Papered spaces: New ways of seeing colonial architectures
Papered spaces: New ways of seeing colonial architectures

A European officer and Indian clerks at a

. Charles D'Oyly (drawing), JH Clark and C Dubourg (engraving), Plate 3, from
The European in India,
1813. Image: British Library Board, V 10573

As a template for the modern state, colonial- or imperial-built landscapes have much to tell us. But architectural history has traditionally focused on major urban schemes and grand, monumental buildings – often as expressions of oppressive colonial power – overlooking the impact of more subtle elements, like the everyday organisational systems behind the scenes. 

In search of these hidden narratives and lived experiences of colonial architectures, I turned to the early-19th century colonial government of Bengal in India under British rule. This represented a paper-centred culture of documentation, surveys and bureaucratic practices. 

I wanted to engage with its architecture, spaces and material culture. I focused on the layouts and narrative accounts of a range of administrative buildings that housed thousands of paper files and paperwork, and the insights that they can offer about the everyday life of the workers and their interactions within these spaces. 

By understanding the ordinary administrative buildings which housed the middle and lower tiers of colonial governance in more provincial areas of Bengal, we can start to challenge the idea of the British colonial state as an entity located only in monumental buildings – and open up alternative ways of reading these architectures.

At the very heart of Bengal’s colonial government were the district

colonial offices acting as tax collection nodes, and vital pegs of the colonial revenue economy. These were necessarily paper-based and writing-oriented environments of colonial administration, and a variety of paper records and processes directly influenced the designs of specific types of furniture, spaces and architectures which housed them. 

These colonial ‘paperworlds’ – and the spaces they shaped – represent, on the one hand, colonial forms of governmental control and the tyranny of their procedural regimes, and on the other, particular types of material, spatial and experiential environments.


were rooted in residential building typologies, such as the bungalow. They often combined offices, courtrooms and domestic spaces, creating fuzzy boundaries between these domains. 

Bungalow barrack type Cutcherries

 in Munger, India, 1860s. Unknown photographer. Image: British Library Board, Photo 798(94)

Bungalow and barrack type 

Image: Tania Sengupta

From the 1820s, the geopolitical context – with various Indian and global wars ending for Britain, and stabilising Indian revenues of British trading giant the East India Company – created the expanding need for office space. A new type of

what I call the barrack type – appeared. This marked the formal separation of provincial colonial office space from domestic space. 

Bureaucratic work created its own spatial cultures. Historian Christopher Bayly has shown how during the early 19th century, ‘accountancy’ was increasingly viewed as the highest administrative skill. The

, or administrative clerks – a heterogeneous group that included writers, accountants and translators – became a pivotal constituency of district
. They worked in a series of interconnected open office spaces. Colonial authorities could not control access to these porous and fluid spaces, built with the profusion of doors and windows needed in a tropical climate.

were a key group of the
. These Persianette officers, an earlier part of Mughal bureaucracy, were vital to British governance because of their command over knowledge of Mughal tax administration, on which the East India Company’s revenue governance was directly founded. The
– their workspace – was usually directly adjacent to the European officer’s chambers and courtrooms. 

As the colonial project of extracting their revenue knowledge advanced, this knowledge was materialised into paper records within record rooms which formed the centre of the

spatial organisation
With the creation of English paper records from Persian, the
was displaced. By around the 1860s, the English-office had the premium location next to the high official’s chambers and courtrooms. 

However, as Bayly points out, there were still large gaps between the colonial authorities’ revenue knowledge and the realities of the Indian hinterlands. British officers had to use lower level

staff as their intermediaries for a range of informal tasks. 

These employees had virtually no formal spatial provisions within the

. But they wielded forms of indirect power through their mobility and direct contact with the local population in bazaars, other town-spaces or villages. The ad-hoc, incremental nature of development of
premises in fact enabled their appropriations in numerous ways, especially by Indian employees and visitors, often beyond the control of colonial authorities. 

And the logic of paper spilled out into – and was also shaped by – other town spaces such as bazaars and paper supply networks. Despite its attempts to only use imported paper from Britain, the

paper-governance became dependent on supplies from local bazaars, as well as the surviving (Mughal) Indian paper-economy stretching from Kashmir to Bengal. 


bureaucratic spaces also held culturally produced meanings for Bengali employees – challenging notions of universal experiences of capitalism and secular modernity – who sometimes acted subversively. An account by Pauchkouree Khan, a lower-level orderly in the Benares
in the 1840s, tells us how native staff would fool European officers, take bribes, and move around the local bazaar and nearby villages to summon people or conduct negotiations. 

The accumulative colonial archive of revenue information, alongside the wider context of various bodies of research and colonial surveys, reveal a lot about how the paper-based revenue collection system influenced the architecture that served it.

In showing how this mode of colonial control also diffused into informal, immaterial information systems and a range of amorphous spaces, we discover a far more fragmentary, everyday, contingent and local form of colonial rule often subverted or domesticated by its Indian employees –  something that speaks to us throughout the ages, across varied contexts and of complex power-relations. 

Dr Tania Sengupta
Dr Tania Sengupta
The Bartlett, UCL
22 Gordon Street
London WC1H 0QB
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