A tale of two cities

To writer Rudyard Kipling, Kolkata was “The City of Dreadful Night”. To novelist Dominique Lapierre, it is “The City of Joy”, and to architectural conservationist Manish Chakraborti, it is “The City that Needs Saving”.

Chakraborti, a fast-talking 42-year-old Bengali, is on a mission to rescue Kolkata’s colonial-era buildings from the ravages of time. It’s his life and his passion. “These old buildings lend a wonderful mosaic to the city’s history. Losing them is like losing a real sense of the city — like losing ourselves,” he explains.

Calcutta was the capital of British India in the 18th century and where the British Empire grew wealthy. The colonial rulers built a huge number of imposing edifices and today the city boasts one of the world’s finest collection of British imperial architecture.

This style combines Gothic, Greek revival and Victorian styles in a powerful combination that speaks of the Empire’s imperial aspirations. Many buildings are near replicas of European structures. Kolkata’s Government House looks suspiciously like Kedleston Hall, a stately home in Derbyshire, England and the city’s law courts are eerily similar to Cloth Hall in Ypres, Belgium.

The colonial architecture inspired Winston Churchill to write: “at night, with a grey fog and the cold wind, it almost allows one to imagine that it is London.” Conservation efforts are slim and many of the heritage structures have fallen into various stages of decay. Recently, some of the more prominent public buildings have been restored and named as heritage structures. Maintaining private sites is more difficult and often hampered by legal problems, squatter troubles, ownership disputes, old tenancy laws and a lack of funds.

Relaxing in his Salt Lake office on the outskirts of Kolkata, Chakraborti rattles off statistics like a game show host: “There are 1,300 listed heritage buildings in Kolkata. About 55 per cent of those require repair — 45 per cent of those require urgent repair.”

A trained architect, town planner and conservationist, he formed the Action Research in Conservation of Heritage (ARCH), an organisation to preserve heritage buildings. He has a conservation design practice and to raise awareness, conducts heritage walks around North Kolkata and Dalhousie Square. “Calcutta needs to be experienced from the hidden surfaces of the metropolis. You cannot experience her by traversing the city in a comfortable coach. You need to be on your feet,” he pitches on his website.

Chakraborti’s two-hour walk takes in the astonishing collection of colonial buildings in Dalhousie Square created by European architects between 1695 and 1945. Highlights include the Writers’ Building (1765), the newly renovated Town Hall (1814) and the GPO (1868). “You can see from the way they built that the British thought they would stay here forever,” Chakraborti jokes.

The World Monument Fund has called Dalhousie Square “one of South Asia’s few surviving Colonial centres” and, on Chakraborti’s urging, put the area on its endangered or “Watch” list in 2004 and again in 2006. The move prompted a pledge from the government of West Bengal to preserve the site and led to the formal recognition of the Dalhousie Square Heritage Zone. But it is the lesser-known 18th and 19th century palaces in North Kolkata that are now Manish’s primary concern. These grand mansions were built in the hundreds by landowners and successful Bengali entrepreneurs called Baboos (nouveau riche Bengalis affecting English manners and ways) who accumulated fortunes trading with the British.

The Baboos adopted a Hindu-Western lifestyle that included high tea, lavish parties and cultural soirees. They built bizarre palaces that imitated Greek temples, Roman villas and Gothic churches with a sprinkling of Rajasthani spirals and Mughal arches. One critic dubbed the eclectic architectural style “Bengalshire”, another as “Calcutta Corinthian” and others decried it as “Rotten Rococo”.

With the spirit of Chakraborti guiding us, we journey on our own to Darjeepapra and Shobhabazar in North Calcutta in search of surviving palaces. We struggle on foot, dodging belching cars, clanking rickshaws and hawkers’ cries. It’s a bit of an archaeological dig as we poke our heads into narrow lanes and damp alleys in search of the tell-tale signs of lost palaces — iconic columns, balustraded balconies and shaded courtyards.

We discover palaces in all states of disrepair — many of the grand facades crumbling, or buried behind billboards and dense webs of cables. Many of those occupied have been divided up by families or taken over by squatters.

