Interdisciplinarity in Research

As comparative literature once was, it is currently ‘fashionable’ to delve into interdisciplinary areas of study in teaching and research by exploring and pushing at boundaries. Despite the fact that it is quite difficult to do justice without the required expertise of different disciplines, more and more people are getting attracted to such an approach. This essay is an attempt at self exploration with regard to interdisciplinary studies wherein I try to enumerate the reasons why there is a love-hate relationship with interdisciplinarity, especially in spheres of language and literature.

Widens the horizon: Interdsiciplinarity is liberating as it widens our horizon and allows us to experiment with techniques that were earlier ‘taboo’. By breaking the stereotypical expectations of a disciplinary approach, right from the selection of study area to the methodology of research, the output can be the most original concoction. However this extraordinary freedom requires constant self-checks so as to maintain depth of study.  

Promise of some new findings: What attracts a researcher the most to this approach is the end of the tunnel, a search towards creation of new knowledge. For the literature scholar, analyzing and critiquing texts is not the easiest of tasks and yet parting with one’s grounding is not easy.  Most interdisciplinary studies require a departure from one’s training to self groom towards the vision of a new territory.

Connects to the real world: One of the arguments I would like to furnish in favour of interdisciplinarity is that it connects us to the real world. It is not a realist depiction, nor a discussion on reality but a real time engagement that inspires and demands interdisciplinary approaches. For without literature there is no reflection, but without statistics there is no need for reflection.  Literature enhances, replays, and immortalizes reality but it arises from archives.

Bridges the gap between criticism and activism: Interdisciplinary studies bridge the gap between criticism and activism. By giving a different definition to productivity and job satisfaction, such approaches tend to touch concrete issues and problems. Since many literary and critical works result from activism, it is interesting to see the two working in tandem with each other.  

My Research

I am currently researching on Chandni Chowk in Delhi in the transition period between 1912 and 1947. The time period and the area covered in my research provides me scope to explore the following: communities and families, old and new Delhi, spaces that transformed over these years and the collectibles I will try to gather from people and places.

As I looked up literature produced about Delhi I noticed that the city has been studied from different disciplines like history, geography, sociology and literature. Historical works like Historic Delhi: An Anthology (Kaul, 2004) and Delhi Between Two Empires 1803-1931: Society, Government and Urban Growth (Gupta, 1981) are devoted to historical narration of Delhi as a place of power creation and the narratives use the standard resources for historic retelling. Kaul  anthologizes essays from the ancient to the Mughal Delhi. Narayani Gupta charts out the growth of Delhi from just another city conquered by the British to the inauguration of their vision of it. Her historical purview allows a panoramic understanding of the city’s evolution.

However I wish to problematize and explore the areas of ‘historical deficit’, by exploring family histories and life writings. Let me briefly talk about the works of Chatterjee and Burton as my research problem is located at the intersection of their points of view. Indrani Chatterjee‘s Unfamiliar Relations: Family and History in South Asia (2004) takes up the cause of introducing family as a quotient poorly related as opposed to many others like peasants, women and environment in the study of colonialism. As a historian, her analysis identifies lacunae as she traces the cursory attention that might have been shed on family history as a subject of scrutiny. Antoinette Burton’s Dwelling in Archive: Women Writing, House, Home and History in Late Colonial India (2003) can be taken juxtaposed to Chatterjee’s problem to exact a solution for it. While interrogating the very definition of an archive Burton suggests life writing from the private sphere. She picks up three women writers as a crucial medium to determine an alternate historical viewpoint. Her book suggests that ‘in addition to serving as evidence of individual lives, the memories of home that each of these woman enshrined in narrative act—for us—as an archive from which a variety of counter histories of colonial modernity can be discerned. I want to emphasize, in other words, the importance of home as both a material archive for history and a very real political figure in an extended moment of historical crisis’(Burton, 2003, p.5). Her study suggests that the archive, like the home, is always in the process of vanishing. 

