The Grand Houses of North Calcutta
Anuraag Das Sarma
The city began as Calcutta, cradled gently by the tempestuous Hooghly. The river wasn’t shallow then, nor as muddy. The global networks forged on these waters led to the creation of the Strand, and the city, found originally as a trading settlement, slowly took architectural shape.
It wasn’t built in a day, though the form it has taken in recent years might point towards it. No, the city, from its very beginning, was an unplanned, chaotic, landscape. A pandemonium of gargantuan proportions, a mix of smells and fragrances, of noise and music, of syncopated rhythms that pulsed through the roads as horses galloped by. It was never planned, no care given to where the manors went, and where the bustees. There was a white part of town, with cobbled streets, and well maintained drainage. That is as far as planning could get you in the swamps of Calcutta.
White town is still well maintained and a trip to Dalhousie Square is sure to impress upon you the fleeting grandeur of a stagnating city. The Black part of town however paints a bitter picture.
Further north, the car jitters. Narrow alleys, habitually filled with people, tell different stories. It is here that you find Calcutta shedding her metropolitan skin. A stone’s throw from Dalhousie is Tiretti Bazaar. Often dubbed “Old Chinatown'', it houses within it an ageing, yet important community. The lanes are dotted with fascinating islamic stucco work, and Nam Soon Church, at the end of Damzen lane, is breath-taking - a bewitching Indo-Chinese Taoist church that captivates the senses, and leaves you speechless.
The red mixes beautifully with the gold and has since 1820. The big gate, with emboldened calligraphy, combined with the red and green wooden doors make the place easier to spot, compared to the six other Chinese churches in the area. It is meant for visitors, yet is almost embarrassingly deserted. The reason still confounds me, perhaps if they had a social media presence.
A right, a right, and a left brings us back out on Central Ave. and the car can be booted up again. Step in, says Harry, before deftly manoeuvring the car out of the claustrophobic parking spot. The engine hums, and we are on our way.
The average North Calcutta mansion carries with it a major distinction compared to the European style manors of Dalhousie. And while the common answer might seem to be the presence of a courtyard, a strictly Indian concept, this would not be the correct answer.
You see, quite a few Europeans had adopted the courtyard into their colonial homes. It just made sense to have one in the tropical swampland of Bengal. No, the answer lies in the surrounding areas of the manor. While the Europeans measured their wealth in money, the Bengali baboo measured his in men. How many men, who’d live off the baboo’s family, would offer him protection? How many would work for him, and how many would bow to
him? These questions are answered by the bustees that sprang up next to these grand houses, and remain the main reason behind the narrow alleys of North Calcutta. The richer you were, the more people built their houses on your land and gave themselves in servitude to you.
These houses are all now crumbling. Calcutta has a problem. It spreads like a tumour. Malignant, malformed. The walls come down, brick by brick. Heritage is but a buzzword thrown around by hoteliers. It is difficult to blame the owners. The city is not what it once was, and neither are the families that built (or rather paid for) it. It is difficult to afford upkeep. Mind you, these houses were not just built for families but also for a bevy of
servants and employees. This wasn’t just a house. It was the epicentre of a sprawling legacy, carefully curated by the patriarch. It is neither complicated, nor wrong, to point to the dissolution of the Joint Family as one of the main reasons behind the decline of these grand mansions. How many people still live here, and how many will in ten years? What then should we do? Break them down and build huge apartments that challenge the skies?
What then of our heritage, the last vestige of a floundering state?
The main problem, and a reason why Kolkata still hasn’t received the World Heritage Site moniker, is the lack of Governmental care. If one were to go to the official website for the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, and find the list of Graded Heritage Buildings, you’d notice that the disclaimer is dated 25th February 2009. It is a 14 year old list, and for no good reason. The list gives us a total of 915, which seems incredibly low. Almost offensively low. On top of that buildings are frequently downgraded so they can be demolished. Who knows what will befall the grand Statesman building. Even ex-employees aren’t sure. We hear talks of a mall, and we see scaffolding. But a definite answer remains elusive. The Heritage of this city is in a state of limbo, and there seems to be no way out of it without proper Government intervention.
We reach Sovabazar, exhausted already. The sky is overcast, and rain seems imminent. The lanes are narrow and confusing, the wide thoroughfares of South Calcutta feel like a distant dream. Cars stream by, and the odd tailgate hits the fruit vendor who displays his wares on the road. Each alley feels the same, yet different. We made the mistake of going on a Sunday. The offices of the Sovabazar Rajbari were closed, and a full tour was not possible. However, a man who we never saw (all we could hear was a disembodied voice), told us to walk into the courtyard and take a look.
