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Metallic Modern

Metallic Modern: Everyday Machines in Colonial Sri Lanka

Nira Wickramasinghe
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Metallic Modern
    Book Description:

    Everyday life in the Crown colony of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was characterized by a direct encounter of people with modernity through the consumption and use of foreign machines - in particular, the Singer sewing machine, but also the gramophone, tramway, bicycle and varieties of industrial equipment. The 'metallic modern' of the 19th and early 20th century Ceylon encompassed multiple worlds of belonging and imagination; and enabled diverse conceptions of time to coexist through encounters with Siam, the United States and Japan as well as a new conception of urban space in Colombo.Metallic Moderndescribes the modern as it was lived and experienced by non-elite groups - tailors, seamstresses, shopkeepers, workers - and suggests that their idea of the modern was nurtured by a changing material world.

    eISBN: 978-1-78238-243-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vii)
  4. Preface and Acknowledgements
    (pp. viii-x)
  5. Introduction. Exploring Sri Lanka’s Modern Multiple Loops of Belonging
    (pp. 1-15)

    On 15 October 1912, a Sinhalese Buddhistbhikku(monk) from the village of Welipatanwila in the South of Sri Lanka¹ wrote a letter to his teacher, the chief monk of Sunandaramaya in the village of Thiranagama, addressing him with much devotion asWaranaravinda(excellent noble lotus) to inform him that a very special religious function had been held two days earlier. This letter has never been cited, to my knowledge, by any historian and it is purely by chance that I found its call number in the handwritten catalogue of the National Archives in Colombo. This letter is, however, of particular...

  6. Chapter 1 Following the Singer Sewing Machine: Fashioning a Market in a British Crown Colony
    (pp. 16-40)

    The subjects of the British imperial world were not ‘sealed off from the rest of the globe’.¹ Global webs of inspiration, imaginaries and materialities shaped the historical experience of peoples across the empire who lived through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The trajectory of the sewing machine, produced by an American multinational corporation as ‘one of the first standardized and mass marketed complex consumer goods to spread around the world’ cuts across the political boundaries of empire. Its story is better captured in the term ‘transnational’² than in the frame of the transcolonial, but the creation of a market imaginary...

  7. Chapter 2 Creating a Market Imaginary
    (pp. 41-58)

    The popularity of the Singer sewing machine suggests that changing social and spatial conditions bred new expectations and desires in the late nineteenth century and contributed to fashioning a market imaginary among the people of Sri Lanka. The sewing machine and a number of other household appliances that were transformed into discourse by fledgling advertising campaigns appear to have been seamlessly integrated into the fabric of everyday life. Advertisements in newspapers and magazines were not, however, the only way to market goods to customers: storefront displays, word-of-mouth promotions, door-to-door travelling salesmen were other valuable strategies employed by companies. But how...

  8. Chapter 3 Paths to a Buddhist Modern: From Siam to America
    (pp. 59-80)

    From news snippets in the vernacular press of the first decades of the twentieth century emanate imaginaries that reached beyond the sandy beaches of the island and far across its emerald seas: at times these imaginaries drew and withdrew from India as a mother country, home to Buddhagaya; at others they encompassed a wide arc of territory that stretched from Siam to America. The embrace by Lankan peoples of foreign consumer goods such as the sewing machine is understandable only in the context of a people engaged in multiple translocal relations who were confidently aware that it was possible to...

  9. Chapter 4 The Gramophone: Soulful Sounds and Sacred Speeches
    (pp. 81-91)

    The gramophone, a black machine with a fantastically shaped horn, brought to life via small black circular disks acoustic effects of the real in the shape of sound waves. Unlike in the written text, there was no symbolic mediation. Time (through the medium of sound) was captured, frozen, stored and released in a near-miraculous fashion for its first users. In colonial Sri Lanka it was not only practices and ideas of listening, performing and music that changed in conjunction with new technologies of recording and playback but religious practices too as the use of gramophone for preaching by lay peoples...

  10. Chapter 5 An Asian Modern: Japan
    (pp. 92-105)

    When writing about the East Asian modern, Prasenjit Duara sought to highlight the idea of the modern as a set of temporal practices and discourses instituted by modernizers embedded in Sino-Japanese interactions. He posited the modern as a hegemonic project among other temporal practices, rather than a preconstituted period or given condition,¹ reminding us that modernizers, nationalists and anticolonialists are not always interchangeable categories. This chapter is less about charting a physical presence of Japan in Sri Lanka or about measuring links or actual circulation between these two countries within the framework of a new transnational moment than about exploring...

  11. Chapter 6 Trams, Cars, Bicycles: Modern Machines in the City
    (pp. 106-121)

    The experience of the everyday in the early decades of the twentieth century as it was lived in the great metropolitan centres like Tokyo/Yokohama, Shanghai, Calcutta and Rio de Janeiro included relations that stretched far beyond the borders and experience of a singular locale, reaching a new kind of unboundedness, in which space was increasingly torn away from place by ‘fostering relations between “absent” others’.¹

    In the smaller capital of Colombo in the Crown colony of Ceylon/Sri Lanka, similar changes in feelings of belonging and territoriality were perceptible. In the city more than in any other location on the island,...

  12. Chapter 7 A Tailor’s Tale and Machines in the Home
    (pp. 122-137)

    It is through quotidian acts performed by men and women that ideas of what it meant to be modern were given shape and form. To capture a fleeting sense of what this might have been, the historian must move her gaze to the scale of the home and the tailoring shop, away from issues of trade and consumption in empires, or connections between states and violence in colonial cities towards the everyday life of men and women enmeshed in prosaic acts of cooking, mending, sewing, eating, drinking, washing and sleeping.

    How space and time was ordered differed according to the...

  13. Chapter 8 Working like Machines
    (pp. 138-150)

    While Marx recognized a history of human labour that lay concealed in every human artefact, Walter Benjamin distinguished multiple histories wedded as a whole, a history of production, but also of circulation and consumption and use. Objects, he argued famously, stored the unconscious of the collective. But some objects were more than mediators or embodiments of our sense of ourselves and our sense of others. In the colonial world, prey to a great transformation, some objects, in particular the machines that manned the booming capitalist economy, appeared to many as strange and powerful things worthy of fearful worship. Machines became...

  14. Conclusion. Metallic Modern
    (pp. 151-156)

    As the global system became more intrusive, an influx of goods from the British Empire, America and Japan virtually flooded a small colony such as Sri Lanka. The colonized became consumers, not only of products from the empire but from outside. It is through the gradual fashioning of a market society by an array of actors such as multinational companies, tradesmen, shopkeepers, advertisers, writers and readers and the consequent spread of consumption and desires for more and more goods that the modern, as I have argued in this book, emerged as an everyday notion in colonial Sri Lanka. Over the...

  15. Glossary
    (pp. 157-160)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 161-173)
  17. Index
    (pp. 174-181)