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Dalhousie Square: Where the magnificent and the mundane meet

By Madhumita Bose

Soumitra Das’ White & Black, brilliantly photographed by Christopher Taylor, examines the makings of the great mercantile city that was Kolkata. It focuses on Dalhousie Square, juxtaposing the grand and the magnificent with the grime and squalor of everyday life in a crowded, bustling Indian city

White & Black: Journey to the Centre of Imperial Calcutta,
by Soumitra Das. Photographs by Christopher Taylor. Published by Niyogi Books. Pages: 223

The news that the Centre is pushing the West Bengal government to consider renaming Calcutta High Court, Kolkata High Court is disconcerting. While the debate over renaming streets, places and cities rages on, the paranoia over obliterating the more apparent vestiges of colonial rule is manifest in scores of buildings all over the country that have gone to seed, been torn down, or simply left to rot with no thought to their histories or the need for preservation.

White & Black (for, nothing really captures the poignancy of a scene or a moment except in the starkest of shades, or throws into relief some exquisite detail) inspires reflection. Christopher Taylor’s pictorial journey takes us into the past and the makings of a great mercantile city, the base of a colonial empire that ruled for close on two hundred years.

The book, described as a ‘Journey to the Centre of Imperial Calcutta’, focuses on Dalhousie Square and its numerous lanes and bylanes, moving to the adjacent areas of Brabourne road, the hub of Burra Bazaar -- once Asia’s largest wholesale market and the seat of important gaddis, including that of the Birlas and the Tagore family -- northwards towards Chitpur and the bonedi north Calcutta mansions. These were in the ‘black town’, as opposed to the ‘white town’ that is Dalhousie Square, eponymously named after Governor General Lord Dalhousie (1848-1856) whose controversial policies, notably the Doctrine of Lapse, were a major factor in the 1857 mutiny.

Dalhousie ruled from Government House which remained the administrative seat for a century at the time when English trade barons and the Scots were building adjacent commercial headquarters, the size and stolidity of each building, with its Grecian figures, domes, pediments, cornices, arches and wide sweeping verandas to make the most of the fresh Ganga breeze and sunlight, proclaiming their net worth and the fact that they had no intention of departing in a hurry. This commercial capital of the British Empire had its roots in the obliterated structure of the old Fort William, the British trade agents’ defiant fortification of their interests in newly-created Calcutta, which Siraj ud Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal, smashed in 1756, only to be defeated exactly a year later.

Dalhousie Square endures despite the grime and chaos that envelops it today, and sees hundreds of English, Scots and Irish tourists descend on it every year. The faded grandeur of the magnificent buildings -- headquarters of managing agencies and commercial enterprises dealing in the production and sale of jute, indigo and tea, and later blue chip manufacturing and engineering companies -- the square is as much about Calcutta’s growth and expansion as it is of a city where people came from all over to work and trade. ‘You can piss here but not kiss,’ observes a young Irish visitor wryly, wrinkling her nose as she walks past a wall.

Taylor’s photographs capture the sublime and the ordinary. Impressive facades and lofty columns stare out of the pages, as do imposing pediments (some inset with Queen Victoria’s emblematic face or other Georgian and Edwardian mementoes). These are punctuated with pictures of street vendors, sprawling banyan trees, and makeshift shops under awnings. The more apparent fall from imperial status, the reality that is the choked pavements, broken and blackened over decades, the gloriously betel-stained Tuscan or Corinthian pillars and columns under which the homeless sleep, completely at ease in their surroundings, point to the social dimension of the huge demographic shift from the hinterland, the mess and garbage piled up by squatters on what were very pucca streets.

It’s possible to re-visit the past, but only fools repeat it say the wise. It would be impossible to create or even duplicate the buildings that make up Dalhousie Square. Neglected and overrun by squatters and migrant labour for the better part of the century, the buildings, despite their magnificent facades, are unrecognisable inside. Vast rooms and verandas have been partitioned into numerous cubicles to accommodate rising trade, as indigenous business groups and entrepreneurs bought over businesses from their erstwhile white owners. Many of the bigger corporate names have refurbished the interiors, creating a marble-and-chrome business-like atmosphere in place of traditional wood panelling and stairways.

Following an industrial slump from the early ’80s, when multinationals folded up and industrialists shifted base and capital elsewhere, Dalhousie Square’s clout took a severe beating.

The cluster of buildings offers a great photo opportunity, but the choice of Dalhousie Square, says author Soumitra Das, is because Dalhousie Square is a very ‘happening’ place. Apart from the tourists who visit, there’s talk of an Indo-British joint venture to restore the buildings.

How do historic cities cope with population pressures, crumbling infrastructure and a poor economic base -- all features of a developing country?

Regeneration is vital. But regeneration takes more than good intentions or words, considering the huge funds involved. Apart from wanting to preserve aesthetics or a slice of history, conservation must also have a utilitarian aspect. It calls for a different approach from the general policy of both central and state governments which has been to tear down old colonial structures (Calcutta University’s Roman-style senate hall, for example) and replace them with dreary government or municipal buildings.

Luckily, perceptions are changing. Heritage and conservation movements that started in the West 50 years ago have begun to percolate to the developing world. People are more aware of conservation issues today than they were even 10 years ago. But it will require a paradigm shift to adjust to the need to harmonise development with the city’s unique skyline. A recently-built flyover on Chowringhee, on the periphery of Dalhousie Square and in many ways as historic thanks to some beautiful buildings that include the Indian Museum, the Geographical Survey, Hoggs Market and the elegant Oberoi Grand, obscures the uninterrupted view of what used to be the classic Calcutta skyline. Similarly, Telephone Bhavan constructed in Dalhousie Square in the ’70s has been criticised for obstructing the historic Lal Dighi or water tank around which Dalhousie Square was built, ruining its symmetry. Building infrastructure in a city that’s bound by a river to the west and wetlands to the east, and suffers tremendous population pressures and lack of road space, is a bureaucratic nightmare. Even so, there is no reason why development cannot continue keeping the parameters of aesthetics and utility in mind. Rome is the perfect example where 2,000-year-old buildings rest comfortably with Renaissance buildings and more modern structures that house residences, showrooms and corporate offices.

London, says conservation architect Manish Chakraborty who took part in renovation work at the beautiful St John’s Church, Calcutta’s first cathedral, in Dalhousie Square, is an excellent example of what can be done with heritage buildings so that they are preserved and can function according to modern-day requirements. “The route to revival is to restore,” he says pointing to a more pragmatic approach to conserving huge buildings like the Mackinnon Mackenzie building where a fire destroyed its interiors, leaving the exterior untouched. The building is being converted by a developer into a shopping mall.

In the UK, it is mandatory for owners of heritage buildings to preserve the facade. Most buildings are allowed to be used for contemporary purposes as long as their facade is kept intact. An important point here is ownership. As in the West, the Indian government places the onus of maintaining a heritage building on the owner. But what is the owner to do with the building unless it brings in revenue?

We are not talking purist conservation here, but viability is a view increasingly being stressed. The purpose or use of a building has changed from what it originally used to be. Chakraborty, in particular, refers to Trafalgar Square where heritage buildings have been converted into boutique hotels and shopping arcades. He sees no reason why this should not happen in India.

Dalhousie Square offers the perfect address and location to attract both commercial visitors and tourists. But it is important to know how to go about it professionally; also to know how to sell a heritage area. Here, maybe, advice from consultants in countries that have expertise in dealing with such issues would be welcome.

(Madhumita Bose is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata) 

Infochange News & Features, April 2010