When we reach our appointed destination, Laha Bari Palace is like an island of Palladian harmony in the riotous chaos of a building site. Stately Doric columns and a grand pediment give the mansion the look of a holiday villa for ancient Roman nobility, not the product of British builders, Mackintosh Burn in 1906.

Everything is in place. The neat burnt-red stucco facade and military-straight row of tall columns are dignified. The lawns are impeccable, white Greek urns and cast-iron benches mark the edges of the garden and a centred Romanesque marble statue glances longingly westward. All that is missing is a checked tablecloth, a picnic basket and a plate of cucumber sandwiches. The ground floor of the palace is occupied by the family-owned pharmaceutical company and has the look of Indian offices from Mumbai to Delhi — sagging vinyl chairs, institutional wooden desks and a surly receptionist. After a suitable wait, we’re led into an office to meet owner Debanko Churn Law.

Law’s grandfather built the palace with wealth amassed by importing fabrics from Manchester, England and selling it on to the British Army. Following family tradition, responsibility for the family heirloom has been passed down to the oldest son for two generations.

The crushing responsibility of maintaining the palace is a constant worry and Law, 70, has the look of a man carrying the weight of the world. To help with the costs, the family rents the mansion out to Bollywood movie-makers (it is where actor Sanjay Dutt discovered himself as a dhunuchi dancer during the puja sequence in Parineeta) and fashion shoots. “We do our best,” he murmurs and glances at his son.

The Laha Bari follows the traditional floor plan of Baboo mansions and is focussed around a shaded inner courtyard surrounded on all sides by shuttered rooms. At one end of the courtyard is a thakur dalan or hall of worship for family use. The half dozen or so grand entertaining rooms on the upper floor have been lovingly preserved in a time-warp state and their ostentation still delivers a wallop to the uninitiated.

A multitude of colours, textures and finishes scream for attention. There are a dozen varieties of marble, enormous crystal glass chandeliers wrapped in dusty plastic, and an army of Victorian bronze statues. The main lounge, painted a salmon pink, is adorned in huge dark European style paintings with gold-coloured frames. There are masses of French, Chinese and Japanese curios and artefacts.

There’s a Chinese red carpet, six royal blue satin Queen Anne love seats and two near-life size fawning nymphs atop spiral marble pillars. Six ceiling fans beat time overhead. Richly carved marble door frames look vaguely Egyptian, but “They’re Greek, actually,” sniffs Law.

We are taken to room after room, each painted a new shade of pastel but sharing the same heavy cornices and dark oil portraits. Like the city’s fabled Marble Palace that was once described as having “vases from Sevres and golden goblets from Bohemia and vast quantities of Victorian bric-a-brac”, Laha Bari has the look of an over-stuffed Portobello flea market.

The house-proud Law tours us through the rooms facing the main courtyard, but fidgets like a convent chaperone when we start down a dark hallway. “No! Please, not there. It is for family only.”

The heart of the palace is rooted in the robust Hinduism of the Bengali upper class and we had breached the invisible line that separates the public areas from the zenana or women’s wing where his 14 extended family members live. Other than one room in the main wing, the four generations of Laws live, eat and pray in an adjacent annex. There are 15 bedrooms here, a prayer room and the servants’ quarters. The rooms are austere and modest in scale and decoration, we’re told, and as such, a relative bargain to maintain.

It is unclear if the next generation of Laws will have the will or the means to maintain Laha Bari. “It is a burden to have to maintain these white elephants,” explains Chakraborti. “These buildings have become a liability to own.” Conservationists agree that the future of the city’s palaces looks grim and there are few easy solutions.

Chakraborti would like to see the government contribute more to conserving the city’s palaces: “We need a handsome amount, not a pittance,” he says. But Kolkata’s social and economic pressures mean preservation takes a back seat to fighting poverty and building much-needed infrastructure.

While city officials often come under criticism from preservationists, they have introduced schemes to help support conservation, such as a provision that allows developers to transfer development rights from a palace to another site and another that permits underground garages to be built under palaces. But, preservationists say it’s a case of too little, too late and bureaucratic obstacles put many owners off the schemes. “The government should make cultural preservation the main goal,” laments one architect.

“Calcutta was once known as the ‘City of Palaces’. If we don’t get serious about conservation now, it could well become ‘The City of Ruins’.”

Courtesy: The Oberoi Group Magazine Photo

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