Concert brings alive Kolkata’s 250-year-old South Park Street cemetery2 min read . Updated: 08 Jan 2018, 09:52 AM IST
The aim of the initiative by the Christian Burial Board was to connect with the city's elite and diplomats and create awareness about what perhaps is the oldest British colonial burial ground
Kolkata: On a balmy Saturday afternoon, five musicians got together to play baroque music to the dead at Kolkata’s famed South Park Street cemetery. It was the first time that such a concert was held at the 250-year-old cemetery, the resting place of some 1,600 early British settlers, many remembered by tombs and cenotaphs marked ‘endangered by tree roots’.
The aim of the initiative by the Christian Burial Board—a statutory body which runs five cemeteries in Kolkata—was to connect with the city’s elite and diplomats and create awareness about what perhaps is the oldest British colonial burial ground.
Though a treasure trove for people interested in built heritage, the South Park Street cemetery hasn’t been able to establish itself as a tourist destination.
The 18th century cemetery, where the last burial took place in 1931, stands out for its diversity of architecture: opulent tombs and sarcophagi of various designs, some even resembling Hindu temples, but hardly any bearing a cross.
As the musicians led by violinist Prosanto Dutt played compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach and George Friedric Handel, visitors milled around the eight-acre complex, marvelling at the giant carved stone urns and obelisks.
Often they would stumble upon rows of structures marked as endangered—some even appear to have been uprooted from their brick plinth.
Until about 10 years ago, the entire cemetery was in ruins.
It was slowly reconstructed based on old pictures, says Ashim Kumar Biswas, secretary of the Christian Burial Board.
Restoration started in 2007 with 15 tombs. But preservation in the face of “unplanned vegetation" is the biggest challenge even now, according to Biswas. The cemetery is lined with a wide variety of trees: it owes its character to the lush vegetation, but nature is now wreaking havoc. Tree roots are uprooting the built structures, says Biswas, pointing at tombs that are crumbling from their bases.
“Much of the menace is not even visible—it’s all beneath the surface," he says. And because it is illegal to cut down trees, it is a “huge challenge" to keep the tombs from falling apart.
Though a protected heritage site, the cemetery doesn’t receive any funding from the local government. Largely dependent on charities and on cash flows from active cemeteries, the Christian Burial Board spends around Rs15 lakh a year on the upkeep of the South Park Street Cemetery.
For now, the authorities have marked all those monuments which are unstable as endangered. But they don’t have a plan to protect them from further damage.
Biswas has written to the West Bengal government’s forest department several times seeking permission to deal with some of the trees, but to no avail. Instead, the department sends more saplings every year to be planted at the cemetery, he says.
“We all love this place to be green, but tree roots are fast eating into the heart of the built structures," he says.