411 till the early / mid 20th century. What makes the story of Ahmedabad uniquely interesting is the fact that it has always been marked by “corporate spirit” and “economic rationality.” And this spirit reflects the culture of the people. “The Gujaratis are perhaps the least other-worldly of all the Indian peoples.” “The Ahmedabadi is the Gujarati of the Gujarats.” An Ahmedabadi can be stereotyped as “industrious, shrewd, practical, patient, self-reliant but co-operative, and thrifty at home but charitable. He was austere and matter-of-fact and had simple manners and a quiet dignity. He was not excitable, vain, or quarrelsome, but if a dispute did arise, he would try to bring about a peaceful compromise so that work could proceed. He was adept at not committing himself in advance, at knocking down a price, and at wriggling out of uncomfortable positions, but scrupulously honest once he had made a bargain. He was normally calculating and unimpetuous, but his desire for money could lead him into speculation, a fault which has lost more fortunes in the city than extravagance ever has.” I quote at length as I think the author captures the essence of the Ahmedabadi character quite well. It is of course this spirit of corporate economic rationality which dominated the passage of the city through various eras over the centuries, a bit more on that later.
Some interesting facts: The Kankaria reservoir is a regular polygon of 34 sides first completed in 1451! The first Ellis Bridge was built in 1870 but then was wiped out by a severe flood and was rebuilt in 1892. However, for well into the early 20th century it was a bridge to nowhere, as there was no development on the other side of the river till then. The old walls of the city did not come down till Sardar Patel became the President of the Municipality in 1924. He took the bold step in order to relieve the congestion within the walled city. He was of course opposed for reasons of sentimentality and a false sense of security people felt by the wall (the population and the municipal limits had gone well beyond the walls by then). Now one could argue that the walls could have been retained as an historical artifact and people provided incentives and alternatives to move outside the walls for a better life style. I saw this done well in the city of Xian (the 2000 year old first capital of China).
As the city passed from the Mughal to Maratha to the British rulers, its corporate spirit is what drove its sustenance. The “city was not dependent on the whims of a despotic court.” “It was … more than a political capital and more than an emporium.” In fact the ‘sarafs’ of Ahmedabad financed the payrolls of the Mughal and Maratha armies to a large extent and those rulers were in debt to the city. More importantly the city generated its capital from its pre-eminence on the sub-continent in textile and jewelry trade. It was this legacy of textile trade coupled with its corporate spirit that enabled Ahmedabad to successfully launch itself into the industrial age and retain its pre-eminence in price and quality in modern textiles in spite of strong competition from much larger centers as Mumbai. In comparison to the chaos that befell most British founded cities such as Kolkata and Kanpur as they entered their industrialization phases, Ahmedabad was a case of relatively graceful modernization. Due to this legacy and culture Ahmedabad evolved the most successful industry-labor relationship (“a unique and highly successful system of industrial arbitration” which even nurtured Mahatma Gandhi upon his return from South Africa) which was largely devoid of injustices and strife seen in other cities. It is quite interesting to see how a strong industrial elite and a very strong labor union by and large resolved problems effectively.
The British for the most part took minimal interest in the city unlike other cities in India. They basically installed a district collector (and a small staff) who left the system of revenue created and run by the Ahmedabadis for centuries in place and took their share in the net. By and large this light handed involvement on their part was a blessing in disguise. As modern education spread (independent of British agency) the city displayed a remarkable interest in girls’ education well ahead of the rest of India, however it was at the expense of the lowest castes and the Muslim segment. Ranchhodlal Chhotalal took a visionary lead among the city’s educated class; established the first textile mill and then went on to lead the city through many reforms in and out of the Municipal government – during the 2nd half of the 19th century. He in fact was the father of modern Ahmedabad. The British attitude at times was downright paternalistic to the Municipal leaders but on the whole played a positive role in terms of ensuring that no abuse of power took place and also pushed for minority representations. A few times they dissolved the municipal body and appointed a committee either on political or sometimes on moral grounds.
In fact the creation of the municipal authority was initially based on the tradition of the Nagarseth, the Kazi, the Mahajan (guild) heads (who all derived their positions via heredity) coming together as a sort of town committee. This structure kept evolving through the entire British period (which started in 1817) to reach an elected representative format over time. The author covers this evolution quite well and shows how the city government law developed in India (Bombay Presidency especially).
These notes were really to capture my own learning and not really a book review. But I did feel that the author spent the most effort on the British period and was not as in-depth on the earlier periods. The author could have also done a better job of highlighting the various architectural aspects of the city more, though he does a very good job of describing the caste based ‘pols’ which are a unique urban feature of that part of India, especially Ahmedabad.
If this email elicits any comments that would be wonderful, but it was a fun project for me to capture my observations. I hope you find something of interest here.
Email forwarded by Riddhi desai