Monday, February 10, 2014 - 12:10pm
The vernacular architectural style of the haveli in India is defined by social historian Sarah Tillotson as a “distinguishable type of inward looking courtyard house” prevalent in pre-colonial north India. Havelis lost their ability to function as efficient domiciles with the decline of the Mughal Empire, under which a hierarchical, patriarchal system of aristocratic patronage and indirect land-ownership once flourished, to be replaced by an indigenous bureaucratic elite as well as subservient Princely States suited to British imperialism. The ability of wealthy families to sustain extended communities overseen by the haveli’s amir (overlord) dissipated with declining financial and social powers of the Mughal Emperor, and India’s many regents and noblemen. Since the mid-twentieth century, havelis largely populate the nation’s landscape as decaying buildings parceled out among multiple owners. Studied by anthropologists and architectural historians as signs and ruins of another era, havelis and the lifestyle associated with them have nevertheless been kept alive for popular audiences by novels, television, and most prominently, commercially successful Hindi films.
Post-Independence Hindi-Urdu films like Madhumati (1958), Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962), Bahu Begum (1967), Lal Patthar (1971), Kudrat (1981), Bees Saal Baad (1988) and Purani Haveli (1989), among others, have endowed havelis with an affective life that creatively processes and reflects on the structure’s material decline, by using the architectural form as a trigger-point for emotions about the changing role of class, religion and gender in the biography of a modern nation. As an affective topos, the cinematic haveli invokes the past through two of its architectural signatures made iconic in film, namely the internal courtyard (chowk) surrounded by pillars and arches, and tiered enclosed spaces like multi-level rooms and passageways. There is a danger in claiming architectural specificity for building types in films, because cinema participates in turning built environments into promiscuous icons, disloyal to social history and absorptive of all forms for cultural meaning. But architecture lends to its imagined and derived versions a set of assumptions about the conduct and aesthetics of life in private and public spaces. Architecturally, havelis created segregated spaces for women of elite North Indian Hindu and Muslim families. Indian films transform havelis from non-denominational pre-colonial elite structures of segregated living into predominantly Islamic feudal structures inhabited by a fading nobility, treated as conflicted symbols of benevolence and misogyny.
The films scramble history and erase India’s colonial period, which was historically central to the haveli’s decline as an architectural hub of cities. Faced with such a hermeneutic, a historian’s attention is drawn away from the logic of causality to the logic of signification, to understand what misalignments of time and misremembered identity have meant in the popular imagination of an architectural form. In this talk, I recuperate the omitted middle of British colonialism to reveal how ruptures from a sense of continuous history produced this cinematic imagination of place, to think more broadly about how we may write a historiography of space in cinema.