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Guest Editorial: Cosmopolitanism in a City: The Past and Present of Calicut

By Archa N.G.

The notion of Cosmopolitanism has been defined differently by different scholars. The ability and willingness to cross borders and barriers through dialogues remain a crucial condition of cosmopolitanism, but there is no promise of any ultimate consensus in ethics, mind or soul. In the present times, where the human identity is defined and redefined continually, the engagement with cosmopolitanism is important. There has been a constant urge for fixation of identities and of barriers between spaces, groups and individuals. In this issue of Café Dissensus, we attempt to take up these themes of cosmopolitanism in relation to a historical city at the south-western coast of the Indian sub-continent: Calicut.

Calicut was an important trading port, a dominant princely state and a vibrant space of community interactions from early fourteenth century onwards. The city was a significant nodal point for the medieval and modern travellers, scholars and merchants, voyaging in the waters of the Indian Ocean. It was particularly noticed for the presence of a large variety of ethnic and religious groups.The participation of communities in different activities at various levels marked an important aspect of creating both the political authority as well as the cultural development of the urban space. As an exporting center of spices, Calicut acquired importance in the Indian Ocean trade in the fourteenth century. The kingdom of Calicut was also the most powerful state in Malabar Coast in pre-modern era. Many scholars have placed Calicut as an example of the pre-modern cosmopolitan urban space and it continues to be a strong approach in recent times too, in many anthropological and sociological studies. Apart from the trading activities, the development of socio-religious and cultural movements in the city were also quite remarkable.

This idea of the cosmopolitan urban space is often a typical insignia attached to Calicut by historians, writers and scholars. But to go beyond these well-established notions of communal harmony and interconnected spatial habitus, more nuanced questions need to be raised, even when there are no easy answers for them. For example, unless we dwell on the history of the nature of community-living in the city, the questions of how the city-space negotiated with the ethnic, caste, religious and gender barriers over time or how the  idea of cosmopolitanism changed over time cannot be addressed. Many scholars quote from the writings of travellers from the pre-modern era to signify the variety of ethnic groups present in Calicut. For example, most of them were aware of the caste restrictions within the city and wrote about how different castes could not enter most parts of the city. The ghettos were also highly classified according to the caste hierarchies. Most of the travellers talk about the caste-based hierarchies in settlement, worship, occupation, etc.  Similarly, there is hardly any mention of women in these travelogues in the context of the urban space. A well-known sixteenth century Portuguese writer Barbosa tells us that “no nair woman ever enters the towns under pain of death except once a year, when they may go for one night with their naris wherever they like. On that night more than twenty thousand nair women enter Calicut to see the town, which is full of lamps in all the streets, which the inhabitants set there to do honor to the nairs, and all the streets are hung with cloth. And the nair women come in to see the houses of their friends and of their husbands, and there they receive presents and entertainment, and are invited to eat betel: and it is held to be a great politeness to receive it from friends.” The caste and gender hierarchies in an urban space seemed not to have disturbed the existing notion of cosmopolitanism in Calicut. This also shows how the concept of cosmopolitanism itself changed over a period. As a continuation of historical heritage and memory, Calicut has been written about, portrayed and imagined as a space of communal harmony, thriving with customary hospitality, and an exquisite food culture. These typical and generalized portrayals of Calicut, or any place or institution for that matter, will invoke questions in the minds of scholars.

In this issue, we have tried to bring diverse approaches together on this idea of Cosmopolitanism of Calicut. To start with history, Pius Malekandathil gives an intensive picture of the cultural processes in the making of a cosmopolitan Calicut in pre-modern time by examining the events like Mamankam. Muhammed Aslam E.S. explores the centrality of the economic needs of the city to sustain its cosmopolitan nature in the context of religious conversions. Mahmood Kooria tries to trace back the idea of starting of Colonialism by looking at a four-hundred-year-old letter from Calicut. Divya Kannan’s article examines the role of educational and religious reforms in the making of Calicut’s cosmopolitan urban nature. MGS Narayanan is an eminent historian of Calicut, and an active member of the local intellectual and cultural community. The conversation with him tries to explore about his understanding of cosmopolitanism in relation to the city of Calicut as a historian as well as a resident. Caroline Osella talks to us about her personal experiences in Calicut as a scholar with an interest in the sociological developments taking place there. Hameeda C.K. interrogates the role of women in the making of the cosmopolitan Calicut through the institution of marriage. P. Anima is sharing her experiences of the city as a young girl growing up there as well as a professional journalist dealing with the same space later.

In this issue of Café Dissensus, we intend to contribute on the one hand to the existing rich historical scholarship on Calicut and on the other to spearhead the emerging critical academic endeavors in the field by raising some new and complex questions. And we do not claim to have provided answers for the same. We hope this humble effort will enable all of us to further explore more aspects of the nature of cosmopolitanism attributed to the city of Calicut and contextualize them historically.

Archa N.G
. is currently a participant of Cosmopolis Foundation Year, organized by the Institute for History, University of Leiden. She completed her Undergraduate and Post-Graduate Programs in History from the University of Delhi, India and pursuing her M.Phil. program at the Center for Historical Studies, School of Social Science, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Arundhati kb #

    Excellent.. She is definitely a budding historian

    February 23, 2016

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