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Provincial Urbanity: Intellectuals and Public Life in Patna, 1880-1930


Scholarly and popular discussions of cities tend to concentrate on the largest exemplars—Bombay and Calcutta, in the case of South Asia—and to neglect the smaller cities and towns where most urban people live. This dissertation examines the history of Patna, a small city in the north Indian region of Bihar, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Patna had been a bustling center of trade, culture, and administration for much of the early modern period but, like many cities in the Gangetic plains, it was marginalized by the political and economic changes of the nineteenth century. To many observers, it seemed to have become part of the provincial hinterland or, to use the term that developed under colonial rule, the "mofussil."

Even a diminished and demeaned Patna, however, remained a major center. Despite the city's apparent decline, it sustained its connections with other mofussil towns and with the rest of the world, and maintained ways of being urban and urbane that distinguished it from larger cities as well as from more rural places. Patna was still Bihar's economic and political hub and a central node in the dynamic public culture that linked Patnaites with readers and writers in nearby towns and distant cities. Questions of the "backwardness" of Patna and Bihar entered national politics when activists based in the city began to call for Bihar to be separated from Bengal and established as a new province with Patna as its capital. When they succeeded in 1912, the city itself was reshaped along with its forms of community and authority. The same transformations that seemed to reverse Patna's decline also weakened its links with the networks that had defined its public culture.

This dissertation documents Patna's distinctiveness and vitality by combining several approaches. First, it is a cultural history of provinciality and urbanity that shows how these concepts were formed through social practice. Secondly, it is an urban history that examines the city's politics and social geography together with its relationships with its region. And thirdly, it is a social history of intellectuals that locates their literary and scholarly activities within their urban community. Ultimately, it argues, Patna's urbanity was inextricably linked with its provinciality.

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