The historical deficit pertaining to family history as Chatterjee points out can hence be filled in by life writing. Family archives can explore certain not so explored contexts better. Some of the more gripping works like Malvika Singh and Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s New Delhi: Making of a Capital (2009) bring to the readers a view of Delhi as it took its present form over the years. Backed by a serious documentation research and pictorial representation it is a study in the architectural and archeological treasures of Delhi. Singh and Mukherjee’s ‘splendid volume enables the reader not just to understand but to witness almost the transition of a hot, dusty plain, through the vicissitudes of concepts, drawings, timetables, clearances and construction embellished into a majestic living reality’(Verghese, 2012). Similar studies that depend on visual representations are Naryani Gupta and Dilip Bobb’s Delhi Then and Now (2007) and Vijay Goel’s Delhi: The Emperor’s City- Rediscovering Chandni Chowk and Its Environs (2003). In these works Delhi is captured in various photographic moods and frames to drive home the essence of Delhi. While the former performs a study in temporal shift, the latter brings together the grandeur of the city. Serving more like coffee table books they enamour pictorially rather than intrigue thematically.   

With regard to sociological studies on Delhi, I may say that they are not just limited but also dated. B. R. Ghosh in ‘Changes in the Size and Composition of the Household Brought About by Urbanisation in Delhi Area’ (1974) picks Naraina as his subject of scrutiny and statistically depicts the changes in the area. Saroj Kapoor’s Family and Kinship Groups Among The Khatris of Delhi (1965) is a small study focused on Delhi region and the caste Khatri. These rare studies come very close to what my project might touch upon in aim but not in manner. As a unique sample of a book that deals with family at its core while it recovers a historical period is Durba Ghosh’s Sex and The Family in Colonial India: Making of Empire (2006). Ghosh focuses on the relationships between the white men and native women of India by examining the familial dynamics of interracial contacts.  It helps me understand the contours of a research that has to be set in a particular historical period, is about familial relations and relies on resources of various types.

Some of the recent works like Haram In the Harem: Domestic Narratives in India and Algeria (Rajkumar, 2009), The Family and The Nation (Mahapragya and Kalam, 2008) and The Great Indian Family (Prasad, 2006) again come from different disciplinary zones and are also not necessarily focused on Delhi but it is their urge to break through the strict categorizations based on disciplinary divide that inspires me in this direction. Prasad uses surveys, interviews and published articles to elaborate on her subject. She charts one and a half centuries of family life that women endured. She places her understanding of the evolving Indian family within the Indian feminist movement. At the cusp of being part literary, part journalistic and opinion driven book, it successfully challenges set perceptions and notions about writing. Above instances reaffirm my sense of contemporaneity of the subject under consideration.

From the field of literature, novels titled Chandni Chowk and Connaught Place by Lakshmi Narayan Lal are interesting; the titular locations are used to juxtapose tradition and modernity.  Chandni Chowk is the story of a marriage that must fail if family traditions have to be upheld and how the only ray of hope, however bleak, comes from the oldest woman of the family out of sheer affection. Connaught Place is the next generation’s forked shift to the novelty of modern times. While two brothers become professional adversaries, their value system is a constant subject of scrutiny. Focusing on family systems in Delhi old and new in the late colonial period, this set of texts becomes a case for me to work with in this area.

Apart from approaching my research question from disciplines of history, sociology and literature, I have been trying to locate as many old families in Chandni Chowk that have lived there for the past hundred or more years and have some written, visual or recorded documentation of the time period when Delhi underwent the most rapid transformation. I focus on Chandni Chowk between 1911 and 1947 in order to discuss what happens to the most exquisite sites of Delhi over its most crucial historical changes. I attempt to study Chandni Chowk as a witness of Delhi becoming the capital of colonial India and independent India, as an exceptional wholesale market and as a residential area that is referred to as a slum in several studies.

