The store(y) of an old Calcutta house
Serendipity and good old-fashioned luck rather than brand building and revenue models were the edifice of Byloom, the store. In fact, none of us had set out looking for an old home for the store. That thought articulated itself when we first saw 58B Hindustan Park. The building was a ground-plus-two squat rectangular structure, with a little space at the back. What made us buy it were three visual memories from our childhood—khorkhore janala (shuttered windows), jhola baranda (verandahs that jut out of the building) and above all, exquisite mosaic floors. Each room had its own mosaic pattern and neither neglect nor disuse had robbed these tiles of their lustre.
It is hard to step into Byloom today and imagine how the building looked in January 2010. Since we were not aware that this was a chrysalis worth documenting, we have very little evidence of the transformation. Today, that squat building might be the only one on the row that will not be ‘developed’ into a four-storey apartment block. Byloom is now a landmark in the area and more importantly, it has ensured that Bappaditya and Rumi Biswas’s evocative heritage weaves under the label bai lou had a space that so miraculously mirrored their design philosophy.
Spaces with views of heritage monuments in Delhi, old mills with iron rafters in Mumbai and havelis in Jaipur all house premium brands at present. It is important to note that the humble two-storey homes of south Kolkata are none of the above. Byloom is just a row house that is unremarkable in structure, size and tenancy lineage. Yet, it speaks of another time in an unselfconscious way, without really wearing its vintage on its sleeve. We did not have to use sepia-toned photographs, clocks or candelabras to create antiquity; the building is innately old. The stained glass above the doors, the beams on the ceiling and the shuttered windows are not faux ageing—an inverse botox—they have simply existed that way for more than half a century.
The engagement with an old space and time-honoured weaving techniques is a fascinating one but it is not without its pitfalls in this city. Kolkata cannot play the nostalgia game with the freedom of other Indian metros, as living in the past is something this city is often reviled for. Here, nostalgia will always be a double-edged word and this has been the challenge for Byloom. The oldness is seductive and it is appealing to see an intricate Jamdani sari flowing from an antique hanger on to a mosaic tiled floor—you want to luxuriate in the past, recall it, relive it. But that’s not the story that Byloom wants to tell. There is also the fable of regeneration, renewal and staying relevant. The weaves of a bai lou sari reinterpret and modernize old sari traditions with design intervention, and the space that is home to these saris has also had to rediscover itself as a bustling beautiful store.
Bai lou’s designs and 58B Hindustan Park have a symbiotic relationship that team Byloom hopes to replicate in other parts of the city, not necessarily as Byloom outlets. The onslaught of real estate on old buildings is not peculiar to Kolkata as some in the city believe. One has seen enough of Bandra in Mumbai, Adayar in Chennai and Defence Colony in Delhi to know that every city relinquishes its architectural heritage to newer spaces. However, Byloom shows that a space can be retained in its oldness if there is a sustainable, viable revenue model. Byloom’s steadily growing clientele and image will ensure that this space will remain the way it is for some time to come. It’s not the three quaint apartments it was decades ago, but its new identity gives it style and beauty without compromising on its essence.
And 58B Hindustan Park repays the debt to the products it houses in good measure. The aura of a different time gives the weaves and textures at Byloom a sense of luxury, a historical context. There is a sensory fulfilment as the oldness of the space adds to the heritage that is intrinsic in the weaves. If handloom is true luxury, then shopping for it in a restored space might just add to that sense.
Kolkata is an old city—crumbling mansions, tramcars and hand-drawn rickshaws all conspire to give it a sense of being in a silken cocoon of the past. The oldness of Byloom is not its novelty in that sense. Litigation and inaccessibility have conspired to keep significant parts of north Kolkata untouched by the passage of time and the real estate boom. Perhaps the novelty is that Byloom is good nostalgia—it has interpreted the past in the language of today, both in its weaves and in the store. The tenses coexist without us having to choose one over the other. That does not happen very often in this city.
Malavika R. Banerjee is a partner at Byloom.
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