Heritage Society

A new project will document the iconic ‘messbaris’ or boarding houses of Kolkata

The colonial-era Central Calcutta Boarding House with its beautiful cast-iron railings.   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

Ruby Boarding House on Kolkata’s Sitaram Ghosh Street is large, with a narrow entrance and a balustrade that runs along a row of small rooms facing a square inner courtyard. At the entrance is a signboard with room numbers on it. A young man in a blue tee and cargo shorts looks at us curiously across the courtyard; then introduces himself as Wasim Akram. He is studying for the West Bengal Civil Service exams, and shares his small room with Badiuzzaman from Malda and Sheikh Samsul Islam from Howrah. A row of washing hangs from a rope strung across the room, and a tiny veranda faces the street.

Ruby Boarding House is a messbari. The Benglish phrase refers to the many, hugely popular boarding houses that sprang up all around Kolkata’s College Street in the 19th and mid-20th century — equivalents of today’s working men’s hostels. By the early 1900s, they were housing and feeding thousands of young men who had come to the big city in search of jobs and education.

They were an indelible part of the cityscape of North Kolkata for more than a century. From Tagore’s Kalipada, Bibhutibhushan’s Apu and Sharadindu’s Byomkesh in literature, to Basanta Bilap and Sharey Chuattor in cinema, Bengali popular culture is replete with depictions of messbari life.

On the decline

Housed in colonial-era buildings with their long, slatted Venetian windows, exquisite cast-iron stairs and railings, beautiful courtyards and columns, the messbaris and the life they represent is firmly on the decline. Young men no longer want to live in these ramshackle places, and the few that function too will soon be gone.

Ruby Boarding House has slatted Venetian windows and exquisite cast-iron stairs.

Ruby Boarding House has slatted Venetian windows and exquisite cast-iron stairs.   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

Crumbling and forgotten, the buildings and their messbari culture would soon have disappeared entirely from the city’s cultural landscape, both physically and from memory, had it not been for Heritage Walk Calcutta’s 2017 web-series Sutanuti Diaries. The pilot episode featured various messbaris in dire need of conservation. The project was meant to be simply a video documentation, but by the time architect Anmol Grover, historian Barshana Basu and English literature student Dipanwita Paul came on board in December 2018, it had become much more than that. The Messbari Project was launched in January this year as an official effort to preserve the records of these messbaris.

Armed with training in field research, ethnography, oral history and archival research, and documentation, the team conducted surveys. “In the end, we identified 26 messbaris still functioning,” says Grover. In fact, the trio discovered that Writer’s Building, Metcalfe Hall, the Fairlawn and Grand (now, Oberoi Grand) hotels had all begun life as boarding houses. The three pored over two street directories from 1915 and 1935 and found lists of boarding houses belonging to Marwaris, Goans, South Indians, and Europeans. What had started as hostels run mostly by British women for merchants, clerks and officers of the Raj had expanded slowly to other communities.

Grover deduces the building’s age from the shape of the bricks, the colonial arches, columns, the iron stairways and wooden window slats. In Nripendra Boarding House, for instance, the team discovered a steel beam inscribed with ‘Frodingham Iron and Steel Company, Scunthorpe’. By tracking the company, they were able to date the house to the 1860s or 1870s.

Visual reminder

Ruby Boarding House is hot and cramped, but Akram says he stays here because his coaching classes are nearby and friends can drop in easily. And the rents are still very low, sometimes as low as ₹1,000 a month, often inclusive of meals. Harida is the general factotum at Ruby, and as he climbs up the spiral staircase in the courtyard with a loaf of bread and a bottle of water “for the kids,” he grins at me. One street away, on Narendra Sen Square is Central Calcutta Boarding House. Suparno Das, a chemistry student, moved in here about a month ago. He says the place has ‘fewer restrictions’ than PGs.

The colonial-era Ruby Boarding House.

The colonial-era Ruby Boarding House.   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

Messbaris were not always this decrepit. Kalyan Boarding House on Surya Sen Street in North Kolkata was where famous writer Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, of Apu fame, once lived. And on Muktaram Babu Street, Khetra Kuthi Messbari was once home to famed Bengali humorist and revolutionary Shibram Chakraborty. Today, the building is dilapidated and the approach littered with vegetable waste. I step past a sleepy dog and through the low, dark entrance into a kitchen whose walls are covered with soot from decades of coal-fires, and meet a well-dressed man on his way out. Indranil Chakraborty, an accountant, used to live here once, and has dropped by to visit a friend. Was it difficult to stay here? He shrugs: “It was convenient.”

When Tathagata Neogi, the co-founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta, and the team reached out to the West Bengal Heritage Commission, asking to save the messbaris, they were told the first step was tangible documentation. The project team has now created a basic, open-access documentation database, and also started an Instagram account as a ‘visual reminder’.

The team is now working on heritage policy, as well as holding workshops and awareness programmes with the communities who live here. “Communities are scared of the very word ‘heritage’ because to them it signifies gentrification. They think the moment their building gets a heritage tag, their rights will end. That’s not true, and we want them to know that,” says Grover.

The ultimate goal is to piece together a local history of the city of Kolkata, beyond its colonial past, as Grover explains: “The people who can give us information are old, they carry all the history with them. It has to be passed on to us now. We are trying to piece together these local histories.”

The writer is a journalist, poet, blogger and translator from Kolkata.

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 5:02:33 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/a-new-project-will-document-the-iconic-messbaris-or-boarding-houses-of-kolkata/article29308516.ece

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