Preserving pasts

Preserving pasts

Cities, like people, reveal themselves in many ways. Some, like Varanasi or Delhi, come alive through their sheer old age. Some, like Bangalore, bring to the surface its glitzy present and hopeful future.

Mumbai brings with it a history of trading and burgeoning market capitalism. Kolkata, more than 300 years old and growing, reveals itself not just through its age, but also by juxtaposing its lost glory and its constant fight to keep moving forward.

Once the brightest jewel in the crown of the British Raj, Kolkata, or Calcutta, as it was known for much of its existence, stood resplendent and glorious. Considered one of the most livable metropolises east of Suez for the better part of 19th century and the first half of 20th century, its present, somewhat dreary, condition belies its past grandeur.

One just needs to look around corners to come across the reasons behind how Calcutta earned the sobriquet, ‘City of Palaces’. This tag, however, did not come along with the present monoliths, often considered monstrosities, of glass and steel. Amidst all the palaces stands one of the grandest ones on the eastern side of Esplanade in central Kolkata.

Shoppers’ paradise

The mansion — a spectacular example of Baroque style of architecture, replete with signature domes, balconies and a clock tower — stands tall in white. Presently known as the Metropolitan Building, it once housed Calcutta’s leading departmental store Whiteway & Laidlaw and gave its name to the building. Partially restored a few years ago by its present owner, Life Insurance Corporation of India, the building is still one of the most important landmarks of the city.

Once an architectural wonder for the city with its many adorned cornices, nooks and corners, the building is now covered by countless red and blue banners. And many feel the building has been robbed of its erstwhile grandeur, beauty and grace.
Ironically, the building housed one of the largest departmental stores in the Orient, second only to the likes of Harrods and Selfridges in London.

Even though Whiteaway & Laidlaw came up 50 years after Harrods, it beat Selfridges by almost two decades. The haunt of the sahibs and the memsahibs, the eponymous store was set up by two Scottish gentlemen in 1882 and was the first store to offer no credit.

Whiteaway & Laidlaw was ‘the’ colonial emporium, which became a household name not just in Calcutta, but across Asia. Soon, similar stores followed at some 20 cities in India and abroad. Over the next few years there were Whiteaway & Laidlaws at Bombay, Madras, Lahore and Simla, along with stores at Colombo, Burma, Singapore, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Taiping and Malacca.

The Scots commissioned another legend, Mackintosh Burn & Co to construct the mansion, built for the purpose of setting up the store in the heart of the city, straddling the edge of the ‘white town’ of the British residents and the ‘native town’ of the affluent Bengali babus.

The building was designed in such a manner by the leading Scottish engineering firm that with its sheer presence, architecture and prominent position it would attract buyers to walk through its doors. The store finds a place of note in Charles Allen’s now-landmark book, Plain Tales From the Raj, which points out that while the ground and the first floors were designed to house the departmental store, the upper two floors accommodated offices and residential apartments.

Once an oasis of grandeur even in the ‘City of Palaces’, Metropolitan Building earned its name from Metropolitan Insurance Company, which took over the building in post-Independence years. While LIC took over the building sometime in the 1960s, the facade of the building underwent a change.

Pathetic state of affairs

Soumitra Das, a journalist whose passion for Kolkata’s heritage has turned into many books, pointed out in an article after the retail major took over the floors that once held Whiteaway & Laidlaw, that although the façade is now cleaner, the marble that paved the floors are gone as are the stained glass decorations, when they failed to live up to the expectations of modern architects who designed the interiors of the new shopping mall.

Das further pointed out that besides the stained glass along the façade followed the once awe-inspiring and much-talked-about stained-glass atrium, which collapsed many years ago, leaving a large gap in the roof.

Das criticised the LIC for being callous and never giving it much thought to repair the building thoroughly from the inside, even though the city civic body accorded it the heritage tag some years back. Some conservation architects, however, feel that even if half-hearted, the restoration has been a step in the right direction. Conservation specialists also feel that LIC’s efforts to spruce up the façade and the subsequent handover to the modern retail giant has its pros and cons.

While the first two floors are now well-maintained and look brand new, the upper floors suffer the ignominy of utter neglect, carrying a haunted look, even if from the outside it seems to have retained the past glory. Whiteaway & Laidlaw, which came a close second to Harrod’s in prestige, was however not for everybody and definitely not for the commonplace Bengali babu.

As the womenfolk of British families, dressed in Sunday finery, frequented the store to sample wares from “back home”, the store provided discerning buyers with not just furniture, crockery, cutlery and other household goods, but also fine tailoring. It also boasted of a popular tea-room, which was the toast of the town, with variety of teas coming from an estate in Darjeeling Robert Laidlaw owned.

The new store in its place, however, stands out in the spirit of what could be loosely and somewhat banally called ‘market socialism’ as it embraces all kinds of clients, from the man off the street to one stepping out of an air-conditioned chauffeur-driven sedan.

The bounty of Whiteaway & Laidlaw during Christmas also comes across in master filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s autobiography, where he shares the childlike glee he felt after getting to buy his first pack of Chinese crackers from the legendary store.

As the Metropolitan Building stands tall in the heart of today’s Kolkata, with gaily-fluttering banners and standards of the retail major, one cannot but help be reminded of Calcutta, a city that was not just the jewel in the crown of the British Raj, but also the first metropolis the British built from scratch outside the British Isles and took to newer heights of glory. One cannot also forget that even though years have passed, the splendour the Raj era added to our heritage is deep-rooted and indelible.

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