Bombay and Indian Ocean Urbanisms

Sohini Chattopadhyay's picture
Call for Papers
August 1, 2019
New York, United States
Subject Fields: 
History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, Labor History / Studies, Maritime History / Studies, South Asian History / Studies, Urban History / Studies

Bombay and Indian Ocean Urbanisms


A Workshop at Columbia University, March 13-14, 2020


Since the proliferation of Indian Ocean studies as a field over the past four decades, scholars of the Indian Ocean have conceptualized it as a space of networks. One focus has been to study the port cities that are connected to each other through the movement of capital, concepts, commodities, and people. Michael Pearson has argued that such connections forged a “littoral society”, formed by interconnected port cities, which gave shape and coherence to what might be termed an “Indian Ocean urbanism.” Consequently, one of the main regions to come into focus is western India, and the city of Bombay in particular. Our workshop takes the nodal centrality of Bombay as a place from which to explore modes of urbanism, the social experience of ‘the urban,’ and the fluidities of its sea-facing networks in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. More specifically yet, our workshop will interrogate the interconnected historiographies of Indian Ocean studies and urbanism.


This workshop thus seeks to build on previous scholarship on port cities and on the city of Bombay to better understand the stakes and consequences of exploring the specificity of “Indian Ocean urbanisms”. Expanding from scholars’ interpretations of Bombay urbanism – including as a marketplace for a religious economy, as a city of labor activism and working-class culture, and as a site of middle-class aspirations – we ask what kind of urbanisms were, and continue to be, produced by the commercial circuits that defined the spatiality of the Indian Ocean. Are there port city cultures that scholars have yet to explore? What specific social forms - built, abstract or otherwise - do such relationships produce, and how do they produce specific configurations of ‘the urban’? In brief: what does the analytic of “Indian Ocean urbanism” enable both for scholars of the Indian Ocean and for emergent scholarship in urban studies?


This workshop interrogates the idea and meanings of Indian Ocean urbanism with Bombay/Mumbai as its primary node. Our focus is centered around three sets of questions that connect Indian Ocean studies, social and cultural history, and material histories of cities, while focalizing Bombay’s urbanity as a template for studies of Indian Ocean urbanism, more generally. Our aim is twofold: to query Bombay’s centrality, and to invite perspectives that de-center or challenge its privileged position. 


  1. We seek to connect urban and ocean histories by considering how an Indian Ocean perspective can enrich the history and historiography of urban Bombay, and how this analysis contributes towards a better understanding of global urbanism and ‘the urban’. In analyzing the port city framework for Indian Ocean studies, we ask: What makes a port city different from any other city and does the port city work as an analytical category? What are the main characteristics of Indian Ocean urbanism and in what ways can Bombay be seen as symptomatic of such elements? Can we say that there is a coherence to Indian Ocean cities and how has this coherence (or perhaps divergence) changed over time?
  2. Building on the strong labor and urban historiography of Bombay, we explore the possibilities of an Indian Ocean labor and social history. An Indian Ocean perspective brings into focus communities that may fall outside the standard focus on the industrial proletariat, and prompt scholars to consider how an ocean economy affects concepts of work, labor, value, and association. How does the interface between social formation, labor mobility, and the spatialization of social difference affect the history and the memory of labor? Are there shared Indian Ocean trajectories for analyzing trade unions, community organization, and urban orders? A primary concept here is the “urban imaginary,” a shared but culturally specific mode in which social and formal groups have identified themselves with the larger processes of the city.
  3. Drawing from recent trends in phenomenology, environmental studies, and science and technology studies, we think about the socio-technologies that have helped to organize the urban sensorium. We draw upon the history of objects and commodities such as ships, contracts, money, body parts, goods, germs and viruses, fluids, as well as built form and spatializing institutions such as municipalities, merchant houses, joint stock companies, and banks to ask: How do we understand Bombay through material culture and object studies? How do circulating materials, static objects and built institutions interact and frame the spatial surround and sensory histories of Bombay?


Workshop Details:

  1. The workshop will take place over two days, March 13-14, at Columbia University, New York, USA.
  2. A plenary keynote session of invited speakers is scheduled for the evening of 13th March. Cofirmed speakers include Mustansir Dalvi (Mumbai University), Nancy A. Um (Binghamton University), Eric Tagliacozzo (Cornell University), with more forthcoming. 
  3. Please send an abstract of max. 300 words, along with author’s name, email, and a short bio of max. 100 words, to Sohini Chattopadhyay ( and Laura Yan ( by August 1, 2019. Authors will be notified by September 1, 2019. Selected candidates will be asked to submit full papers tentatively by 15 January.
  4. We seek proposals from junior faculty, post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, and emerging scholars.
  5. Meals and accommodation will be provided for participants. However, participants are encouraged to apply for travel funds from their home institutions, or to find alternative sources of funding for travel where possible. Please indicate whether you have access to travel funding when you submit your abstracts.


Note: While Bombay is an important focus for the workshop, we welcome and encourage wide-ranging work from the ocean space (broadly circumscribed by Southeast Asia, Middle East and East and Southern Africa) through transnational or comparative analysis. There is an opportunity for possible publication in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, so please bear this in mind when preparing your contributions.


Contact Info: 

Laura Yan (, PhD Candidate, History Department, Columbia University

Sohini Chattopadhyay (, PhD Candidate, History Department, Columbia University


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