The transformation of Kolkata from a colonial city, which had also served as capital of the British Raj for over a century, to the capital of West Bengal was a smooth affair, without too many hurdles. Of course, it has had a change of name in more recent times — from Calcutta to Kolkata, though that is a different story.
The city that started its journey as an amalgam of three villages — Sutanuti, Gobindapur and Kalikata — and became the seat of British power in India since the first Governor-General, Warren Hastings, had the infrastructure adequate enough to fit into its new role of a State capital, says P.T. Nair, a historian of Kolkata, a city that is his passion.
Almost everything was in place: The Raj Bhavan, once the house of the Governor-General and now the Governor’s residence; the Writers Building, now the State Secretariat; the High Court; a flourishing trade of tea and jute; a navigable river in the Hooghly; and a port with a large hinterland.
“In 1911, when the British Capital was shifted out of Calcutta, the shifting was only in name. By then, all the institutions like the siatic Society, Indian Museum and Anthropological and Archaeological Surveys, National Library, all had started functioning in the city,” Mr. Nair says.
Eminent historian and former Vice-Chancellor of Visva Bharati University Rajat Kanta Ray said Bengal was essentially a rural countrified area. There were no towns, save Kolkata, that could assume the role of a capital city.
Professor Ray, however, argues that there have been exceptions in Odisha and Kerala where the colonial towns of Cuttack and Cochin did not turn out to be the State capitals. “The basic design of Kolkata as a town was the fort (Fort William — the cantonment of ‘White troops’) and Writers’ Building, all in sight of each other. There was a time when one stood in the Raj Bhavan and could see the fort,” he said.
During the colonial period there was a native town and a European town. The European town comprised Lower Circular Road, Esplanade and Park Street, ending up in the Writer’s Buildings. This was a white town. To the north was the native town or the black town, Professor Roy says. Unlike other colonial cities of Mumbai (Bombay) and Chennai (Madras), there was an extremely clear division between the white and ‘black’ towns.
Nothing of the earlier layout exists now, he says, adding that the setting up of townships in Salt Lake, Rajarhat on the northern and north-eastern fringes — formerly marshland — is a post-colonial development which changed the geography and ecology, not to speak of the skyline. Located here are the wings of the State administration that have spread out of Writers’ Buildings, which remains the seat of government.
Sandwiched between the Hooghly on one side and marshland on the other, the city had no scope to expand; but the setting of townships in the northern and the north-eastern parts has defied geological considerations.
Moreover, the influx of refugees post-independence was a blessing in disguise as they added to the work force and helped the city expand, according to Mr. Nair who has authored more than 50 books on Kolkata. From a city that was only about 6.5 square miles in 1875, long after it became the British seat of power, the city is now spread over 230 square miles.
Though it could not accommodate the first Indian Institute of Technology and the first Indian Institute of Management which were set up in the districts because of paucity of space, universities like Jadavpur University and Rabindra Bharati University came up in the city.
As it evolved into a capital of one of most densely populated States, one more bridge across the Hooghly, the Vidyasagar Setu — the longest cable stayed bridge in the country — and the Kolkata Metro, the country’s first underground railway, were set up.
Kolkata, as many would say, is not merely a relic of the British Raj but a pioneer of Bengal’s renaissance and the Indian awakening.
“It bears imprints of the colonial era and is now a post-independence capital. Obviously, the city has not lost its head,” Mr. Nair says.