Identity Of An Indian City Cultural Studies Essay

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Cities today form the largest percentage of the habitat for human beings. More than half the world's population lives in cities. They have been around for more than 5000 years and have been the vehicles for social, political and economic change ever since and continue to be so, their identities and images ever evolving and changing. Cities have always been considered to be the physical representatives of a society. [CITATION Ann07 \l 1033] 

India today, also lives in its cities. There is a very high urban population growth rate in India, and so ever present is the need for a larger city, a new city, a better city. Huge new urban mega cities are turning up in places like Delhi, and other cities are experiencing a massive growth in size also. [CITATION Ann07 \l 1033] With such a drastic period of change, can one question whether our cities actually represent the people that live in them? Ever since the advent of the international styles and the modern movement, a response to political, socio economic change in the west, has an image developed that we are all aspiring toward? In a country experiencing change similar to that observed in the past in the west, does anything make our cities different?

Research Question :

What should be the identity of an Indian City?

Need Identification :

A search for identity in Indian Cities is a long and complicated search. The factors which affect the growth of a city are also very numerous and diverse in the country. The basic premise for the writing of the paper is that an image has been formed of a city in the eyes of a common Indian person - as a place of growth, development, money and a better lifestyle in general. In forming this image we most often see cities of the west, of foreign, developed societies like the US or the UK. In the process of, for want of a better word, the modernization of India, the developments mirror those experienced in the west in a similar time of growth. Because these 2 chains of events are so similar [CITATION Ann07 \l 1033] , will cities in a developed India also present the same image as the cities of the west? [CITATION Ann07 \l 1033] Or is there some factor, some distinguishing urban characteristic that will give our cities an essentially "Indian" characteristic?


The dissertation aims at examining the built, tangible and quantifiable attributes which give a city its distinct identity. The study aims at examining solely the built factors in consideration and will not take into account the social or the cultural attributes of a place, despite there being important in creating the identity of a space. [CITATION Ann07 \l 1033] The study will be based on the following key aspects :

To develop an understanding of urban growth and the factors affecting it over the past 200 years - the major factor to have changed the way we live being the industrial revolution and its effects on the built form. This also includes a study of the major movements to have influenced the architecture of cities in this time period - with ideas like the modern movement.

Developing an understanding of the terms "Identity of a City" and "Image of a city" and defining them in relevance to the research question

Examining the present urban scenario in our country and understanding its causes and development and the role of the built fabric in creating a distinct identity for a place.


The research does not aim at finding a definite answer to the question of identity. The basic premise for the study is that a city develops an identity of its own and the question to be addressed then is what that identity should be. The main aim is to determine whether there is an element in the built fabric of our cities that gives it a uniquely Indian characteristic.

A lack of research done on the subject in an Indian context. Most of published case studies deal with identity and image of western cities. They can only be relied upon to get an understanding of the factors that influence image and a complete study will have to be done first hand in an Indian setting, which in turn limits site options.

Method of Study

First an extensive literature survey was done to develop an understanding of what affects urban design and consequently the first step is a study of the history of the design of cities and the major events and movements and ideas that shape them today.

Also important is the complete study of the social and cultural implications of a city in India - what it means to different classes of people.

Next is a thorough analysis and description of the terms "Identity" and "Image" based on the reading of different theories and ideas.

Once a base of knowledge has been developed, a case study can be made on an Indian city and its people. A comparison will be made between 2 different urban scenarios in reference to the question of whether their urban fabric has a distinguishing characteristic.

The urban scenarios under consideration are the two cities of Gurgaon and Jaipur. [CITATION Ann07 \l 1033] 

Chapter Outline


Social and Cultural Implications of the City

This Section will identify what the city means and represents in social and cultural terms for the different classes of people here in India. An understanding needs to be developed of the basic ideas that people have of the city and how it differs from class to class, creating a different "Image" for each person.

What does a city mean to Indian people

Implications of the cultural image of the city

the question of need - whether we remember the past or whether we forget it completely.

