There is complexity in existing Indian streets, but this is a complexity that synthesizes a better space – physically, culturally and socially than most modern designed spaces. Unfortunately, we have begun to look at our streets the same way as the West World once did. As depicted in the painting by Thomas Tegg’s titled “Genius of Bazaar Arrived at London”, (1816), Asian markets were chided as a Turkish turbaned monster attacking the well-organized streets of London. Why are then we being so critical about the vibrancy of the streets of India? Is the ideological difference between a road and a street slowly evading? This in turn is challenging the inherent character of the Indian street beyond a mode of conduit to a multi-layered, social construct.
Streets and chowks (squares) have always been a traditional public space in the Indian set-up. The concept of formalized public spaces was introduced much later during colonial rule. As a renowned critic, A. Appadurai (1987) said, “Streets and their culture, lie at the heart of public life in contemporary India. Especially in those many cities where urban housing is crowded and uncomfortable and the weather is never too cold, streets are where much of life is lived“. Especially now, when current trends of development aimed at making our city streets highly sanitized and modern with borrowed concepts from the west, it becomes necessary to be reminded of the social dimension of the street and their potential of being an inclusive, contemporary public space.
Streets – Blurring the Edges
The boundary between the private and the public begins to blur on the streets of India. That is why one can find private activities spilling over onto the streets – be it the barbershops, praying on footpath shrines, or doing morning routines in full view of the public. The meandering street patterns with varying traditional markets at different corners imparts legibility and engages the user in various visual stories. The sharp segregation between the private and public activities on Indian street is a much recent obsession because of which many of our vibrant streets are being turned into lifeless roads overnight such as the case of Gandhi Bagh market in Bangalore. Similarly, in West Bengal, the Street Vendor policy was partially implemented such that it prohibited sidewalk activities in the vicinity of all major crossings, schools, markets, and heritage buildings leaving thousands jobless.
Streets – A Sidewalk Ballet
The street vendors are the actors of the “sidewalk ballet” (Jacobs 1961) on Indian streets. These assumed encroachers of the sidewalk are the magnets that keep the pedestrians away from the road. Apart from serving as natural surveillance, they are also the meeting spots where several stories are shared among the neighborhood. The ghoomna-phirna concept as Nita Kumar calls it (1998), is another feature of Indian street where small tea, pan, cigarette stalls become a locus of interactions and exchange of ideas.
Moreover, it is only on such streets that the struggling population of the country can find affordable food making it a truly public space for all. Most importantly, the sidewalk ballet comprises the street food vendors that promote inter-regional culinary experience – otherwise dosas would have been restricted to the South Indian neighborhoods while the delicious momos of North East would never find their way to mainland India.
Streets – A Temporary Parking Space
One cannot imagine an Indian street without a few older ladies sitting on their verandas and watching the passer-by while occasionally stopping a few and starting a conversation. For them, being close to the hustle and bustle of the street makes them feel loved while being the eyes and ears of the neighborhood. What will happen to these old souls when a flyover cuts across their beloved streets? Also, in many parts of conservative India, the images on the street are still the only communication with the outside world for the restricted women. What will she look at in a deserted residential street?
Streets – Stage for Celebration
As the evening approaches, streets turn into shopping arcades selling affordable clothes to those who cannot afford the luxury of malls. With changing seasons, different communities extend their claims on the street by celebrating their culture and festivals like Dahi Handi in Mumbai, Holi in Banaras, Dussehra in South, Durga Puja in Kolkata. Marriages in India are a public affair with the streets and the on-lookers becoming a vital part of the celebration. Apart from being a witness to our traditions, such temporal nature of Indian streets promotes community bonding and instills secularism for real which otherwise remains a topic of discussion behind closed doors.
Streets – A Cultural Window
Streets become a window to the art and culture of India. From local artists skillfully making Durga idols on the streets of Kolkata to women painting the streets with Rangoli during festivals, streets as a public space retain the fading traditions of India. Streets also have a deep impact on the psychology of people, especially children. In India, much of childhood is spent on the streets playing games like Stapoo, Gilli Danda, Pithu, etc. However, with changing scales of the street, fewer children can play outdoors are restricted to a supervised environment thereby missing out on exposure to varied cultural backgrounds and becoming less tolerant.
The vision of a city of malls and skyscrapers, chrome and glass, whose streets are empty of people is illusionary. The above discussion reflects that Indian streets could well be classified under Great Streets if we are to follow Allan Jacobs (1995) description of streets-
“Streets are places of social and commercial encounters and exchange. They are where you meet people – which is a basic reason to have cities in any case“.
- Jacobs, Allan B. Great Streets. Cambridge, MIT Press. 1995
- Appadurai, Arjun. “Street Culture”. The Indian Magazine 8(1), December, 1987
- Edensor, Tim. “The Culture of the Indian Street”. In Images of the Street: Planning, Identity, and Control in Public Space. Psychology Press, 1998