Call for Papers — Banaras tense: Future-making in the ‘timeless city’

Vera Lazzaretti Discussion

Banaras tense

Future-making in the ‘timeless city’


CFP for a book proposal edited by Vera Lazzaretti, Philippa Williams and Cristiana Zara


Keywords: urban futurity, future, inheritance, religion, imaginaries, built environment, politics, architecture, Hinduism, weavers, caste, smart city, Modi, BJP, tourism, pilgrimage, markets, digital technology, health, research and researchers, water/environment, everyday life, ethnography.

Concept note

This edited collection will forum critical and lived perspectives on the making and remaking of contemporary urban India. It takes Banaras, or Varanasi, as a prism through which to interrogate urban life, vis-à-vis the city’s material and affective inheritances and future horizons.

In recent years, social scientists have explored how the future has been projected and made over time, and how it orients actions in the present (e.g. Crapanzano 2003; Anderson 2010; Appadurai 2013; Bryant and Knight 2020). Often abstract and inscrutable—the future becomes a meaningful dimension for urban ethnographers as it mobilises ‘imaginative horizons’ that ‘postulate a beyond that is, by its very nature, unreachable’ but, at the same time, ‘determine what we experience and how we interpret what we experience’ (Crapanzano 2014, 4). What kinds of imaginative horizons inform urban change over time? How does the future orient and shape present urban life and/or transform the past?

To illuminate these broad questions and contribute to current debates in urban studies about future-making practices, and counter-futures (Ghertner 2015; Laszczkowski 2016; Bunnell and Goh 2018; add?), this collection will forum critical and lived perspectives on Banaras (or Varanasi), a city home to 1.2 million people on the banks of the Ganges river in eastern Uttar Pradesh, north India. While ‘the future is not where it used to be’ (Bunnell 2018, 1)—with Asian cities having amply surpassed Euro-American capitals in being branded and imagined as sites of global futurity—megacities and national capitals continue to be imagined as more future-oriented than peripheral and smaller-scale cities. Substantial work still needs to be done in order to pluralise the understanding of future imagining and making in contemporary urban environments. Banaras—a city that is not readily associated with futurity—provides fresh ground for novel scholarship on futurity, vis-à-vis urban material and affective inheritances.

Both an ordinary and extraordinary city, a regional and pan-Indian religious centre, as well as a notable domestic and international tourist destination, Banaras has long been depicted as trapped in a ahistorical past/present. Scholars have detailed that a certain mainstream ‘idea of Banaras’ (Dodson 2012, 1) as ancient, if not eternal, and quintessentially Indian (more often Hindu), crystallised during colonial times (Freitag 1989, Dalmia 1997, Gaenszle & Gengnagel 2006, Dodson 2012, Desai 2017). However, qualities of timelessness, eternity, antiquity and spirituality associated with it have recently acquired new vigour and traction in light of top- down world-class aesthetics (Ghertner 2015) and futuristic urban regeneration agendas.

Since 2014, Banaras has been the parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a period of Hindu nationalist resurgence. The city is experiencing renewed national and geopolitical significance, while undergoing substantial urban transformations in the name of development and cultural heritage. Yet, discourses of smart city-ness and world- class aesthetics sit alongside inadequate urban infrastructure, immense ecological challenges, social and religious diversity and economic decline in a globalising market. While responding to calls for critical scrutiny of the enduring discursive and methodological assumptions informed by a mainstream imaginary associated with this city (Dodson 2012), we shift our attention to contemporary Banaras in order to pluralise urban imaginaries and understand how they work and are reworked. The supposedly ‘timeless city’ therefore becomes our prism through which to interrogate the making of urban futurity, and vice versa.

Inspired by recent ethnographies of South Asian cities that experiment with storytelling and portraiture (Bradbury and Sen 2020; Björkman 2021), we invite contributors from diverse interdisciplinary - academic and creative - backgrounds to provide critical and lived perspectives on everyday life and urban imaginaries vis à vis future making in Banaras, and help us illuminate these questions:

●  How do representational, material and affective inheritances of Banaras inform and/or trap aspirations towards a simultaneously Indian and global future?

●  How are top-down urban imaginaries of Banaras reworked, resisted and erased by a variety of city-dwellers and users in their everyday lives?

●  To what extent and in what ways do ordinary people/residents contribute to transform local and global urban imaginaries and their material renditions?

●  What are the implications of current top-down futuristic planning and imagining for residents, political actors, religious and civic stakeholders and/or capital? Who is included/excluded in Banaras’ urban future?

●  What does the future look like from and for Banaras? And what are the wider implications for understanding Indian and global urban futures?


The contributions might address these questions with respect to, but not constrained by, the following fields of inquiry:

●  livelihoods and markets;

●  institutions and bureaucracy;

●  religious spaces, practices and actors;

●  rituals and festivals;

●  pilgrimage and tourism;

●  heritage politics;

●  smart infrastructures and digital technology;

●  political actors, brokers and politics

●  ecology and environment

●  public-private lives and spaces

●  film, theatre and text

●  music, poetry and art

●  health and wealth

●  learning and education

●  research as praxis in the city


We invite a diversity of contributions from researchers/practitioners at all stages in their career,  including chapters based on ethnographic or qualitative research, portraits of city residents, collaborative dialogues/interviews, auto-ethnographic accounts and creative writing rooted in the city. 

Please send us your expression of interest, a working title and a short abstract (250 words) by Sunday 16th January 2022. If you have an idea which you feel is relevant but not captured by the framework here, we would love to hear from you, please do get in touch. We already have a number of contributors confirmed, and are excited to open up this call to invite further chapters, particularly from early career researchers. 

Vera, Philippa and Cristiana