Highlights of Urban Design Ideas

This section will discuss developments that have happened in the western world that influence the "image" of western cities today. The attempt here is to be able to identify similarities between these developments and those in India, and see and compare the effects in general terms.

Urban developments in the West

Influences in India

Consequent Developments

Image and Identity

This section needs to deal with the terms "Image" and "Identity." The chapters will describe the terms, what they mean in relevance to the research question.

Defining the Method of the Case Studies

A brief discussion of the space Syntax method and its application in quantifying attributes of the built environment

Case studies



Comparative Analysis



Case Studies


The dissertation aims at understanding Identity and Factors within the urban fabric that influence the Identity of cities. The first is step is to develop an understanding of the terms that will be used while defining and understanding the case studies.


Identity may be most easily defined as the capacity to distinguish an object as being distinct from other objects. Identity has to do with identification - the distinction from other things can give it recognition as a separate entity. [CITATION Ann07 \l 1033] In our case, the identity of a city means the capacity to distinguish it being different from other cities.

Indian Identity

The notion of "India" is essentially a foreign notion. Historically, before the British colonial period, only a few empires have for very short periods maintained rule over the subcontinent as a whole. The socio cultural differences within the country are vast, from the northeast to Gujarat, and from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, "India" has always been characterized by different identities.

The view from the eyes of the foreigner is what has always defined India. In doing so, the most common distinguishing factor for "India" seems to be the presence of an absorptive mix of multiple religions and ethnicities. [CITATION Ann07 \l 1033] The multiplicity and different mixtures of these identities give the cultural identity of cities very definite distinctions within themselves. A riverfront temple town of Benares is very different from a riverfront temple town of Maheshwar. Because it is so difficult to define a single a cultural identity for India, the entire research and case studies focuses on the attributes of the built form of the cities to develop an understanding of urban identity. [CITATION Ann07 \l 1033] 

Western Identity

"Western culture is a body of knowledge derived from┬áreason." [CITATION Ann07 \l 1033] ┬áThe idea of western identity is the identity of the culture that has been the product of evolution of Ancient Greek and Roman cultures. Today, the west means a developed, industrialized nation, with a majority of is population being of European descent - for example the USA, Australia, European Countries. Japan and China are also developed industrial nations but their society bears definite characteristics that distinguish them from the west.

Selection Criteria for Studies

Two cities need to be selected as being representations of different identities within the modern context.

A comparison needs to be made between two cities, one which is traditionally identified as Indian and the other identified as influenced by the west.

Furthermore the selected cities should have been allowed to have a reasonably free growth, and not have had strict planning norms and restrictions placed upon them.

They must be sufficiently similar in their function and the demographic range of the people living in them.


Based on the above ideas, the following cities have been identified for case studies.



Reasons for creation of the city :

Figure The Idea of Jaipur

Source: www.archinomy.comSawai Raja Jai Singh had a vision of the new capital as a strong political statement comparable with Mughal cities and as a thriving trade and commerce hub for the region

Need for a new capital as the existing town of Amber was getting congested and its rocky terrain restricted expansion

The city would be more secure from delhi due to the presence of the Aravali range.

Planning Principles:

The city was built in accordance with traditional Vaastu principles and the designer was a Bengali named Vidhyadhar Bhattacharya and the vision was for a new city comparable to the standards of the time then - mughal cities. The city was the first planned city in india and it being planned in India using Indian principles, but not having a principally religious function, makes it one of the benchmarks for judgment as a modern Indian city. It can therefore be considered to be a traditional city in the Indian context.

Site Selection

Within the city of Jaipur - 2 regions have been selected for detailed study. The regions have been selected so that a holistic and complete image of the city can be obtained.

Figure - Sites within Jaipur City (Source:; author)SELECTED REGIONS

Figure Selected Sites within the old City (Source:; Author)The Old City of Jaipur - the entire region will be examined and a few urban blocks will be taken up for detailed study

Purani Basti - the edges of the region are bazaars on major roads and the interior is mainly a residential space.

