INDRANI DUTTA

Kolkata's architectural splendour gets its due.

NEXT time you are in Kolkata, take a launch-ride down the Hooghly just as dusk is falling on the city. On the west bank of the river, a golden sunset will beckon you and, on the east, edifices of the Raj era will vie for your attention. Today, many of the centuries-old buildings are a mere shadow of their former imposing facades, but some still stand tall, showcasing the heritage of a metropolis that was once considered the second city of the British empire.The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), in association with Bengal Ambuja, has compiled a book on the 316-year-old city's built heritage.

Classification

The buildings have been classified according to their current use - government, commercial, residential or religious. They have been graded on three parameters - archaeological, historical or social merit and architectural merit. Says G.M. Kapur Convenor, INTACH's Kolkata Chapter, "This has also formed the basis on which the buildings have been covered in this book." The time span is from before 1800 to between 1850 and 1900. According to the book, Bhonsri Shah's Masjid, a structure set up between 1800 and 1850, with elaborate and detailed brickwork is under private ownership and in derelict condition. The building is variously attributed to Zafar Ali Khan and Nawab Reza Khan. As the British settled in and around Chowringhee and close to the Fort William area, the native gentry moved north and some, especially those enjoying British patronage, set up European-style houses. One such is that of Raja Nabakrisha Deb who lived between 1733 and 1797 and amassed wealth by assisting the British to topple Nawab Siraj-ud-daullah. The influence of European style architecture can be seen in the house of Jatindra Mohan Tagore. Called "Tagore Castle", this house (built between 1800 and 1850) looks like a castle, complete with turrets right in the heart of the city. In the same locality is one of the city's most famous houses - that of Rabindra Nath Tagore. Built in 1784, it has a top grading for its archaeological, architectural and social significance. It was a cradle of artistry and culture. Maintenance is good since it houses a university and a museum run by the State Government.

Past glory

Also getting an A grade is the opulent palace and private museum, the Marble Palace. Raja Rejendra Lal Mullik built this north Calcutta house in 1835. According to the book, Lord Minto named the house after the varieties of marble used in the construction. The building has fluted columns, cast iron filigree work besides a vast collection of European arts and artefacts.One of the most majestic buildings of the Raj era was Government House now known as the Raj Bhavan. Govenor General Lord Wellesley built it at a cost of Rs. 15,00,000 in 1799. However, Deb Lal and her associates have ferreted out lesser known, but equally important, structures. One such is St John's church located in Dalhousie area. Built in 1787, this is not only the oldest extant church of the British settlement but is also where Job Charnock was buried. The oldest Christian place of worship in the city is the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth built in 1724. The church got top grades from Lal. The Jewish settlement too has recorded its presence through their synagogues. At least three of the city's schools - La Martiniere, St. Xaviers and St. John's Diocession School - find mention in the book as do the Kalighat temple, said to date to the Gupta period (though not in its present form), the emblematic Victoria Memorial and St Paul's Cathedral. Like the English, the Greek too saw commercial opportunities in Calcutta. According to the book, the first eminent Greek to arrive in the city was Haji Alexios Argyree. The late 18th century Greek cemetery in east Calcutta with exquisite marble memorials also finds a mention. However it is not only old buildings which have been documented in this book. An east Calcutta bungalow - where Mahatma Gandhi stayed during his fast to stop the riots in the city after Independence - is featured more for its social and historical significance. The Eden Garden built by Lord Auckland in 1841 and having a real pagoda from Burma finds mention too. The style and presentation ensures that it is not a mere coffee-table book but one that succeeds in teleporting you to a bygone era when sahibs and memsahibs had their afternoon tea on the balcony of Pelitti's Restuarant or the babus of Kolkata rolled out in their horse-drawn coaches for their nocturnal sojourns.