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Kolkata (Re)Colonised: A Heterotopic Interpretation – “Concrete vs. Jungle”

November 16, 2020

Words Arwa A.   
Header Credits Lulua A. 


Kolkata precariously hangs as an “in-between”; a pendulum mid-swing from its colonial past as a port city and future as a globalised modern cosmopolis. Indeed, urban Kolkata can be re-imagined as Michael Foucault’s (1967) heterotopia, a suspended place of cohesive incongruities and multiple functionalities. As pendulums go, Kolkata vacillates between its dual identities of colonial and postcolonial made apparent by two particular places in the city: South City Mall and the Park Street cemetery.

What is a Heterotopia?

Before I delve further, let me explain. Heterotopia denotes the contraction of hetero (other) and ‘topos’ (place) thus “other places”. It is a rich concept in urban design that shows that everyday spaces have fragmented and incompatible meanings. It was first popularised in Michel Foucault’s lecture ‘Des espaces autres’ (‘Of other spaces’) in the spring of 1967 to the Cercle d’études architecturales in Paris. To properly understand what a heterotopia is, let us first understand what a utopia is. Sound familiar? The books Animal Farm and The Giver exemplify what a utopia is; they are fundamentally unreal places where society is perfected (kind of). Utopias, by this definition, can only exist in fiction.

Heterotopias on the other hand, are “real” places. Foucault outlines 6 characteristics of a heterotopia. Firstly, they are features of all cultures but arise in varied forms. As such, there is no single definition of what a heterotopia could be. It might take the form of a boarding house (a liminal space between adolescence and adulthood) or a brothel (wherein behaviour is deviant compared to the outside world). Secondly, taking the example of a cemetery, he posits that they mutate and shift between functions according to the historical milieu. Thirdly, incongruous spatial elements that seemingly bear no relation are juxtaposed in a single space. Moreover, heterotopias are intimately intertwined with time – whether for “all time”, as in libraries, or ephemerally, as in temporary festivals. They are also both exclusionary and permeable with multiple entry and exit avenues. Lastly, it is at once a precondition and the consequence of “the space that remains”; a reflection of the outside world or an inversion of it. If that sounds like a lot to grapple with, fret not. Heterotopias pose a conundrum that Foucault himself could never answer: are they real spaces that show reality to be the illusion, or are they perfected spaces, more rational and ordered than normal spaces?

In this article, I seek to concretise what a heterotopia is by discussing two places: South City Mall and the South Park Cemetery (both located in Kolkata) within the broader framework of colonialism. I chose this lens through which to view heterotopia as a reminder that although Kolkata hurtles towards modernity, certain colonial narratives remain extant. As such, Kolkata is re-colonised.

South City Mall

Located on the Prince Anwar Shah Road, “South City”, has been described as a city within the city. The mall façade overpowers with its glazed and glassy interiors and reflective floors. It is located near bust Muslim ghettos and Bengali Hindu middle-class houses. Nearby, a make-shift bazaar sells fish and vegetables. It promises a “different lifestyle” – an oasis in the midst of chaos – and is widely thought of as “Singapore in South Calcutta” or “New York shifting to the East”; a veritable shoppers paradise aspiring for a lifestyle revolution (Jackson, 2010).

In this way, the mall is an imagined place – reeking of shiny, new, and polished surfaces but is in reality a reflection of a colonial past. Jackson uses the rag-picker on the outer walls of South City to highlight this. During the construction of the mall, a garbage collector is seen to be sorting out rubbish. Juxtaposed with a newly installed billboard that advertises South City as a world class cosmopolitan hub and a luxury statement – an economic and visual rupture within one’s “everyday” experience – this man is, quite literally, from another world (Jackson, 2010)!

Such is the exclusionary nature of the “perfect” other space of South City Mall. It serves to reinforce the jumbled mess of an extant Kolkata by permanently reconfiguring the urban landscape. It truly “ruptures the everyday experience” – by dislocating workers, factories, and local houses (Jackson, 2010). Drawing on postcolonial theory, the veritable fortress of South City reproduces old colonial power relations. Colonial Calcutta is seemingly brought to this postcolonial city via “hyper commoditised globalising” spaces which distance themselves from the intrinsic otherness – of degradation and death – by putting on a veneer of wholeness (Chatterjee, 2014).

