Nearly a century after the capital of British India moved from Kolkata to Delhi, one of the most important legacies of the Raj—its imposing architecture—is being revived brick-by-brick in what was once considered the second city of the empire.
The newly reinforced walls of Clive House, the garden retreat of Robert Clive, the East India Company official who decisively stamped British rule on India after winning the Battle of Plassey in 1757, is proof of the initiative to protect and preserve the city’s colonial heritage. Metcalfe Hall, Town Hall, Prinsep Monument, Currency Building, Metropolitan Building, Queens Mansion, Old Mint, Minerva Theatre, Hastings House, Belvedere House, St John Church, Dead Letter Office and Clive House are among the structures where renovation and revival plans have been undertaken or are on the anvil. The renovation work, which started in the 1990s and has picked up momentum in recent years, comes after decades of municipal neglect.
Renewal:Renewal: (from top to bottom) The restored Metcalfe Hall was unveiled by the ASI late last year; the Metropolitan Building; the Calcutta High Court is among the city’s 1,300-odd heritage buildings; and the 250-year-old Clive House has been ravaged by time, refugees and litigation. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
“We know what the authorities have done all these years. Now let us take charge,” said Samir Mukherjee, former head of the department of museology, Calcutta University, at a seminar organized by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in November.
The setting for the seminar was the grand but decaying Currency Building in central Kolkata—speakers and audience sat inside a large hall flanked by arched passages on either side; natural light was streaming in through a gaping hole where there was once a central dome.
The graceful Italian architecture of the building, which was constructed in 1833 and was home to the currency department after 1868, hides a sorry tale of neglect. Some years ago the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) managed to partly demolish the building before sustained pressure from other government agencies, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) and citizen bodies forced it to stop. The ostensible objective was to build a high-rise on what is prime real estate.
The building was declared a Monument of National Importance in 2002 and was formally taken over by the ASI in 2003. Even as a reconstruction effort is on, heaps of rubble, battered walls and torn-down arches bear testimony to how close it came to obliteration. “What used to be considered as imperialist architecture is now seen as colonial heritage,” says T.J. Baidya, superintending archaeologist of the ASI’s Kolkata circle. The change in outlook has been gradual.
The noticeboards at the ASI office flaunt its completed and ongoing restoration projects: the Asiatic Society founded in 1784; St John Church, consecrated in 1787; Metcalfe Hall, the elegant 1844 building with 30 Corinthian pillars; two 19th century synagogues; Clive House, one of Kolkata’s oldest buildings, reportedly built before 1757; and Currency Building.
“Earlier conservation work was focused on medieval architecture and modern history was not considered,” says Baidya. The shift happened, he reckons, in the 1990s with the campaign for the restoration of Kolkata’s Metcalfe Hall and the Town Hall (built in 1813). The ASI has restored both; Metcalfe Hall was unveiled late last year.
The restoration in 1997 of the historic Town Hall is viewed as a significant achievement in heritage conservation circles. The building was saved from demolition after a campaign by eminent citizens such as Satyajit Ray, Sukumar Sen and Radharaman Mitra, led by historian Nisith Ranjan Ray, and with funds generated through an auction of Bikash Bhattacharjee paintings. Similar makeovers for the river-facing Prinsep Monument (built in 1841), and the quaint Gwalior Monument (built in 1847), reinforced the view that the vast colonial crumble of Kolkata is not beyond rescue.
“I would say our efforts have been partially successful for we have lost a number of buildings to the bulldozer,” says G.M. Kapur, convenor of the West Bengal and Calcutta regional chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach). “I wish they would bulldoze some of these structures,” he quips, pointing to one of the ubiquitous glass-and-granite office buildings visible from his office. Intach, he says, acts as a pressure group, awareness campaigner and hands-on heritage conservationist.
Turning back time: Turning back time: (fromt op to bottom) The ASI’s restoration success stories include Town Hall; the General Post Office; and the Writers Building and St John Church. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
In recent years, fires too have damaged or destroyed a number of old buildings, and newer structures have come up or have been proposed in their place. The Strand Road Warehouse, ravaged last year, is being demolished— the strident sound of metal-cutting machines resounds in this enormous and dignified colonial structure. The deadline for demolition is six months, says a guard posted at the site.
In 1991, a fire ravaged the top floor of the majestic Metropolitan Building, which stands as an emblem of colonial authority on the SN Banerjee Road. The building is now being restored by the Life Insurance Corporation of India, but hundreds of original negatives of Bourne & Shepherd—reputed to be the world’s oldest operational photography studio, established in the late 19th century—perished in the fire.
Today, one of the few surviving prints from the studio is on display behind the front desk. According to an official , the fading black and white image is a snapshot of the Dalhousie Square area in the 1840s: a city of grand, well-maintained buildings that embodied power and privilege, horse-drawn carts and sparse population.
