Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2020
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
History, Columbia University
The Unclaimed Dead Body as an Urban Problem: Bombay and Calcutta, 1896-1950s

I study the tensions between religious and scientific practices of disposing of the pauper and the unclaimed dead bodies through a case study of Bombay and Calcutta, between 1896 and 1960. The catastrophic mortality of the bubonic plague at the port cities of Bombay and Calcutta (1896 – 1910) transformed the ways in which colonial urban governance disposed of the dead bodies of the poor, the homeless, the lepers and the prostitutes of the cities. While earlier the medical colleges claimed these corpses and the remaining were disposed of without specific laws, the massive numbers of corpses on the streets brought these existing practices to public scrutiny. This resulted in riots in Bombay (1898) and led to precautionary measures in Calcutta. I study the moment of the plague and its differential effects on Bombay and Calcutta to enter into an archive of debates around new technologies of death such as the crematoria machines, zinc-lined coffins, disinfectants and mass cremations. This novel project is possible through the use of underutilized colonial archives of burial and cremation administration in India, and unused private papers of funerary charities which I have discovered. These underutilized documents will allow me to understand the processes by which a network of urban institutions – medical, sanitary, municipal, private and religious enterprises – created durable infrastructures for the stigmatized and subaltern deaths. By researching up to 1950s when Bombay passed an Anatomy Law (1949) and Calcutta refrained (1953), I trace how shared urban concerns could produce differential juridical results. My work underscores the historical structures that have guided our common sense in addressing/forgetting the unclaimed and the anonymous dead bodies. Together, this project will show how science and technology transformed spatial practices, re-imagined social norms and created new forms of hierarchies.