Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Kolkata Chromosome | Writers’ block

Mumbai-based artist Samir Mondal remembers the day 40 years ago when he first set his eyes on the Writers’ Buildings in Calcutta, as the city was then called. The young man who grew up in a village in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district could not believe it was man-made.

“I could hardly blink. I had not seen anything like that; it was just so massive and beautiful," the watercolour painter says, recalling his first impressions of the 236-year-old Greco-Roman structure, which is set for a major restoration drive. “It was a different Kolkata then," says Mondal, who made a watercolour sketch of his favourite Kolkata structure after all these years for Lounge. “One could see the iconic Red Building from across the pond, known as Lal Dighi, on Dalhousie Square, now one of the most cluttered parts of the city."

For Mondal, who had come to the city to study at the Government College of Art & Craft, Calcutta, the idea of a building had been his family’s mud-hut and the single-storeyed school he went to. Kolkata structures filled him with awe as he, like other beginner artists, began sketching the cityscape. Writers’ Buildings used to be part of his series on Shelters, inspired by his own search for a shelter after he vacated his hostel at the Arts college in the mid-1970s Mondal says. “It is a shelter to not just all those thousands of people who work there, but also their stories; the story of Kolkata’s journey, India’s colonial past, and so much more."

One has only to enter the red-brick building to discover the world inside. “It’s a city in itself," says a government employee. The Writers’ Buildings is a complex maze of structures, linked by alleys and corridors that came up at different times since its inception in 1777.

View Full Image
An illustration of the building by Samir Mondal

Signboards mark entry to the different areas—“protected" and “unprotected"—on either side of the portico topped with a statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. The “protected" zone is the south-facing original linear structure, the three-storeyed “heritage" block, where one can gain entry only with a valid pass or a confirmed appointment and after a series of security checks. This part houses the chief minister’s office (CMO) and those of her ministers and high-ranking officials. In the long verandahs with their columns and arches overlooking the Lal Dighi, peons wait for orders to come from within the air-conditioned confines; policemen in white stiffen to salute the babus and ministers as they pass.

The “unprotected areas" behind the main block that one can enter through Gate 1A are a picture in contrast. Here one finds those who are lower down the bureaucratic ladder amid mountains of dusty files, shouting to each other over the rattling of ceiling fans. A walk through these corridors can be confusing, a bit of an adventure even, with the risk of getting lost quite high. Water drips incessantly from the air conditioners used to cool the offices of the important people and some areas reek of bad drainage.

It’s a bazaar in this part of the Writers’, with a woman selling saris, and hawkers seeking attention. At lunch time and after-office hours, the alleys come alive with the staff making a dash for the food court—a post-Mamata Banerjee addition—or the old canteens. Many are seen tucking into ghughni-ruti standing at the counters of sooty eateries, some of which claim to be from pre-Independence era.

“Come, have shon-papri," urges a hawker in front of G Block. “Or would you like cupcakes? They just arrived." Two women gather around her selling the same things. The customers are not only Writers’ staff, but also its visitors—some are regulars, given the number of rounds the common man makes of government offices to get work done.

View Full Image
A ‘protected’ second-floor corridor

Present-day Writers’ presents a mix of tradition and heritage, inherited in part but also of its own making in post-independence era, making restoration a difficult exercise. Originally, just a linear block facing the Lal Dighi, the Writers’ Buildings, the city’s first three-storey structure, was made to accommodate junior servants, clerks, or “writers", who wrote the account books—hence, the name—of the East India Company.

“It has undergone serious transformation over a period of time," says Madhumita Roy, head, department of architecture, Jadavpur University. She is one of the experts handling the restoration work. “What we see today in the façade is a conscious classical image imposed after the British empire took over the charge of India from East India Company. The style predominantly simulates French Renaissance forms with fusion of elements of antiquity, Palladian windows, etc."

Five blocks were added as perpendicular wings to the original linear structure between 1879 and 1906 to make room for the secretariat of British India. India was ruled from there till 1911 when the capital shifted to Delhi. Between 1945 and 1947, four more blocks were added to the north, completing the quadrilateral; and from Independence to 1970, offices in the present-day sarkari style were built in the quads in between the five perpendicular blocks. Today, the Writers’ houses 34 departments with a staff of 6,000.

An old lift in the ‘protected’ area
View Full Image
An old lift in the ‘protected’ area

“The idea is to restore Writers’ to what it was in 1906. That’s when it got the Greco-Roman stamp," says a senior official on condition of anonymity given that deliberations are still on as to how much Writers’ can be restored to its original form. “Structures not in sync with the heritage value of Writers’ will be removed. Only 11 nodal departments will be housed in the Writers’ and the rest will be relocated to different parts of the city." Going back to 1906 would entail pulling down eight structures—the four blocks to the north and the buildings in between the perpendicular wings.

“Nothing has been decided upon as of now," says Alapan Bandyopadhyay of the restoration committee. “A final decision will be reached after careful consultations."

Meanwhile, the temporary shifting of several departments have begun. Even a joint team of experts from Jadavpur University and Bengal Engineering and Science University are busy drawing up the restoration plan.

“The building has to perform its intended use," Roy says. “A heritage building like Writers’ has undergone several changes in use and also in the attitude towards it. This has to be reflected in its architecture. This building has to perform like a modern secretariat. So it must meet the requirements of safety, security, convenience and its public relation at a much more complex level." Heritage value and design logic, energy efficiency, and functional and financial aspects are the top priorities, she adds.

Efficiency will also be on the wish list of the teenager in the queue at Gate 1A holding a letter for the chief minister, seeking financial help for his college education. He will hope his letter does not get lost in all the restoration work and Didi remains accessible even in a restored Writers’. He stops to gaze at Minerva’s outstretched arm as he leaves.

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
More Less
Recommended For You
Get alerts on WhatsApp
Set Preferences My ReadsWatchlistFeedbackRedeem a Gift CardLogout