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Branding the Power Center: Toponymy as a Tool for Assertion of Political Prowess

Chakraborty, Sreya

The urban environment is made up of separate elements that spatialize social, cultural, economic, historic information about the geography and the people interacting with it. Their recognition through the lens of history and historic knowledge is heritage. Toponymy, or the science of naming places, is one of those spatial elements, and street names are a subset of place-names. They are essential inheritances for a state and its people as the state transitions through social, political, and cultural epochs, as they present a capsule to look back at state values and mechanisms. However, as with every heritage element, there is a quotient of temporality to them. Since street names are cultural productions that represent the most relevant and useful cultural information about the state at the time of naming, as conditions of the state change, they are often reconfigured.

India, having undergone various rules and regimes, has a long history of assigning and reassigning names to places not only as a way of commemorating important events, personalities and revolutionaries but also for reforming spatial narratives rife with political intents. However, in recent years, specifically under the regime of the current government, there has been a proliferation of place-name changes in various scales of urban spaces: cities, districts, streets, buildings, transit infrastructures. These reconfigurations have attracted vehement opposition by the media. However, recent media depictions have failed to take into account the broader significance of name changes (toponymy) and historical context of these changes.

This thesis is an inquiry into the heritage value of street names, the naming mechanism, and the actors behind the processes, how the processes intersect with India’s political and historical contexts in an erstwhile colonial capital city of New Delhi in India, which also became the nucleus of the operation of Indian governments within the larger city of Delhi. Through a review of when and how street renaming happens in the area, identifying existing policies in place that facilitate the change, or are subverted to make it happen, the thesis aims to understand the mechanism itself.

The thesis presents the information through the creation of layered historical maps to trace name changes through time, interviews with historians and other relevant stakeholders, and user interviews to better understand the current context of street name changes. The aim is to provide a timely reminder of the importance of street names and naming mechanisms as a heritage production process and help contextualize it within the larger considerations and motivations that were at play.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Historic Preservation
Thesis Advisors
Raynolds, William
Degree
M.S., Columbia University
Published Here
August 10, 2020