Grey Room

A Black Carpet of Bitumen

Ateya Khorakiwala

Pedestrians crossing the road, 1961. From Central Road Research Institute, Annual Report 1961–1962.


How did Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s science and technology agenda aim to intervene in the commercial and government infrastructure of the colonial state? Commercial, industrial, and scientific interests, colonial institutions, and postcolonial aspirations are staged on a ground of bitumen and paint. This material so successfully signaled the decolonial turn to modernity that, in 1961, a reporter flagged bitumen’s ornamental role in welcoming the country’s erstwhile monarch: “Delhi is giving the finishing touches to a welcome fit for royalty, with three days to go for Queen Elizabeth’s arrival. A dust-free Connaught Place will greet the Queen with flags, bunting, banners, a black carpet of bitumen underfoot and a net of paper flowers overhead.” The carpet-like quality of the bituminous road surface promised a material and experiential condition central to the imagination of modernity: smoothness.

The materiality of bitumen activated multiple materializations of hegemony (national, imperial, corporate, political, technocratic) that all had an interest in portraying the aesthetic, almost graphic, legibility of the postcolonial nation-state as caught between a sticky, gooey, liquid, viscous political past and a smooth, unencumbered, prolific, technological future in which ribbon-like roads unfurled across the territory. To that end, the present article revisits the developmental period in India that began during World War II. The odd epistemic status of “road research” offers a new perspective on how science and technology research shaped the national imaginary during the early decades after independence. The juxtaposition of road with research raises a fundamental question: What constitutes a road? They are sociotechnical assemblages, and road research spanned machine design, material development and testing, geological survey, and traffic planning and pedestrian safety. Road research aimed to produce a useful body of knowledge for contractors and engineers to deploy, thereby transforming the daily experience of India’s transportation networks during the first three decades after independence until 1988, when the establishment of the National Highway Authority of India refashioned road building as a public-private enterprise deployed in concert with corporate contractors and foreign expertise.