I wish to suggest that studies based on late colonial Chandni Chowk are scarce; none scrutinizes Chandni Chowk’s families as a lead into a study of the context and related texts. The proposed work will strive to bring together resources and sources that can be referred to in our understanding of this particular time period which is seen as an overwhelming political time zone where the personal has been ignored. It is only a literary study of this period that can allow space to a critique of the private actions, thoughts and existence. Very often this private was complacent and comfortable; the proposed study is a possible measure to come closer to what seems like a distant romanticized past that can be best retrieved from a literary cultural perspective. The objective of this study is as follows:

To study archives of life writing and personal documents, preferably, undiscovered, unrecognized, unpublished family records that can help formulate respective family histories of families that have lived in the city for at least a hundred years. These archives exist as form of diaries, biographies, religious chronicles, calendars, and account books supplemented by oral records, visual material: portraits, photographs, albums, songbooks that I have begun to examine in detail.

To study Chandni Chowk, its past and present state of being, through the prism of these family histories that can narrate a world order concealed in the contested loyalties of households and private experiences. This will work as the major site of critical enquiry to open up my research problem. 

To take cue from the family histories and try to uncover micro narratives and texts (literary and non-literary) and contexts that might also reflect on the alteration in community loyalties, structures and therefore the alteration in this part of Delhi of various stages of Delhi’s current facet.

Bring together multiple kinds of memory, impressions and reflections with archival detailed information and read into the properties of a people and places that we inhabit.

In my PhD research I am seeking to explore the lacunae that exists in the study of Chandni Chowk in the late colonial period. Most existing studies are from ‘strict’ disciplinary perspectives of history, sociology or literature. I attempt to draw from skills and findings of different disciplines and also bring in the crucial missing area of family histories.  In trying to uncover micro narratives of family documents, my study not only helps me to widen the scope of my discipline but also connect research with the real world.


Burton, Antoinette. (2003). Dwelling in the archive: Women writing house, home and history in late colonial India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Chatterjee, Indrani (Ed.) (2004). Unfamiliar relations: Family and history in South Asia. Delhi: Permanent Black.

Ghosh, B.R. (1974). Changes in the size and composition of the household brought about by urbanisation in Delhi area. In Kurian, George (Ed.) Family in India: A regional view.  Paris: The Hague.

Ghosh, Durba. (2006). Sex and the family in colonial India: Making of empire.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goel, Vijay. (2003). Delhi: The emperor’s city- rediscovering Chandni Chowk and its environs. Delhi: Roli.

Gupta, Narayani. (1981). Delhi between two empires 1803-1931: Society, government and urban growth. Delhi: Oxford University Press

—and Dilip Bobb. (2007). Delhi then and now. New Delhi: Roli Books.

Kapoor, Saroj.(1965). Family and kinship groups among the khatris of Delhi. Sociological Bulletin, 14, 54-63.

Kaul, H.K. (2004). Historic Delhi: An anthology. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 

Lal, Lakshmi Narayan. (1986). Chandni Chowk. Delhi: Kitabghar

—(1986). Connaught Place. Delhi: Kitabghar.  

Mahapragya, Acharya and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. (2008). The family and the nation. New Delhi: Harper Collins. 

Prasad, Gitanjali. (2006). The great Indian family. Delhi: Penguin. 

RajKumar, Mohanlakshmi. (2009). Haram in the harem: Domestic narratives in India and Algeria. New York: Peter Lang. 

Singh, Malavika and Rudrangshu Mukherjee. (2009). New Delhi: Making of a capital. New Delhi: Roli Books.


Verghese, B.G. (2012). Rhapsody in stone. Delhi: The Book Review Trust Vol. XXXVI No. 1, Jan. 2012. | Deepti Bhardwaj is currently teaching at Ram Lal Anand College and is also pursuing her Ph.D from the Department of English, University of Delhi. She is an Indian Literature and Culture enthusiast.

* Article first published in FORTELL, January 2014

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