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Architecture Comment

Letter from Calcutta

29 June 2015

From the July/August issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here 

Industry never came, but houses and neighbourhoods were destroyed

I was born in Calcutta, but we moved from that city to Bombay in early 1964. The company my father worked for had relocated its head office in the face of growing labour unrest; the move was part of the general egress of industry from the city. We continued to visit Calcutta once, sometimes twice, a year. My mother’s brother lived there with his family, in Pratapaditya Road in the historic neighbourhood of Bhowanipore. I learnt two things from my visits to Calcutta, and to my uncle’s house in particular. The first was that there was an alternative to the corporate world I inhabited in Bombay. Culture did not have to be Anglophone to be exciting or sophisticated. It also seemed that culture and learning was not exclusive to privileged, stable, or well-to-do lives. In my uncle’s house, the opposite seemed true.

Pratapaditya Road had become a slightly disturbed and down-at-heel area by the 1960s. Nevertheless, the house itself contained space and life and an interior narrative whose echoes I’d discover later in other parts of the world, but never their exact prototype. These were the house’s features: a porch on the ground floor; a long first-floor verandah with patterned cast iron railings; red oxidised stone floors; shuttered Venetian or French-style windows, painted green; round metal knockers on doors; horizontal wooden bars to lock doors; an open rooftop terrace; intricately worked cornices; ventilators the size of an open palm carved as intricate perforations into walls.

This house no longer stands. It came down in the property boom in Calcutta in the 1990s, in response to the Left Front government’s resolve to bring industry to Bengal. Industry never came, but existing houses and neighbourhoods continued to be destroyed, because of the ethos created by ‘developers’, a euphemism for a new breed of land sharks. This ethos dictated that houses on prime land needed to be bought up and immediately destroyed for the price of the land they stood on. So the houses themselves were never put on the market, and their market value never ascertained. Nor was any attempt made to leave the structures intact while converting them into apartments. Soon, the near-simultaneous purchase and destruction of such houses seemed like an inevitability.

During my travels in Europe in the last 20 years, I realised that the neighbourhoods we confront there not only represent the history that produced them, but also the history of communities resisting the fact of their disappearance. Without such resistance, no vestiges of the great urban churning of the last two centuries would remain in the world today. Calcutta was a powerful and unique example of this urban churning. I say ‘unique’, because the neighbourhoods and the sort of house I’ve described above have echoes, but no counterpart, in any other city. When we speak of Calcutta’s architecture, we usually mean the colonial institutions that the British erected or the aristocratic mansions of north Calcutta, built by landowners. But the houses I’m speaking of were built by anonymous builders for middle-class Bengali professionals: lawyers, doctors, civil servants, and professors. They all possess the features or family resemblances I’ve enumerated above; what is remarkable, though, is that no two houses are identical. This makes for an unprecedented, sui generis variety in a lane or neighbourhood: a variety I have seen nowhere else. The style – which can only be described as Bengali-European – is neither renaissance nor neo-gothic (as Bombay’s colonial buildings are), nor the dreaded Indo-Saracenic. It’s a style that is, to use Amartya Sen’s word, ‘eccentric’ and beautiful, and entirely the Bengali middle class’s. ‘Old’ is a misnomer for these buildings: they’re the products of the ‘new’ Calcutta, the Calcutta of modernity and modernism, that arose in the 19th century, a Calcutta that evaded, became a counterpoint to, took from, and was far richer than both the British-created city and any idea of the ‘Black Town’. It’s this Calcutta whose buildings are poised to vanish, and whose survival some of us are arguing for.

Amit Chaudhuri’s most recent novel is Odysseus Abroad (Oneworld).

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