Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
URBAN SPACES : August 1, 1999
The author is a leading architect in Calcutta associated with the Switzerland-based Gherzi Eastern Limited.
Calcutta crossed its tercentenary a few years ago. The city was born from the villages of Kalighata, Gobindapur and Sutanati, starting with the import of culture from the Muslim era of Mushid Kuli Khan and Sirajadaullah and the Victorian culture of England. English influence on Calcutta was great because of British trade allowed by the Emperor of India. The natives however tried to stick to the Nawabi culture. The two communities even divided the town into two areas. The British preferred to stay around Fort William and on the fringes of Chowringhee Road, while the natives preferred to reside to the east of Chowringhee Road. Most of the business district was built in the British area of Calcutta, i.e. between the east bank of the Ganga and the border of Chowringhee Road. The buildings of this time are a continuation of the Nawabi gharana and British architecture.
The buildings built by the natives bear the traditional architecture of the Nawabi gharana showing Muslim motifs and old Hindu relics whereas the business and residential buildings built by the British are Victorian and Gothic structures, similar to those seen in England and Europe. A unique combination of these styles evolved a distinguished trend of architecture in Calcutta.
D. Nayak/ Fotomedia
The natives of distinguished background and position built their residences and we had the palaces of Chatubabu and Latubabu, the residential places of Raja Nabakrishna Deb, and the ever enchanting house of the Tagores. The Zamindars of Bengal also built beautiful houses in and around Calcutta. Few of these buildings are the Park Street, Park Mansion and White House, built as commercial buildings by the Rakhits, the Zamindars of Chandannagar. The British built the Governors House, National Library Building, G.P.O. and the signature building of the Calcutta Victoria Memorial Hall. Then came the Indian Museum, the Senate Hall of Calcutta University, the present Asutosh building of Calcutta University and the Writers Building. The Church of St. Johns Cathedral is a masterpiece of Victorian architecture built during the era.
The residence of the Maharaja of Bhagalpur, Sovabazar Rajbari, Mallick's Marble Place, Asutosh building of Calcutta University and Calcutta Corporation show a fusion of Victorian, Muslim and Hindu styles. English architects were supported by a group of talented Indian engineers. The visual aesthetics, the proportionate development incorporating ornamental motifs were elegantly done to bring out frozen music on stones, bricks and sand. The pace of building by Governmental sources however slowed down from 1911 when the country's capital was shifted from Calcutta to Delhi.
Then came the deluge. Independence from British rule brought the misery of immigration. The human element of Calcutta got the biggest jolt of its time and all norms went haywire. Sheer pressure of human load tore apart all the dignity, not only for the new immigrants but also for the original residents. There was a scramble for space. Trade and business also changed, becoming profit-oriented. The biggest pressure was on residential requirement and every available space became scarce. There was no room for convenience, planning desirability and aesthetics. The business group mostly with petty trading earlier took the opportunity to construct the maximum number of buildings in the minimum space; with this came the highrises and the architectural slums. The business communities virtually took control of all real estate in Calcutta. These communities did not have their roots in Calcutta or Bengal and were out to exploit the city to their profit without any feeling for the wellbeing of the city. We lost the character of location on Elgin Road, Theatre Road, Lord Sinha Road and the skyline of Chowringee. Up came monsters like the LIC buildings, SAIL building, the ugly Chatterjee International Centre within the atmosphere of grandeur of Grand Hotel, neo colonial Kanak building and the Renaissance house of Darbhanga Maharaja. The character of Esplanade changed, as one after another multistoreyed box type structures came up besides the classical Metropolitan Building and similar ones up to the arcades of Grand Hotel. The two separate types of buildings stand mixed up and the character of architecture was lost.
It is not just the business community that is to blame. The regulating authority did not wake up to the hazard. The Indian intelligentsia, particularly the architects and engineers too did not object. They actively participated in the whole massacre of the aesthetics of the city. Old architectural gems were systematically brought down to provide for ugly concrete structures with no character. Very few structures were spared, the Governor's House, Writers Building, Tagore House, National Library, Museum, Town Hall by way of their Governmental and institutional indemnity. The residence of Deb's, Mallick's (Pathuriaghata), Trust buildings of Chatubabu and Latubabu and a few small entities of Lahas in North Calcutta remained. Religious indemnity left out St. Paul's Church, Baptist Church, Loreto Complex and a few old temples and mosques.
In 1992 the Municipal Corporation took steps to end the vandalism and restricted chaotic build ups. They put a hold on indiscriminate demolition of old buildings of architectural importance. A committee on heritage buildings was formed. Though not much of restoration and preservation has been done, it has at least saved some architectural landmarks from demolition.
But what Calcutta has lost architecturally is the character and style of its own, the grandeur and the artistic features of the building designs for which it used to be called City of Palaces. But now that the authorities concerned have woken up to the clarion call of its distinguished citizens one hopes that Calcutta's architectural treasures will be restored to their lost glory.
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