On Friday and Saturday, historians from across the globe will come together to celebrate distinguished Australian scholar James Cosmas “Jim” Masselos’ contribution to South Asian urban history. The two-day conference in his honour, titled Power, Public Culture and Identities: Towards New Histories of Mumbai, is being hosted by the Department of History at the University of Mumbai, supported by the University of Leicester and the School of Oriental and African Studies.

It is only fitting that a conference dedicated to Masselos should take place in Mumbai. The city has been his archive and the principal focus of his historical scholarship ever since he embarked on his research career five decades ago.

Roots of nationalism

In the 1960s and 1970s, Australia emerged as a major hub for the study of South Asia and historians were at the forefront of this. At the Australian National University in Canberra, Anthony Low supervised a new generation of doctoral students in South Asian history which included, among others, Stephen Henningham, Andrew Major, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Imran Ali.

Other prominent historians of South Asia who studied in Australian universities included AL Basham, Hugh Owen, SN Arasaratnam, Ravinder Kumar, Richard Cashman, Peter Reeves, Ian Catanach, Michael Pearson and Marika Vicziany. Masselos was part of this constellation of scholars who played a leading role in establishing and promoting South Asian history in Australia in these formative decades.

A graduate of the University of Sydney, Masselos first came to Bombay in 1961 on a studentship funded by the Indian government under the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan. His doctoral thesis, supervised by Professor William Coelho at the Heras Institute of Indian History and Culture, St Xavier’s College, was submitted to the University of Bombay in 1964.

This was a densely researched comparative account of the origins of nationalist associations in late 19th-century Bombay and Poona, as Mumbai and Pune were named then. The study was published in 1974 as Towards Nationalism: Group Affiliations and the Politics of Public Associations in Nineteenth Century Western India.

Big city’s little blocks

Many of Masselos’ peers shared his concerns with the institutional origins of early Indian nationalism in the 1960s. But in the following decade, his research heralded a new kind of urban social history. In a series of seminal essays in the 1970s and early 1980s, Masselos explored how 19-century Bombay was made “from below”. These writings traversed a range of themes: the world of the urban mohalla, crowds and popular culture and the changing rhythms of everyday life in the city.

Masselos’ thematic and methodological concerns were part of a global trend that saw social history emerge as the dominant framework through which historians tried to view the past. At the same time, he was deeply attentive to the specifically Indian constructions of the social and the ways in which these were shaped by, and in turn helped fashion, urban spaces and identities.

Importantly, Masselos’ interest in the realm of the social did not entirely displace his longstanding interest in local constructions of power and the political. For instance, his essays on the Muslim mohallas in late 19th-century Bombay showed how the urban neighbourhood was the site of intense contestation between the older, purportedly traditional leaders recognised by the colonial government and newer sources of power that had emerged with the rapid development of the city.

Equally, his essays on nationalist campaigns in Bombay between the two World Wars, when India’s independence movement was peaking, pointed to the ways in which the idea of the nation was forged through newly invented collective political rituals staged in urban spaces. In particular, he showed how it was in moments of heightened mass mobilisation on the streets that the nation became a tangible identity for the ordinary residents of Bombay.

Tears in the fabric

However, as Bombay’s modern identity seemed to dissolve with the rise of archaic visions of the social in the early 1990s, Masselos’ writings turned to other visions of the political that threatened to undercut the secular fabric of the city. Thus, shortly after the 1993 riots in Mumbai, the scholar published an essay that examined the first Hindu-Muslim riots in the city a century earlier, in 1893, and highlighted the ways in which the urban communal riot was an ethnically territorialised phenomenon.

In many ways, then, Masselos anticipated many of the concerns that animate the contemporary urban turn in South Asian studies. The enduring influence of his scholarship can be seen in a number of recent monographs in the field of South Asian urban history. For the historians of Mumbai, in particular, Masselos’ writings have served both as inspiration and provocation. Both aspects will no doubt be on display at the upcoming conference, fittingly held at his alma mater.

Prashant Kidambi is Associate Professor in History at the Centre for Urban History at the University of Leicester.