Conversation’s with a Khan: Invisible cities and Spatial Theory

Invisible cities was written in 1972, Italo Calvino’s work explores the themes of imagination and the imaginable through a dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. The work contains a description of around fifty cities which are explored in the form of prose poems which are interspersed with conversation between Polo and the Khan. Although the poems themselves are separated into separate groups relating to numerous themes, such as death, desire and memory. The book itself was both celebrated and critiqued upon its release, with some claiming that in the work, “Calvino the mature postmodernist became exactly what he feared as a young man, that is to say, a solipsistic thinker removed from the exigencies of history’.[1] The idea imagination of any city or space is ultimately and exercise in imagining oneself is both a profound and unsettling one, however not one as divorced from the exigencies of history as literary critics might assume. Einaudi’s invisible cities in fact reflects a number of key themes and ideas touched on in spatial history and historiography, albeit in a roundabout manner. Perhaps the most telling section of the work can be found in the conversation between Polo and Kublai in the opening of chapter 6:


Dawn had broken when he said: “Sire, now I have told you about all the cities I know.”

“There is still one of which you never speak.”

Marco Polo bowed his head.

“Venice,” the Khan said.

Marco smiled. “What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?”The emperor did not tum a hair. “And yet I have never heard you mention that name.

And Polo said: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”

“When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice, when I ask you about Venice.”

“To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.”[2] 


Although it may not have been Einaudi’s intention, the idea that we ultimately remain grounded in our own imagination and ideas when describing new spaces is an important warning to the historian. The problem of anachronism within history is a longstanding issue and one that historical theorists have always attempted to tackle. The idea that a description of a time or space is ultimately a reflection of the context of the person imagining was one of the key criticisms of the Historist school of historical thought. Polo’s description of his fantastical cities is flavoured by the context in which he explains them, more particularly his venetian background, which influences his ideas about cities as he explains them. All of his cities are described based on their relationship to his understanding of Venice.


Aside from more obvious historiographical tropes, the work also suggests numerous aspects of spatial theories within the poems on cities. The idea that ‘The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things’ is certainly reminiscent of Lefebvre’s idea of representational spaces that have a system of signs and symbols that help conceptualise space.[3] Furthermore, in Cities and Signs 3, the idea that ‘In every city of the empire every building is different and set in a different order: but as soon as the stranger arrives at the unknown city and his eye penetrates the pine cone of pagodas and garrets and haymows’ has similarities to Lefebvre’s idea of representations of spaces, as spaces that can be conceptualised and that ‘the imagination seeks to change and appropriate’.[4]


Although these similarities and associations are merely speculative, the book was nonetheless an interesting reflective peace that raises important questions for the spatial historian and an important warning:


‘No one, wise Kublai, knows better than you that the city must never be confused with the words that describe it’.[5]

[1] John Welsh, ‘Erasing the Invisible Cities: Italo Calvino and the Violence of Representation’ in Working papers in Romance Languages, Vol 1 Issue 2 Summer 2007, p1.

[2] Italo Calvino, invisible Cities, (London, 1972), p86.

[3] Calvino, Cities, p13; Henri, Lefebvre, The Production of Space, (Oxford, 1991), p38.

[4] Calvino, Cities, p34; Lefebvre, Space, p39.

[5] Calvino, Cities, p61.

The Politics and Economics of Gandhi Hats in 1930 Bombay

At the onset of the 1930s, anti-Gandhi hysteria amongst the British in India was close to boiling point. This was largely thanks to the now iconic Salt March, where over 24 days, he led a non-violent protest to the Arabian Sea in protest at salt taxes. The British clamped down on this movement, arresting tens of thousands, including Gandhi himself on the 5th May.[1]

This event sparked civil disobedience throughout India. The response of the British was one of righteous indignation, with one paper reporting that, ‘consciously or unconsciously, Mr. Gandhi is playing a dangerous game. In the name of Ahimsa he is actually promoting violence, not only in feeling but in act. Within the week just ending all the Presidency towns and every city has witnessed scenes of wilful rioting and excesses by mobs’.[2]

I was surprised therefore, when in the very same newspaper I read the following, terse report from Bombay dated a couple of weeks previously:

‘The bullion, cotton share and cloth markets in the city have posted special notifications forbidding admission of all Indians wearing foreign head-gear to their respective places of business. Gandhi caps are being freely distributed’.[4]

These hats had long been associated with the home-rule movement, first being worn by Gandhi in 1919, and soon entering into mainstream popularity, being sold at pro-independence meetings in the early 1920s.[5] The British response had been swift, with cap-wearers suspended from Government jobs, fined or even beaten.[6] Such hats have therefore maintained political significance up to the present day, with the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (common man) Party dishing out tens of thousands of these cheaply made caps emblazoned with party slogans at rallies from 2012 onwards.[7]

AAP Gandhi Hat (Andrew Whitehead)

Against this backdrop therefore, this report seems somewhat paradoxical. Having previously banned it, and at a time when Gandhi was coming to be considered pariah-in-chief in India, the British authorities seem to have tolerated the open distribution of one of his most iconic symbols.

