Life & Style

Can't fly out of the country? Sit back and have a cuppa at this Danish tavern in Serampore

The Denmark Tavern in its present glorious avatar   | Photo Credit: Britt Lindeman

It is snooker night at The Denmark Tavern. Dressed in my weekend best, I wait for the ferry to take me across the Hooghly river. As the motor vessel glides to my destination, I see my friends waving from the grand balcony of the tavern.

The 10,000 square-feet property looks like a large yellow fondant cake. In its elegant new avatar, it houses a restaurant, bar, an outlet of the popular Flurys, and six cosy rooms — all run by The Park.

There are wooden stairs, large green louvered windows, high ceilings and arched doorways. More Danish elements make their presence felt, right from prints in the upholstery, cane headboards and wood carved flowers to distressed white furniture and vintage chandeliers.

Can't fly out of the country? Sit back and have a cuppa at this Danish tavern in Serampore

It might be 2021, but here, in Serampore it still feels like 1786 at the tavern, started by Englishman James Parr in this area once known as Frederiksnagore (after Danish King Frederik VI).

Over the centuries, the charming Denmark Tavern and a few other notable buildings — set up between 1755 and 1845, during the years of the Danish Colony in Serampore — fell into obsolescence. All that remained were crumbling vestiges of their thriving past, overrun by creepers.

The tavern before renovation

The tavern before renovation   | Photo Credit: Flemming Aalund

Fortunately, The Serampore Initiative, founded in 2008 by the National Museum of Denmark, (funded by Realdania) came up with the idea of documenting and preserving cultural heritage from the Danish period. In 2013, work started on some of these buildings; the first being St Olav’s Church. It was a mammoth effort.

“For the first time in West Bengal you saw external funding coming from Denmark, and the State Tourism Department of the Government of West Bengal also chipped in,” says conservation architect Manish Chakraborti, who worked on these projects.

“The church also received the UNESCO award for conservation in 2016,” says Bente Wolff, associate professor at University of Copenhagen and project director of the Serampore Initiative, adding that INTACH Kolkata Chapter was its project partner in India for the tavern and other buildings, while the Bishop of Calcutta, CNI (Church of North India) was for the church.

“In the meantime, in 2009 the Government of West Bengal had decided to restore the former Danish Governor House,” says Wolff. “Fully ready now, the house is known as the Serampore Information and Culture Centre. It will house, among other things, an exhibition space that will showcase Serampore’s history and restoration,” she says, pleased with the way these projects have given the area more visibility over the last few years. The church, today, is a vision in yellow and white. From barely existing with a collapsed roof and weak columns, to now living an awe-inspiring life with its majestic spire visible from as far as Barrackpore, it has come a long way. While working on the church, a detailed paint analysis was followed. To ascertain the original colour, the team went through the different layers of paint and found that the last level of mortar on the external wall was yellow. The restored Governor House also has the same yellow paint.

St Olav’s Church

St Olav’s Church   | Photo Credit: Flemming Aalund

In 2016, after the team (comprising Danish architect Flemming Aalund and Indian architects along with Chakraborti) completed work on the church, it rolled up its sleeves and plunged neck deep into Denmark Tavern and the unspeakable quantity of debris that lay around it. Getting access was a project unto itself, laughs Chakraborti, who is delighted with the final outcome. “It has a fantastic presence. To anybody passing by it says, “I am here. Look at me!”

“When the decision was taken at the highest level, to restore the whole building, we looked at a lot of documents in India and Copenhagen, Denmark. We didn’t get a plan, but we got a lot of sketches,” says Chakraborti. Aided by solid documentation and archaeological evidence — that required a lot of exploring — the team, including restoration agency Mascon Kolkata, tried to retain authentic, building walls exactly where they existed earlier. “We are true to the layout of the site,” announces Chakraborti.

As an example, he mentions a spiral staircase and the controversy surrounding it. There was ambiguity about where it originally stood: At the rear, or front of the building. After a few excavations they found proof that it actually was at the rear. A portion of the original brick spiral staircase still exists right next to the new steel staircase that people use.

In keeping with the old world charm, the team stuck to materials like lime, surkhi, and brick. “Earlier, all old buildings used to be limewashed as it is porous and allows breathability, unlike acrylic paint,” says Chakraborti.

A craftswoman at work

A craftswoman at work   | Photo Credit: Bente Wolff

Whenever the team had doubts, it conducted an excavation. “The construction is based on a lot of research and evidence,” he explains. The tavern was completed in 2018. The stunning results can be credited to the 100-plus workers from Bengal who toiled on it.

Thriving with life

Initially, there was talk of turning the space into a museum. “If you put so much cost into restoring a building, then why convert it into a museum? It is not a money earner,” says Chakraborti. In its third year now, the restored tavern is a popular hangout for locals as well as those coming from Kolkata and the surrounding districts. Some take a cab, some cover half the distance by local train, and then there are those who prefer the ferry.

The area is fairly quiet, but by sundown, every other sound gets drowned out by the birds. As night falls, lights come alive and the river glitters like molten gold. The large verandah, overlooking a narrow street and a wide expanse of the river, is filled with the aroma of roast chicken and Danish pastry.

Patrons settle down with their meals and drinks. In the distance, ferries lit in psychedelic lights float past, their passengers singing songs of Kishore Kumar, set to what sounds like orchestral background music. Trees sway, their leaves rustling melodiously, and a cool breeze frolics through the imposing façade, caressing each face and dishevelling hair. In that moment, all that matters is being alive and present in the now.

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 1:39:17 PM |

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