City Of Palaces

It was exactly 220 years ago that the first association of Kolkata with palaces can be found. In 1803, an Italian traveller, Lord Valentia, who was visiting the city, called it “a village of palaces”. He marvelled at the splendour of the dozens of imposing European structures. Citizens of Kolkata forgave the Italian traveller for his somewhat dismissive reference to their city as a “village” and chose to take what they liked. And so Kolkata became the “City of Palaces”.

That was then. Now the city features in a wide range of commercials selling dreams, lifestyles and futures — cars and bikes, electronic goods and home appliances, banking and financial services — with many of the buildings that impressed Lord Valentia forming the backdrop of many of these ads.

The reason why Kolkata makes such an attractive backdrop for ad commercials, says brand and strategy specialist Harish Bijoor, is because in a world that is increasingly becoming monotonous — with cityscapes dotted with glass and steel buildings and modern cars zipping down streets — the sights and sounds of Kolkata offer “character”. Its unique amalgam of narrow north Kolkata lanes that house grand mansions complemented by tramcars, yellow cabs and handpulled rickshaws make for compelling visuals. “The antiquity that one finds in Kolkata is unparalleled and every ad-man’s delight,” he explained.

The “City of Palaces” with its rich colonial architecture reflects its history as the former capital of British India and an important centre of trade in the Indian subcontinent. The city’s built heritage showcases a blend of architectural styles, including British, Indo-Saracenic and Victorian, among others. From the iconicVictoria Memorial built in Indo-Saracenic style to the ostentatious Marble Palace on Muktaram Babu Street that showcases a mix of neoclassical and traditional Bengali architecture, to the Writers’ Buildings that exhibits a blend of classical, Victorian and Indo-Saracenic architecture, Kolkata is perhaps the only Indian city apart from parts of south Mumbai that retains the charm of 19th Century well into the 21st Century. As West Bengal Heritage Commission chairman Alapan Bandyopadhyay points out, Kolkata’s grand old buildings are a reflection of its rapid growth in the 19th Century to emerge as the second-most important city of the British Empire after London. “The buildings and mansions in Kolkata assumed magnificence to celebrate themight and aspirations of British imperialism. The shifting of the capital to Delhi in 1911 and later the Partition of Bengal took the shine away from the economy,” he remarked.

Then there are the bonedi baris or mansions of affluent Bengali families in north Kolkata, from the Jorasanko Thakur Bari, the ancestral home of the Tagore family; to the Sovabazar Rajbari, one of the oldest aristocratic families in Kolkata ; and the Pathuriaghata Ghosh Bari, a magnificent mansion that features a courtyard surrounded by beautifully carved wooden balconies with intricate woodwork.
Over the decades, many mansions and pal aces fell into disrepair. While some fell to the ravages of nature, others succumbed to the hammer of realtors. From 1970s to 1990s, a period that heritage activists refer to as the dark age for Kolkata, several stately buildings and mansions were pulled down to make way for grotesque structures.
Things, however, changed in the 1990s with a renewed interest in Kolkata’s built heritage. “The graded list of heritage buildings is an outcome of that interest. It is heartening to see that a lot of citizens, particularly some very young and vibrant groups led by some visionary minds, have taken keen interest in the conservation of buildings. Some buildings have been restored to their original glory. There is great scope of adaptive reuse of these buildings,” said Bandyopadhyay, who calls himself an avid heritage enthusiast.

It was in 2004 that the revival and restoration of heritage buildings received a fillip with the inclusion of the Dalhousie Square in the World Monuments Watch. “Dalhousie Square is where British dreams were given their most extravagant expression. British architects and military engineers filled the city with neoclassical buildings, riverside promenades, and manicured parks, as well as office buildings and apartment houses, all constructed along the lines of European models like the Governor’s House in the form and style of the stately mansion of Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire; Kolkata High Court, the former Supreme Court of India follows the design of statehouse in Ypres in Belgium,” said restoration architect Manish Chakraborti, who along with students of Jadavpur University undertook a survey of 50 historic buildings in and around Dalhousie Square.

Following the watchlist, the state government pledged to preserve the site and the Kolkata Municipal Corporation created its own list oflandmarks, 55 of which were located in Dalhousie Square. While WWF funded the restoration of St John’s Church, the move led to restoration of nearly all significant buildings in the square, including the magnificent General Post Office, Standard Life Assurance Building , the Town Hall, Currency Building and the Great Eastern Hotel.

Park Street, another boulevard with magnificent buildings built by Armenians like Thaddeus Mesrope Thaddeus, Arathoon Stephen and Johannes Carapiet Galstaun, has witnessed a revival that was kick-started with the restoration of Park Mansion at the intersection with Free School Street. Since then, the sprawling Queen’s Mansion and the stately Stephen Court that had been devastated in an inferno in 2010 were restored.
“The revival of the two premier precincts — Dalhousie Square and Park Street — an d restoration of many significant heritage buildings owned by Life Insurance Corporation of India and Kolkata Police have contributed to Kolkata regaining its architectural glory. It is especially heartening to see KP restore itsproperties, starting with Limelight on Ripon Street, Dalanda House where the Police Training School is located, several police stations, and most recently the Almond House at the Sealdah Traffic Guard,” said the Kolkata convenor of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), G M Kapur.
He is confident that Kolkata’s built heritage offers immense potential for tourism and that the city can derive great economic value from architectural treasures, particularly after the Unesco’s intangible heritage tag bestowed on Kolkata’s Durga Puja that has put the world’s spotlight on the mega event. “Tourists, particularly those from the West, have gr eat admiration for charming cities like Kolkata that are steeped in heritage and culture. I am sure that as people realise the intrinsic value that the beautiful yet neglected buildings have to offer, they will be restored and put to adaptive reuse,” added Kapur.
Manish Golder, who has been documenting homes in Kolkata that have stood the test of time, said on e of the most interesting aspects is that the younger generation has become more interested in recognising that built heritage is a huge part of their cultural identity and requires preservation and augmentation. “That is a sea change from when we began documenting houses. It is encouraging to see that people are trying to save old heritage houses and make them sustainable so that they survive the test of time,” he remarked.

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