Atmosphere: A Colonial History

Lecture by Awadhendra Sharan (CSDS, Delhi)

Ideas of nature in the tropics have often been analyzed through the discourse of ‘tropicality’ that posited an essential difference between the environments of the West and of the tropical parts of the Empire. In this lecture I shall address instead another framing of nature, having to do with smoke and air, in which an uncanny resemblance was posited between atmospheric conditions in the towns of England and in Indian cities such as Calcutta and Bombay. I shall trace the history of interventions designed to reduce such nuisance, drawing attention to the aesthetic preferences of the colonial rulers and of the emerging Indian middle class, desire for economic efficiency and attempts at securing better health. Attention will also be paid to the racial, class and gender relations through which these concerns were articulated. I shall conclude with some reflections on what historical analysis may have to offer to atmospheric discourses in the age of the Anthropocene.

Awadhendra Sharan is Director and Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. His research interests are in the fields of urban and environmental studies. He is the author of Dust and Smoke: Air Pollution and Colonial Urbanism, India, c.1860-c.1940 (Orient BlackSwan, 2020) and In the City, Out of Place: Nuisance, Pollution and Dwelling in Delhi, c. 1850-2000 (OUP, 2014). His ongoing research is on climate thinking and urbanism in India.

The lecture is organised by the TIMEHIST research project and the research unit Environment & Justice.