Edges and internal streets are completely organic in form in this region.

Figure - Selected Areas in C - Scheme (Source:; Author)The area for study in c Scheme is an area with a commercial side and residential interiors.

Figure - Selected Stretch of Jawahar Marg

(Source:; Author)

Stretch of Jawaharlal Nehru Marg and around Jawahar Circle containing malls and high end retail space

Figure - Selected Residential Areas

(Source:; Author)Residential and local commercial spaces developed within the past 40-45 years


Although historically, there has always been a settlement at Gurgaon, the modern city first started developing only as early as the 1970s. [CITATION Ann07 \l 1033] At the time the district was formed, Faridabad was the economic centre for Haryana in this region, with strong access to the capital and an existing industrial base. Gurgaon was believed to be "an economic wasteland." The major players in the building of gurgaon were private real estate developers and because of the huge demand for cheap housing outside Delhi, the growth of a city began. [CITATION Ann07 \l 1033] 

After slow initial growth, a major boom was seen when General Electric became the first major international corporation located their outsourcing offices in a corporate park in Gurgaon. As a result of the growth that followed, Gurgaon has 30 million square feet of commercial space today, even more than that in Delhi.

The major force behind this development has been commercial activity involving interaction with western ideas and principles. The resulting urban fabric, in which stand out malls and huge corporate and housing towers, is one which creates an identity not perceived as Indian in nature. It has been therefore assumed at the beginning to be a western influenced city in the Indian context.

Figure - Selected areas for study in Gurgaon (Source:; Author)Site Selection

The old city of Gurgaon - The areas settled in the beginning of the growth of the city.

Udyog Vihar - Industrial and Commercial area in Gurgaon

Cyber City - Commercial area

Sikanderabad - Urban Village

MG road - Commercial Area

Group Housing and Plotted Development in Gurgaon

Methodology of Case Study

The study of the built fabric in each of these sites is to be done in terms of two factors -

Attributes that can be expressed in plan.

Visual Attributes

Plan Attributes

"The city can be seen as a continuous, heterogeneous and indivisible system whose identity emerges constantly from the rearrangement of interrelations between discernible singularities." [CITATION Jim11 \l 1033] The sites selected are to serve the purposes of being these singularities within the selected cities.

Attributes seen and measurable in plan are properties of a space like street morphology, built and open spaces, building forms etc. These attributes define the way people move through a space. This movement in turn shapes the way a space is perceived by an observer and it gives the space its distinct identity.

Analysis of Plan Attributes

Analysis of plan attributes is to be done using "space syntax", a method for measuring spatial properties and relating them to patterns of movement and description of spatial experience.

Figure - Different Mapping Representations of Town G in France

(Hillier & Hanson, 1984) (pp. 90, 91, 92, 100, 104)

Conventional map

Axial Map

Convex Map

y Map

The analysis done using this method can be represented through various graphs and planar representations like axial maps, convex maps etc.

Figure - Sample Axial Maps of two building Blocks in Athens, Greece

(Laskari, 2007)(pp. 23)

Visual Attributes

Visual attributes are properties like materials, forms, textures, light and shadow which define spatial perception but cannot be represented in plans and quantifiable attributes. These are also equally important in perception of a space and hence cannot be ignored.

Analysis of Visual Attributes

Analysis of visual attributes is to happen mainly via a photographic medium. After the site visits, the onsite photographs will be analyzed to identify attributes which visually create the identity of different spaces.

For Example:

Figure - MG Road Gurgaon

(Source: Author)

This is an image of the MG road in Gurgaon. While the scale and volume of the surrounding buildings might be similar to some traditional structures, the difference in texture and material creates a completely different identity for this street. Use of glass and steel creates a very modern image of this street.

Tentative Conclusion

The question of what the identity of an Indian city should be will be answered on the basis of the literature survey, personal interviews and the case studies. On the basis of these studies we will know exactly what in the built fabric creates the different identities of a city and then we can question the idea of what should that identity be.