Many a time, several working-class families living in close proximity visit – “dressed up” – on the weekends or during festivals (Chaudhuri, 2002). One is, again, reminded that entry into such a mall warrants special attire, without which one – despite not being barred – will feel a sense of alienation. This outpouring of people in malls on weekends, with their jumbled costumes and distinct subcultures echoes a traditional fair-ground culture prevalent during Eid or Durga Puja (Chaudhuri, 2002). Similar to a heterotopia, incongruent spatial elements are found – although the mall is a permanent structure, with multiple entry and exit points, it is only revitalised, and used as per its function, during special occasions that in themselves are fleeting. A placeless place emerges, vacant and cold until it is swarmed by people only to become lifeless once they depart.

Private development projects such as South City imitate the ideals of European living, a gated enclave set among slums. This echoes the not-quite duality of a White Town (Chowringhee) almost comfortably nestled within an extant Black Town of colonial Kolkata. This became a model for suburban London development (Chattopadhyay, 2000). The residential towers in South City visibly remove themselves from the modern “mass of corruption and filth” (Chattopadhyay, 2000). South City is a heterotopia that replicates the 300-year-old rhetoric of enclosure and totality that seeks to differentiate itself from the outside despite the seemingly “new” state-of-the-art facilities that are incorporated. Thus, Kolkata can be seen as an inversion, a return to the not-quite colonial construct.

South Park Street Cemetery

In the heart of Kolkata lies the last remains of a colonial community. The Park Street cemetery – one of the earliest and largest modern cemeteries in the world – is situated in the centre of Calcutta’s commercial and residential district. It is, however, rarely visited by anyone; not destroyed but allowed to slip into a gradual death (Chadha, 2006). Over the last few years, apartments and shopping precincts have mushroomed around the cemetery. Now, children play football in its central field, drug addicts loiter in the dark niches of grand tombs and, at times, a film shoot pierces the tranquillity.

Today the tombs of the Park Street cemetery, though erected as commemorative monuments, do not serve memorial functions any more. Those buried have been lost to the ravages of time, and although some tourists visit the cemetery in search of ancestors, the cemetery does not have a direct relation, buried from living memory (Chaudhuri, 2002). The Park Street cemetery is a symbol of double death – decaying remnants and its own death, as it lies forgotten by both the colonial past and the postcolonial future. This reveals a paradoxical space – neither appropriated nor destroyed (like other colonial monuments) (Chadha, 2006) – but rather not-quite forgotten and not remembered in the way it might have been constructed for.

Indeed, Foucault (1967) considers the cemetery a heterotopia due to the dialectical relationship between heterotopic space and time as evidenced by his fourth principle. The Park Street cemetery is both a timeless accumulation of embedded past and future personal bereavements as well as a discontinuous space hanging in the in-between of the arbitrary colonial and post-colonial time periods. This seemingly incompatible duality of temporal elements – accumulation and discontinuity – subsumed in a single space is in itself heterotopic.

In this article, colonial and postcolonial Kolkata is understood from two differing, heterotopic places in the city. It is in a liminal state, a blend of its formidable colonial past and modernised postcolonial present and future. This is reflected in both spaces which subsume these two identities which overlap and coalesce over time. Perhaps, Kolkata’s great modernist film-maker, Mrinal Sen (1990), expresses it best. His 1986 documentary, Calcutta, My El Dorado, portrays his home as a place of paradoxical return, “a city abounding with contrasts…a fermenting organism that grows and flourishes and excites”. He gives Kolkata the mantle of an irresolvable spatial paradox wherein lies hope and tragedy, two faces of the same coin.


Chadha, A. (2006). Ambivalent Heritage. Journal of Material Culture, 11(3), 339-363.

Chatterjee, P. (2014) The colonial city in the postcolonial era, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 15:1, 25-42, DOI: 10.1080/14649373.2014.871775

Chaudhuri, S. (2002). On naming cities. In S. Chaudhuri (Ed.), View from Calcutta. (pp. 227- 233). New Delhi, India: Chronicle Books.

Chattopadhyay, S. (2000). Blurring Boundaries: The Limits of “White Town” in Colonial Calcutta. Journal Of The Society Of Architectural Historians, 59(2), 154-179.

Foucault, M. (1967). Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias. Retrieved from

Jackson, M. (2010). “Live the Way the World Does”: Imagining the Modern in the Spatial Returns of Kolkata and Calcutta. Space And Culture, 13(1), 32-53.

Sen, M. (Director). (1990). City life—Calcutta, My El Dorado [Film]. Rotterdam Films.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Tasneem Sariya December 10, 2020 at 6:43 am

    I have grown up in Kolkata and can relate to this. There are of course many such structures in colonial or even other cities that have been ruled by kings. Enjoyed reading it’s well written

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