Inlaks Research and Travel Grantee 2017: Ritam Sengupta
Ritam Sengupta is this year’s Inlaks Research and Travel Grantee.
There is something most ordinary about networked technological phenomena like telecommunications or electricity that often allows for them to slip into the background of our everyday existences. It becomes them quite difficult to think of them as objects implicated in a social existence to be discovered behind plug boards and all the concealed wiring. Electricity after all is perhaps the most discreet form of the consumption of energy compared to all earlier kinds as have been in use in human history. The occasional ‘shock’ reveals the existence of something that is otherwise far beyond the sensible, or in any case too taken for granted to stand out in relief. For someone like me who was growing up in 1990s Calcutta (now Kolkata), there is also however the distinct memory of power-cuts or load-sheddings frequently interrupting the daily routine, describing aptly the ‘minor’ irritations of middle-class life in a developing nation.
I entered graduate studies at a time when issues of technological production and use had started gaining traction as significant objects of study in the social sciences and humanities. In this milieu, I was immediately provoked by the case of networked electrical infrastructure, their lying beyond our average scales of perception and yet their possibly determining role in our lives. There was something of the work of an archaeologist involved in looking behind the switch, tracking the wires, excavating what went into their emplacements. Driven otherwise by my memories of its problematic functioning, electricity thus became an object of intense curiosity for me. By the time I had enrolled for a PhD at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, I was also however trying to understand the peculiar situation of our electrical present here in India as it came to be marked by planetary concerns over climate change. It seemed to me that the urgency of climate change while making claims to newer conceptions of energy futures, also demanded an account of the distinctive trajectory charted in electrifying regions of the global south like in India, which were now to shoulder a major part of the responsibility of fighting this change. This was the immediate motivation of my research.
As it currently stands, my research (here is my researcher profile in general: https://cssscal.academia.edu/RitamSengupta) tries to understand the trajectories of electrification in colonial and postcolonial India over the period ranging from the 1880s to the contemporary. My research problem consists of tracing how the production and distribution of electricity has been conceptualised and governed as an object of dispersal but also as a key infrastructural input in particular imaginaries of economic development. Secondly, I try to comprehend how such thinking and co-ordination of electrification by the state as well as private enterprise come to mediate the peculiarities of lives and livelihoods in the subcontinent perhaps by way of moulding particular economic subjectivities. I attempt to pursue this dual enquiry by trying to query how larger socio-economic structures and located/‘local’ use/consumption of electricity come to be related/co-constituted as relatively durable techno-social-ideological assemblages. I also seek the limits of this durability through accounts of certain other techno-social choices or projects undertaken in the field of electrification failed to materialise and/or achieve desired ends.
By enabling me to visit the United Kingdom in search of key records at the British Library and the Institute of Engineering and Technology, the INLAKS Research Travel Grant will greatly benefit the kind of history I am trying to write. These records, pertaining to the development of various policies and practices of colonial rule through state and private enterprise are either uniquely available in repositories in the UK or missing in Indian archives. They will by all likelihood prove essential for any researcher trying to make sense of the evolution of technological networks over our subcontinent.
I continue my interest in technological artefacts otherwise by writing a little bit about photography (http://sbcltr.in/2016/10/18/photography-the-past-is-the-present/) and engaging in a kind of a photographic project on bypass urbanisation in West Bengal (shared through: https://www.instagram.com/bypassview/).