The thakurdalan of the baag-ola rajbari, so named because of the lion statuettes at the gate, is a wonderful sight, and hardly replicated outside Bengal. The architectural splendour of the courtyard stuccowork, while being intrinsically interlinked with hindu festivities, borrows heavily both from the Mughal cusped arch and contemporary European arches. The different styles synergise well together, leaving one to simply sit and stare at the little details of the semi-circular carvings of the thakurdalan. The early morning serenity is broken by the odd caw of a crow perched on the tuscan columns of the nat mandap. It was here that company pujo began,
sealing Calcutta’s fate after the Battle of Plassey in 1757. A friend of Robert Clive, Raja Nabakrishna Deb, the patriarch of the Royal Sovabajar Family, laid the foundation of a lineage that in many ways furthered the cause of arts and culture in Calcutta, linking the importance of this lavish mansion with that of the city as a whole.
But Sovabajar is more than the rajbari(s). The lanes twist like snakes, as one well-maintained house gives way to four in urgent need of repairs. Dogs sleep on sacks outside wonderfully carved wooden doors painted green and pink. Sparrows flutter around as the lanes close in on us, and it is here that the corinthian columns, painted brick red, combined with arched gothic windows, fill you with a sense of awe. As we drive away in Harry’s trusty Volkswagen Polo, we spot the odd shopping complex, and the even rarer skyscraper. An art deco building, built years after the North had lost its footing as the hub of an ever-growing metropolis, surprises us. We bid farewell to Sovabazar, choosing to focus now on what was once the richest neighbourhood in all of Calcutta. Pathuriaghata.
Columns and intricate gates line the lanes. Even the crowded bazaar is not spared of the resplendent abodes of the former zamindars of Calcutta. The Mallickbari of Pathuriaghata impresses immediately with its impressive facade, composed of 14 Greek Corinthian columns. The interior, which hosts the thakurdalan is equally impressive, adorned by inimitably intricate cast iron work. A huge mansion, part of it has been beautifully restored, while the other half remains in shambles. One should not, however, blame the family for this, as upkeep costs lakhs, and who knows how much a full-blown restoration project would cost. I, however, wish them the best, and hope that one day the house can be brought back to its former beauty.
As we walk through the lanes we come across another mansion, named Jorasanko Rajbati.
We stand outside, looking at the beautiful collonaded front of Rajendra Narayan Roy’s house. It is difficult to estimate the age of the building, considering its style, but the 1850s would be a good bet. A man waves us in, and we walk past the derelict fountain, into an impressive yellow courtyard. We are surrounded by a mix of doric and ionic pillars on all sides. Burma teak doors and windows, with minute wooden embellishments stare back at us. It is not difficult to imagine the pomp and splendour of such a house, and we, like children, are caught daydreaming.
This is where my great grandfather made his fortune, where he fell in love and married a woman, where he lived and where he worked. He might have passed away in Dum Dum, years after the zamindari had been abolished, but he was nurtured and cared for here, in these lanes. It was here that my grandmother was born, and where she spent the formative years of her life. And yet, somehow, it remains forgotten among almost all the residents
living south of the Park Circus line. Perhaps, this is the price to pay for growth. As Calcutta grows, forming the Calcutta Metropolitan area, covering over 700 square miles, we forget more and more about its origins. The North still brings with it a certain charm that cannot be replicated in the modern satellite cities of Bidhannagar, with its four lane roadways that leave pedestrians hanging out to dry. The crumbling houses, quite literally, are the symbols of our history. Soon, the house in Joynagar where Bankimchandra wrote the premise to Anandamath, will be broken down and replaced by apartment buildings. A fragment of literary history will be lost forever to time, alive only in my memory as a friend’s house where we spent hours talking and laughing.
This article would not have been possible without Aryaman Manna and Kushal Garg who not only accompanied me on my trip to the North, but also took some truly incredible pictures that we will be sharing in this issue; Emilie Bhowmik, a dear friend, who while suffering from a bout of viral fever, was kind enough to help me understand the nuances of Indo-European architecture; Rushali Mukherjee for the wonderful cover that she has made for this article; and Sei Vui which provided us all with some of the most wonderful food we’ve ever had.