Kolkata

Old warehouse unfolds treasure-trove of artefacts about Kolkata’s colonial past

Biplab Roy, the current Administrator General and Official Trustee of West Bengal, with a sketch of British Military officer and painter James Hunter. Photo: Special Arrangement

Biplab Roy, the current Administrator General and Official Trustee of West Bengal, with a sketch of British Military officer and painter James Hunter. Photo: Special Arrangement

A war-plane landing at Kolkata’s Eden Garden during the years of World War I, women participating in a cremation at city’s Keoratala crematorium, water bodies surrounding Calcutta High Court, a bridge on river Hooghly predating the iconic Howrah Bridge and hundreds of such never seen photographs and sketches have recently been discovered from an old warehouse in Kolkata.

The warehouse of the Office of the Administrator General and Official Trustee, West Bengal, which was lying in neglect, had not only revealed priceless images but also pieces of gold, silver and precious jewels. “We have recovered photographs, sketches and other valuables worth crores of rupees,” Biplab Roy, the current Administrator General and Official Trustee of West Bengal told  The Hindu.

The New Secretariat Building, housing the Office of the Administrator General and Official Trustee, West Bengal, stands at the corner of Strand Road overlooking river Hooghly and lies next to the neo-gothic structure of the Calcutta High Court. Mr. Roy said that the warehouse of the Office on the ground floor of the New Secretariat Building was not opened for decades.

From the ground floor warehouse, the documents and artefacts were recently brought to the 10th floor of the building, where they were sorted out one by one.

Estate, property without legal heir

The Office of the Administrator General and Official Trustee, West Bengal, is today responsible for the maintenance of hundreds of prime properties and large parcels of land in Kolkata and the rest of the State. As per the laws of British India, any estate or property that did not have any legal heir would pass into the hands of the Administrator General. This well could have been the reason how the valuables landed at the warehouse.

Mr. Roy delved a little into the history of the Office of the Administrator General and Official Trustee, West Bengal. Mr. Roy said that the first Act relating to Administrator General of Bengal was passed in 1874, which was then amended by another Act in 1913. There was also an Official Trustee Act, which was in effect from the 1870’s. In 1916, the office of Administrator General and the Official Trustee were merged and the office of Administrator General and Official Trustee came into being and has continued to function since then.

Priceless photos restored, framed

The recently discovered images at the warehouse have all been painstakingly preserved, restored and framed. Mr. Roy, a judicial officer who holds the rank of a District Judge, is particularly fond of a sketch by British military official and artist James Hunter. A sketch titled  The Delhi Gate of Bangalore by James Hunter, dating back to 1792, is carefully preserved in one of the wardrobes of the office.

“We are planning to have an exhibition of these images at Kolkata’s Town Hall titled ‘The City and The People’. Also subject to the permission of the government, we are ready to sell a few copies of these priceless photographs,” Mr. Roy said. He explained that most of the photographs were taken by unnamed British photographers in key areas like Hooghly riverfront, New Market, site of Black Hole and prominent markets and streets of the city in the late 19th and early 20th century.

“Many of the photographs had turned brittle. Recovering it and restoring it was a huge challenge. We took help of experts from Indian Museum and prominent photo studios of the city so that these images can be recovered, restored and brought before the people of city,” Mr. Roy said.

Subham Dutta, senior news photographer, who has been associated with the restoration of these photographs, said that these photos chronicle people and the past of our beloved city with great precision. “Though there is an element of an orientalist gaze, yet the beauty and the historical significance of these photographs are immense,” Mr. Dutta said.

Mr. Dutta and Mr. Roy pointed out in one of the recently recovered photographs titled ‘Silversmith at work’ that the heads of the workers have been shaved in a particular manner, most likely so that silver dust did not deposit in their hair

Discovery of artefacts

The process of the discovery was as fascinating as the artefacts themselves.

Mr. Roy said that the warehouse on the ground floor of the New Secretariat Building was covered with several feet of dust. “I was always curious as to what the old records would contain, documents that may have historical significance. So, towards end October 2021, we started looking at what was stored in the warehouse,” he added. There was no electricity in the warehouse and officials and the staff started going through the records in torchlight day after day. While thousands of records of property deeds and documents were found, one by one these photographs and artefacts started surfacing.

In the office of Administrator General and Official Trustee of West Bengal that is under CCTV surveillance, Mr. Roy has also preserved some precious stones, a small diamond and ruby among others that was also found from the rubble. There are gold buttons and medals of gold, swords with sheaths of silver and gold, beautiful crockery that have been recovered. 


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Printable version | Jul 17, 2022 9:34:06 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/old-warehouse-unfolds-treasure-trove-of-artefacts-about-kolkatas-colonial-past/article65647596.ece