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Mapping and urbanism: Q+A with Chitra Venkataramani

chtraChitra Venkataramani is the SAI South Asian Studies Fellow for the 2015-2016 academic year.

Before coming to Harvard, Venkataramani completed her PhD at Johns Hopkins University. She also ran an art studio in Mumbai, and has trained as an illustrator and graphic designer.

Her research focuses on the emergence of a visual economy organized around the production and circulation of cartographic images in the context of urban planning and ecological governance in India.

SAI recently spoke to Venkataramani about her work and what she will focus on while at Harvard.

SAI: Can you tell us a little about your background in art and how that impacts your academic work?

Chitra Venkataramani: I ran a visual arts studio, and we were drawing a lot and painting a lot. It was a lot to do with: how does one describe a city though images, and how does one put together an account of the city? My feeling at that time was that I was drawing in a language that was kind of repetitive. That was actually my first motivation to see if I should go back again to university.

And I happened to run into Arjun Appadurai at a lecture. Afterwards I told him about what I was doing, how I’m interested in the city and maps, and I asked him for advice. He asked me to think about anthropology, which offers an opportunity to come at these questions from many sides. So then that’s what I did.

SAI: Why do you think anthropology is a good way to study things from many perspectives?

CV: More than many perspectives, I would say that it allows you to come at things from different sides. I am interested in urbanism; I am interested in visual studies; I am interested in architecture and science and technology studies. The thing about anthropology is that it invites you to immerse yourself into something that you think is interesting, and consider questions using many threads of thought.

I have found that a lot of my interests have come about from my field work. For example, I was vaguely interested in technical drawings of plants and animals. I was very interested in that kind of graphic language. But it is only upon doing field work that I found a way to think about those questions through the perspectives of literature on the non-human. This is what I am drifting towards academically: to think about the technical image more seriously, to think about it through literature rather than the drawing of technical images themselves.

SAI: Where did your interest in studying maps come from?

CV: In the late nineties when I joined architecture school, there was this huge shift in trying to think about the city as a lab from which you could think about the problems, to think about contexts, to think about urban interventions. And a lot of that was framed in opposition to the cartographic map. The cartographic map was framed as the planner’s tool, which provides a birds-eye view, whereas we as students were encouraged to go into informal settlements or go into particular neighbourhoods to see the ground view and draw maps that played with the cartographic language in interesting ways – but also disturb them.

I wasn’t really happy with the cartographic versus non-cartographic divide. I became interested in mapping through a theoretical framework that was built on opposition to cartographic maps  – but I always had an interest in cartography. That’s the kind of thing I wanted to explore in anthropology.

SAI: What is it about the urban coast that interest you?

CV: I am very interested in how it is that the construction of the coast mediates the relationship between human, non-human, technological and the socio-political, through these big infrastructural planning initiatives. What really happens if you take a cross section of the coast? In that sense, the technical image is really interesting because a lot of interventions rely on mapping and planning and on drawing the coast as a way of constructing the relationships. So those are the two strands of thought that I am pursuing in my year here.

There is a certain claim to objectivity that maps have, which is very interestingly destabilized in this process of making land claims.

SAI: At some point this year, you will give at the seminar at SAI. Do you have an idea what you’ll talk about?

CV: The work that I would like to present will be on artisanal fishermen who live in urban settlements within the city of Mumbai. I think I would like to talk about not just their land rights claims, but framing those claims in relation to the kinds of uncertainties that surround the act of fishing itself.

Let me give you a quick example. The way that artisanal fisherman fish, very broadly speaking, is that they only fish for nine months a year and there is a way in which knowledge spreads through the community – as to what time to go fish, how the wind is working that day, how the tides are working that day. Fishing is a field of uncertainties. And when something like ships start beaching up on the coast– there has been a spate of ships landing on the coast of Mumbai –  it introduces another kind of uncertainty into the market. So how is it that these kinds of uncertainties around livelihood are connected to the uncertainties around land, and the long-term horizons of the state’s vision for environmentally sound development? How does it get absorbed into the uncertainty of everyday life?

SAI: While you’re here at Harvard, do you have a specific question in mind or are you exploring as you go?

CV: I have multiple things going on. On the practical level, I am trying to rework my dissertation as a manuscript. The second project is exploring and setting the groundwork for what my project will be and refining some of the broader questions of my dissertation. I want to continue my interest in mapping, so I am taking a GIS class.

Some of the questions I want to explore while I’m at Harvard is: What is happening with the participatory development in Mumbai in relation to the development plan? This is a great place to ask that question because the Harvard School of Design has been doing a lot of interesting work on it.

The other thing I am thinking about is the coast itself and the coast as an interface between land and water. How is it that this interface has been conceived of, in terms of urban planning projects, both historically and in terms of future projects?

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