After renovating the Prinsep Monument, Gwalior Monument and St John Church projects, Intach is preparing a restoration plan for the colonial-era Old Mint on Strand Road, a mammoth neglected structure with an impressive array of Doric columns, and the Scottish Cemetery in Park Circus.
In the late 1990s, it was closely involved in drawing up an initial list of 1,300-odd heritage buildings in the city. The final list of 917 heritage structures was ratified by the KMC in 2009. After a new law was passed in 2001, the state also set up a Heritage Commission to determine conservation priorities.
The government these days is “amenable to reason”, says Kapur, though Intach has filed a public interest litigation against the KMC for removing an Episcopal property on Russell Street from the list of heritage buildings. Kolkata, he says, is the biggest repository of colonial architecture in India and fortunately, the list of heritage structures made no distinction between Indian- and European-built property. It is estimated that of the 5,000 British-era buildings in Kolkata, at least 500 were British-built, an interesting medley of architectural styles and designs.
“As Bengal’s former governor, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, noted, most of these buildings used locally available materials and craftsmen,” Kapur says. “There is always the pressure from real estate agents to knock down buildings and unlock the economic potential of the land. But you can only break down something magnificent if you can create something better.”
Since independence, many colonial buildings have already made way for modern—often characterless—structures.
The well-planned symmetry of Dalhousie Square, the administrative quarters of the British, has been spoilt by the nondescript monstrosity that is Telephone Bhavan, and which came up in an area that was earlier home to the charming Dalhousie Institute club. The grand Senate Hall of Calcutta University was razed for a modern, commonplace structure. The Darbhanga Palace in the Chowringhee area and portions of the Royal Calcutta Turf Club on Russell Street have also been hammered down.
This was in keeping with the post-independence nationalist drive in Kolkata, says Manish Chakraborti, a conservation architect who heads Continuity, a firm that offers consultancy on historic buildings, among other things. The statues of British personalities that used to line the Maidan area were shifted out of the city, the Ochterlony Monument was christened Shahid Minar and name-changes of important streets became common.
In his book Calcutta, Geoffrey Moorhouse says the Maidan’s biggest totem (the monument) is still in place, “presumably because it was too big even for a Communist government to shift into limbo with all the other monuments to the Raj”.
“The negation of colonial heritage seen after independence no longer exists, for that generation has passed on,” says Chakraborti, a key figure in Kolkata’s heritage conservation movement. Despite everything, he says, most of the Raj-era architecture has survived in various degrees of decay, unlike in Mumbai, where a lot of colonial heritage was allowed to be razed. “That’s primarily because the Communist government in Bengal didn’t invest in the city. Little development took place in Kolkata, which also meant that the pressure of real estate wasn’t too high. Even though neglected, much of the colonial architecture, which is our shared heritage, has survived,” he says.
Dalhousie Square, Chakraborti emphasizes, is a heritage zone. With funds from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, the KMC is currently working on a facelift plan for the heritage precinct, which includes Victorian-style lampposts and railings and granite-paved walkways.
In White & Black— Journey to the Centre of Imperial Calcutta (2009), writer Soumitra Das and photographer Christopher Taylor’s evocative and thought-provoking study of the colonial city, a passage describes Dalhousie Square: “Nonetheless, Dalhousie Square would have conformed to Michel Foucault’s idea of utopia—it presented society in a perfected form. Which is why Dalhousie Square finds it so difficult to survive when confronted with post-colonial realities.”
There is a definite reorientation in thinking, Chakraborti feels. “Political parties realize that they can piggyback heritage to meet their objectives. Which is not a bad thing, for a political agenda can make conservation sustainable.”
As the chairman of the West Bengal Heritage Commission, eminent historian Barun De is not impressed by the level of awareness of “secular colonial architecture” in the city. “There is some understanding of religious architecture among conservation architects. What is needed is academic knowledge and interest in colonial architecture,” he says. In recent times, experts have openly criticized the colour scheme used while refurbishing the Metropolitan Building, which was reportedly undertaken without researching the original look of the stately mansion.
At the other end of the city, Tinku Saha has zealously held on to his three rooms inside Clive House in Dum Dum despite notices by the ASI. Saha’s family of five was among the 22-odd families who took refuge in the ruins of the imposing house during Partition. While the other families built hutments inside the Clive House campus after the ASI intervened, Saha has refused to move.
“I know the British were eventually responsible for the Partition of India and Robert Clive was the empire’s founding father. But we are helpless refugees from Bangladesh. Unless we get alternative accommodation, we can’t go anywhere else,” says Das, his voice resonating within the thick, soot-covered walls of the house.
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