Le temps dans la vie quotidienne
Clock towers dans l'Inde britannique

Francis Zimmermann

Après le séminaire du 29 mars 2011 (Les Angles de l'Asie)

Au cours de la discussion suivant le séminaire animé par Xavier Paulès et Jacques Chiffoleau, Jean-Claude Galey rappela la signification culturelle et politique des horloges monumentales (clock towers) dans l'architecture coloniale britannique en Inde: they told of conquest, not the hour. J'ai recherché des textes à l'appui, sans réussir à repérer ceux que j'espérais trouver chez les subalternistes, mais je verse au dossier les analyses de Metcalf et de Srivastava qui tournent autour de la clock tower emblématique du Mayo College, la célèbre private boarding school pour les élites ouverte à Ajmer (Rajasthan) en 1875.

Mayo College

Thomas R. Metcalf,
An Imperial Vision. Indian Architecture and Britain's,
Berkeley, University of California Press, 1989.

(78) In the Mayo College design, by far the "most prominent feature" was its clock tower… The tower was, however, by no means purely ornamental. The Public Works secretary, unimpressed with the design, told Mant that the tower "is not only not quite consistent with the rest of the building but also gives it a lopsided effect," and so should be eliminated. Mant vigorously protested that to omit the tower would "make the design somewhat tame and commonplace in its grouping, and wanting in spirit and picturesqueness of character." In the end the government gave way. The tower, one official noted, "certainly is inconsistent, but as the rest of the design is by no means a pure style, and is a resultant of the combination of two or more styles, I do not think the addition of another style in the tower is objectionable, rather it is advantageous, as marking a further transition and the commencement of a new era."

In what way does the Mayo College tower mark the "commencement of a new era"? Mant does not tell us, but the political symbolism of such a tower is clear enough. The clock tower, tolling the hours, frequently attached to the town hall, was a common feature of the urban landscape of Victorian Britain. Nor were towers unknown in precolonial India. For the most part, however, like the Qutb Minar, set up by the first Muslim conquerors of Delhi in about 1200, they told of conquest, not the hour. From the 1860s onward the British erected clock towers, very often free standing, in the major cities of India. Delhi obtained one some 110 feet high opposite the town hall in Chandni Chowk, at the expense of the municipality, as one of the first "improvements" in the city following the devastation of the 1857 rising…

(80) Colleges were always especially favored with towers. At the Muir College, Allahabad, the architect William Emerson determined a "large bell tower was wanted" to complete his "Saracenic" design, and secured some ten thousand pounds from the munificent maharaja of Vizianagram to construct the 200-foot tower that looms over the college's halls and domes. Whatever their origin, these towers were never simply decorative. It takes, for instance, little imagination to see in the open iron dome which caps the Mayo College tower a symbolic representation of the British Crown: the Raj triumphant! The clock too, of course, had a powerful symbolic significance as an element of the "new era." The British had always railed against the laziness and lethargy of their Indian subjects. With its hourly gongs chiming far above their heads, the clock helped to remind students and passersby not only of the supremacy of the Raj but of the virtues of punctuality. The modern world in India, as it had , been for the peasant-become-factory-worker in Britain a century before, was to be marked by discipline and orderliness.

Sanjay Srivastava,
Constructing Post-Colonial India: National Character and the Doon School,
London & New York, Routledge, 1998.

(40) The main building of the College, constructed from unpolished white marble and adorned with numerous canopies, cupolas, arches, eaves, and minarets in what nineteenth-century observers referred to as the Indo-Saracenic style, rises magically, if somewhat incongruously, from amidst its surroundings: it is like a shimmering white mirage in a city itself at the edge of a desert. Its incongruity is compounded by the white marble statue of Lord Mayo, the school's founder, which stands within its shadows, its unwaving gaze fixing the vast distances of what, to him, must have seemed like a secure Empire. And in the middle of this supposed fusion of all the grandness of style which the Orient had to offer, stands a sentinel of British self-perception: the clock-tower.

At first sight merely an incongruous protusion, the tower, embedded within a concrete representation of what the Orientalists were fond calling 'The Timleless East', also stands as a potent signifier of the ideological undercurrents which gave birth to the school. For the clock-tower was part of the system of meanings that made up the discrete discursive universe of nineteenth-century Europe; a world which perceived its difference from the ethos of Oriental existence through the intellectual and spiritual elaborations of the European Renaissance and through the mechanisms of the industrial revolution.

Clock-towers built during the Raj can be found in almost all Indian towns which experienced a significant British presence. They are usually located at the administrative centre of the township or at important crossroads. The colonial clock-tower, embedded within the system of cultural and political meanings that defined and animated the Raj, had for long been a part of the mythology and folklore of Britishness. This Britishness was perceived in alike manner by both the colonisers and a large number of Indians who interacted with them. Hence, notwithstanding the Anglo-Indian folklore of the unpunctual native, one of the most persistent themes in (Indian) biographical material of the time is that of the punctual native. The stories are usually a variation on how so-and-so's father/grandfather performed the same routine all his life, regulating the existence to the clock, and 'never once' being late for office. Secular time in these accounts takes on the form of a spiritual calendar, a religious imperative. So, poet Hariwanshrai Bacchhan writing about his father, a clerk in The Pioneer newspaper around the turn of the century, notes that the latter would rather forgo breakfast than be late for work and that 'my father would say that in the entire thirty-five years of his working life he was never once late for work'…

Clock-towers marked, both literally and symbolically, the route the native might take to the realms of modernity… Situated in an environment perceived to be characterised by excessive spirituality and other-worldliness, the clock-tower stood as a salient and articulate symbol of the 'rational' West, directing its progressive gaze from various vantage points far above the temporal and spatial anarchy of its surroundings…