What conclusions can we draw therefore from this anecdotal news article? The fact that three of the most important markets in the city had banned ‘foreign’ head-gear seems significant, as it suggests that domestic cloth manufacturers were feeling the strain of competing with foreign imports (coupled with the ongoing economic fallout from the Great Depression). The fact that Gandhi caps were being freely distributed as well points to the open support of independence by some of the leading merchant’s associations of the city. In this context then, the British tolerance of the manufacture and distribution of Gandhi hats, even to the detriment of imports, can also be seen in light of needing to prop up Indian industries. It also potentially demonstrates how Indian cloth merchants could use this rising nationalist tide to spur and stimulate their own industries, using it as an excuse to prevent competition. This isolated case therefore demonstrates the often grey area between political and economic nationalism, with the latter frequently fuelling the former across South East Asia in the 1930s.

[1] ‘Salt March’,, 16th Jan 2020

[2] Rangoon Gazette and Weekly Budget, 5th May 1930, p7

[3] Ibid., p24

[4] Rangoon Gazette, ‘Free Distribution of Gandhi Caps in Bombay: Bullion and Other Markets object to foreign headgear’, 14th April, p2

[5] Andrew Whitehead, ‘Radical Objects: The Common Man’s Gandhi Cap’, History Workshop, 17th April 2014

[6] Lata Singh, Popular Translations of Nationalism: Bihar, 1920-1922, (Delhi 2012)

[7] Andrew Whitehead, ‘How India’s iconic Gandhi cap has changed sides’, BBC, 28th April 2014

‘Cautionary Tales’, The State of Burmese Cinema in the 1930s

Of all art forms, film has often found itself most susceptible to government censorship. This became clear when I was conducting research for a project on Indo-Burmese relations in 1930s Rangoon. Whilst in the British Library, poring over a very large and exceedingly dry copy of the Burma Gazette (filled for the most part with regional judicial and forestry commission reports), I randomly came across a bi-annual report from the Police Commissioner’s office, showing the activities of the Burma Board of Censors. This provided not only an intriguing insight into the early Burmese film industry, but also the colonial government’s attempt to police the thoughts of its captive audience.

Firstly, the Burmese film industry appeared to be very healthy despite its relative newness, with the first Burmese film having only been released a decade earlier, in 1920.[1] From 1st January to 28th April 1930, fifty-three new films were submitted for certification.[2] Nor was this industry seemingly dominated by a couple of major companies, with over sixteen different studios submitting applications over this period. The vast majority of these films (thirty-six), are classified as ‘Burmese’, presumably indicating their language and the origin of their producers. Certain major Burmese companies included the British Burma Film Company, as well as the Burmese Favourite Company, headquartered in Rangoon at No. 276, 39th Street and Sule Pagoda Road respectively. Together they produced a range of Burmese language films designed for a purely domestic audience, with titles ranging from ‘Thidagu’ to ‘Khemathee’.[3]

What is especially interesting however is the prevalence of Chinese films, comprising 15 in total. Despite being produced by a range of different studios, the most important company appears to have been the so-called Star Motion Picture Company, headquartered in Shanghai. Here the films appear to have been more along the lines of so-called ‘blockbusters’, featuring English language titles such as ‘Three Knights in the Army’, ‘The Young Heroine’, and ‘Knight of Burning Temple’. Importantly however, Chinese English-language films were also permitted even if they were explicitly political, as is clear from the title of one approved film, the ‘Northern Expedition of Nationalists’, produced in 9 parts by the San Bim Film Company.[4]

In light of this, censorship of this cinematic mix appears to have been very light. Every film on the list is approved, with some Burmese films even referenced as having passed the censorship test ‘Without Examination’. Indeed, only one film appears to have been subjected to censorship; a regional Burmese news report where the censors appear to have noted certain particularly graphic scenes, for example ‘The holding up of the bloodstained clothes which are presumably exhibits’.[5]

The evidence from this report therefore suggests that Burma enjoyed an unexpectedly vibrant cinema culture under British occupation, with healthy levels of competition between local and international studios, presided over by a seemingly light censorship hand. It also provides a cautionary tale about how the development of the arts can easily be reversed. With the onset of military rule, all cinemas were nationalised in the 1960s, with the industry instructed to broadcast the ‘march to Burmese socialism’. From a peak of 244 cinemas, Burma in 2011 was therefore reduced to 71 as popularity dwindled, with the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) continuing much of the censorship apparatus of the military junta which preceded it.[6] Documents like this can therefore help to throw the problems of Burmese cinema today into sharp relief.



[1] Mark Magnier, ‘Myanmar’s once-proud film industry a flicker of its former self’, LA Times (1st April 2013)

[2] ‘Register of Cinematograph Films examined by the Burma Board of Censors, Dated Rangoon, the 15th May 1930’, in the Burma Gazette, Part IV, pp. 945-947

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 947

[6] Aung Kaung Myat, ‘Military Rule May Be Over, But Myanmar’s Film Industry Remains in a Tawdry Time Warp’, Time (22nd August 2018)