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The old Calcutta chromosomes

Thousands of Kolkata houses with red-oxide floors and sleepy green-shuttered windows, the spacious porches on the ground floor, with their intricate cornices, elaborate wrought-iron grills, and open terraces are being destroyed at an incredible pace. Photo: Akash Mondal

Thousands of Kolkata houses with red-oxide floors and sleepy green-shuttered windows, the spacious porches on the ground floor, with their intricate cornices, elaborate wrought-iron grills, and open terraces are being destroyed at an incredible pace. Photo: Akash Mondal  

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Kolkata’s heritage buildings are part of the city’s unique DNA, as distinct to its landscape as a fingerprint. The writers talk to novelist Amit Chaudhuri, who is spearheading the city’s brave fight to save its heritage.

In one of Kolkata’s most prosperous neighbourhoods stands a two-storey house. It has shuttered windows and large pillars, in the style typical of colonial Calcutta. The house belongs to Tapati Mukherjee, and was built by her grandfather in the 1930s, in an area called Hindustan Park. The house next to hers, built around the same time and in the same architectural style, is owned by a former chief of the Indian Football Association. It is being torn down. It will soon be replaced by an anonymous high-rise.

Mukherjee, however, is adamant that she will not let her house suffer a similar fate. The Director of Culture and Cultural Relations and the President of Rabindra Bhavan at Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan, she said, “I don’t want to live anywhere else. The house has a cultural ambience and feeling of old-world grandeur (that) I do not find elsewhere. I vow to protect this house till my death.”

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks like Mukherjee. Thousands of Kolkata houses with red-oxide floors and sleepy green-shuttered windows, the spacious porches on the ground floor, with their intricate cornices, elaborate wrought-iron grills, and open terraces are being destroyed at an incredible pace. These houses give Kolkata its unique old-world charm and reflect the amazing architectural ethos of the city, but they are being lost in the mad rush for multi-storey buildings and concrete chaos.

This loss of heritage is not unique to Kolkata. Several Indian cities today are battling this dilemma. In Jaipur, for instance, many of the privately-owned historical havelis, with their jaali windows, false fronts and pink facades — which gave the city its moniker of Pink City — are in danger of being lost forever. They have become dilapidated over time and are slowly beginning to be pulled down to make way for modern buildings. Some of these havelis date back over 100 years.

Mumbai has a splendid architectural history, with a mix of Art Deco, Indo-Saracenic and Victorian, all contributing to a rich variety of features that contribute to the city’s signature ‘look’. But many of these buildings are crumbling today and, in the absence of government incentives, owners prefer to let the heritage homes decay rather than spend their own money on upkeep, which is understandably an expensive task. Once the buildings reach a certain stage of disrepair, the owners are allowed to demolish them and sell the rights to redevelopers for a lucrative sum. This makes it much more difficult to persuade owners to look after them. Bangalore and Chennai, too, are fighting the same battle, as is the state of Goa, with its stunning built legacy in the Portuguese-Baroque style.

The only weak but bravely flickering touch of silver in this bleak skyline is the fact that informed citizens across India are taking up cudgels to try and save the country’s heritage structures. The newest episode to this saga of protest is being staged in Kolkata, where several people — both ordinary and prominent citizens — have written to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, pointing to the urgent need to stop the destruction of these historic buildings. Most of these houses were begun in the 19th century and continued to flourish over the next hundred years. In fact, even during the recession of the 1930s, the cement industry was flourishing as the middle-class was constructing these huge houses.

Eminent writer Amit Chaudhuri, who is leading the campaign, said, “Destroying these buildings is to destroy one of the chief characteristics of this city’s history of modernity. Kolkata is a modern city and these houses are emblems of the city’s modernity… they are as important as the painting, literature and music of Bengal.” For Chaudhuri, this is an old battle. He has been speaking and writing on the issue for many years now. He talks of how the architecture of many neighbourhoods in Kolkata is quite distinct from the Indo-Saracenic or neo-Gothic style of architecture that can be seen in other Indian cities. They represent a Bengali-European style that is not seen elsewhere.

The Kolkata heritage protest team includes architects, artists, film directors and academicians. And one common factor that everybody agrees upon is the fact that these old buildings are not important only because of the nostalgia that surrounds them but because they represent a certain time in history. If preserved well, these buildings can actually lead to very practical and modern benefits, such as increased tourism revenue and, in turn, a renewal of the city.

Take, for instance, the boutique hotel that opened in Kolkata a couple of years ago. Called Hotel 233 Park Street (based on the door number), it occupies the ground floor of an imposing Zamindari mansion located at the much less stylish but no less historical Park Circus end of the city’s famous restaurant street. Rather than tear the mansion down, with its classical pillars and high ceilings and wooden-slatted windows, the owner has recreated a piece of the city’s cultural history here. The rooms have antique mahogany or Burma teak furniture, and a potpourri of Zamindari and Colonial tapestries, lithographs, curios and floor lamps. The hotel’s revenues could be used to revamp the rest of the mansion over a period of time. It is testimony to how sensible restoration can go a long way.

As Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has said, the rich history of early habitation in the Calcutta region has suffered not only from intellectual neglect but also from the destructive tendencies of the past. “We owe to future generations a preserved and unmutilated heritage of Calcutta’s eccentric but exciting old buildings,” Sen had said in response to the city’s petitioners.

Even as Kolkata’s mayor Sovon Chatterjee has claimed that it is “next to impossible” to preserve the old neighbourhoods and houses, the supporters of the campaign have agreed that a legislative intervention is required to preserve the buildings. Architect Partha Ranjan Das has also come up with another idea. He suggests that buyers must be incentivised by the introduction of a transfer of development rights. In other words, he says, “While the buyers (of heritage properties) will not be able to make changes to these old houses, they can transfer the floor area ratio to other projects that they are developing in other localities.” This is a unique solution that must be looked at seriously, not just in Kolkata but across cities.

Meanwhile, Sugata Bose, historian and MP from Trinamool Congress, has assured the petitioners that he will take up the matter with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. “During the Chief Minister’s upcoming visit to London, I will try to show her what the authorities have done there to preserve the neighbourhoods,” he said.

However, well-known artist Shuvaprasanna, who heads the West Bengal Heritage Commission, is very clear that the best of intentions cannot achieve anything unless there is a change in existing laws to prohibit the demolition of these houses. “The German author, Günter Grass, was awestruck by the city and had raised the issue of renovation with former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee during the 1990s. However, the discussion was not taken forward and nothing much could be done.”

As he points out, most of the houses are owned by several members of a family and, in many of them, litigation is involved, so that most owners find it the easiest option to sell the houses to private builders. In fact, most owners don’t see any value in the structure itself, and sell it for the value of the land alone. Bose speaks of the need to change mindsets so that people can better understand the innate heritage value of the buildings.

But others say that none of this might work because rampant unemployment has resulted in real estate becoming one of the few growing sectors. In other words, the developers will not be stopped easily. “We have declared a number of these as heritage houses but we are failing to preserve them despite investing crores of rupees,” said the mayor, adding that the Kolkata Municipal Corporation has neither the resources nor adequate laws to deal with the issue.

A recent Bengali film, Bhooter Bhabishyat, ( The Future of the Ghosts) was a huge hit. In the film, ghosts evict the greedy builders from a 19th century palace and settle down in it themselves. In real life, will the city’s heritage ever be able to evict the powerful builders and promoters?

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2018 3:29:19 PM | http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/saving-kolkatas-heritage-buildings/article7360740.ece