Requiem for a 120-year-old house at Kalighat

KOLKATA: Robert Louis Stevenson's words in his poem 'Requiem' - "Under the wide and starry sky, Dig the grave and let me lie" - perhaps best describes the fate of a 120-year-old house in Kolkata's Kalighat area which is about to be torn down.

However, for a group of artists, the Edwardian house bedecked with semi-circular protruding balconies, slatted green painted Venetian windows, marbled floors, patterned cast-iron railings and intricately worked cornices, has become a canvas for an experimental art ensemble, before builders' wield their hammer on it.

Frescoes on old walls, 'alpana' (decorative floor motifs) on the red-oxidised stairs, graffiti in English and Bengali, paintings framing a window-lit room, and experimental lights to depict the history of a darkened room, were among many props which a group of artists managed to paint or set up as a requiem for the house - 'Jagat Nivas'.
Live performances in period costumes by actors helped transport the house back into the early Twentieth century.
One room had Japanese-style ink and brush paintings to link it to the history of a World War 2 veteran Maj (Dr.) B C Dewanjea who migrated from Burma and bought part of the house from its original owners while another had a simple cradle made from a Sari, perhaps to depict the many births, which the house, not far from the eastern metropolis's famed Kalighat temple to the dark-complexioned Goddess of destruction, witnessed.

Taufik Riaz, 46, an artist trained at Shantiniketan's Visva-Bharati university involved in the project called 'Museum of Air and Dust' said,"A large number of people - artists, poets, architects, actors, intellectuals and people living" here chipped in to turn the house about to die into a work of art for a while."

The current inhabitants - who include a family of refugees from Burma who came to the city about 60 years ago and bought the place - are trying to bottle up memories of this refuge after a heart-wrenching exodus from Rangoon, as the time to leave the sprawling house on Nepal Bhattacharya Street, approaches.
"We have so many memories of this house ... of the marriages and births over generations. Of friendships and celebrations, that it is not easy ...," said Shivaji Dewanjea, who had at one time acted in Bengali movies.

"We pleaded with the owners for a few days to do something creative to celebrate the death of this example of the city's beautiful architecture, now vanishing in the face of commercialisation, and they luckily agreed," Uma Banerjee, 32, a performer said.

Kolkata, a port city developed by the British as India's capital and billed as the 'Second city of the Empire' has over the years boasted of Gothic, Victorian, Edwardian and Art Noveau architecture not only in its public buildings ranging from the Writers' Buildings, National Library, Town Hall to the Victoria Memorial but also of an amalgam of European and Indian architecture in the homes of the city's princes and the affluent upper class.

However, as families fragmented as the city's population boomed, the need for new housing has meant the conversion of not only farmlands surrounding the city into skyscrapers, but beautiful family homes built with colonnaded pillars, Art Noveau spires being brought down for newer flatments.

Kolkata has prepared a list of heritage buildings which are either of historic significance or great architectural value and guidelines have been prepared for them which include not allowing these buildings to be replaced. Blue plaques adorn those houses which have historical value such as Rabindra Nath Tagore's palace or the mansion built by steel magnate Sir R.N Mookherjee or even a simple house where the famous linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterji used to stay and even iconic restaurants and sweetmeat shops.

However, many intricately built houses of the Bengali 'bhadralok' (gentry) like Jagat Nivas will continue to bite the dust as demand for housing goes up.

In the nine months between January to September 2022, Kolkata reported 38,000 registration of residential sales deeds according to Knight Frank. The May, June and July 2022 figures were 230 per cent, 114 per cent and 124 per cent of figures reported for the same months last year.

"Kolkata is a conservative realty market, but pockets are booming ... the posh South Kolkata area is witnessing high-end projects with demand driven by businessmen, new age professionals and NRIs with roots in Kolkata," said Devdutta Basu,59, a merchant banker involved in realty.

Meanwhile, the artists at the 'Museum of Air and Dust' have painted a graffiti quoting the lines of a folk song "Diney diney khasiya poribe rangila dalaner mati" (As the days go by, ornate houses will crumble to dust), which perhaps best sums up the reality of this great city.

Top News

Related News