Elemental City: Ecology, Media, and Narratives of Crisis in Postcolonial Calcutta

Somak Mukherjee
UC Santa Barbara

This project examines how the cultural imagination of earth, air, water, and fire as natural elements registers their heavily mediated presence in urban space. In doing so, I look at how natural elements as cultural registers help us rethink what the normative qualities of crisis narratives in the postcolonial urban experience are, taking Calcutta as a case study. Calcutta operates as an emblematic postcolonial city, always seen in decline from its position as the colonial epicenter. To read Calcutta as an elemental city is a methodological proposition for archival and interpretative research into similar postcolonial urban centers from Karachi to Hong Kong. One could read such figuration of natural elements simply as ecological metaphors for manifold social and political crises in the city. But they also point to an integrated and immersive elemental imaginary of the postcolonial city itself. Thus, “Elemental City” refers to an environmental imaginary of belonging. My broad research question is: How can we reconfigure our understanding of elements in urban culture to rethink the crisis of our cities not as a diagnostic problem but rather as a generative condition that transcends the binaries of nature/city or culture/environment?