A beautiful vine, thick with foliage, flowers and fruits, made of sturdy cast iron, once spun around the spiral staircase in the courtyard of my childhood home, long replaced by an apartment block. The fantastical staircase, being old and fragile, used to be out of bounds for us, and was primarily used to sun my grandma’s pickle jars.
Between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, Kolkata saw a surge in building activity. The British began replicating the famous buildings they knew, experimenting at times across styles, for an ‘exotic Asia’ feel. The Calcutta High Court, built in 1862, is a replica of the Stadt-Hausin Ypres and the Government House(now the Raj Bhavan)built in 1803, was modelled after Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire.
“All this building activity not only gave Calcutta unique features like an underground drainage system but also access to newer aesthetics of living that percolated to all sections of society,” says Manish Chakraborti, a prominent city architect.
Chakraborti, who recently won a Unesco award, is now restoring the historic gate and entrance hall staircases of Serampore College. These had been gifted by Danish King Frederick VI in 1819. The intricate cast iron gate with pillars and lamp holders and the massive double flight of stairs with a fretwork pattern between the steps were all made in Birmingham and shipped to India. The gate is a whopping six metres wide and three metres tall and weighs 20 tonnes.
Gateway to heaven
It was a time when the foreigners were bringing in everything from their own countries. In the mid-18th century, the rich Armenian trader Manvel Hazaar Maliyan had shipped in an elaborate cast iron facade for a Hooghly ghat essential to the Armenian trade in spices and precious stones. The Armenian Ghat, as it has since been known, was spectacular: a lacy cast iron canopy with arches and pillars that shaded it.
The gate for the Victoria Memorial building was designed by Vincent Esch in 1921 and shipped in whole from England, as was the intricately patterned cast iron lift cage of Government House, the country’s first lift installed in 1892.
And it wasn’t just railings, stairs and gates that were ornate. Rain water pipes with decorative fastenings to hold them in place and elaborate pipe heads find place in an old catalogue of Glasgow’s famous (now closed) foundry Walter MacFarlane and Co. It was this company that fashioned the lion crest that’s still visible in Raj Bhavan.
Soon, Bengali merchants, zamindars, munshis and baniyas developed a fascination for design catalogues of leading foundries in England and Scotland, such as the pattern book by Lewis Nockalls Cottingham and The Smith and Founder’s Director . To them, it was only appropriate to adopt the new hallmark and style of power. And thus was spawned a new style. Doric, Ionic, Baroque, Gothic and Saracenic converged with traditional Bengali in palaces and mansions and public parks. Soon, Bengalis too began importing everything from railings, statues and clocks, to weathervanes, grilles, gates, canopies, pillars and even urinals.
Greece in Bengal
The homes of the Lahas, Mullicks, Sens and Roys, the Tagores, Mitras and Ghoshes, the Setts and Singlia were filled with geometric Greek motifs, European fleur-de-lis, Tudor rose, daisies, anthemions and palmettes.
As demand grew, Indian blacksmiths entered the fray, setting up workshops on the other side of the Ganges along Howrah’s Belilious Lane. These craftsmen expertly imitated the imported designs, created make-to-order spares, repaired old ware and took on new assignments. Locally-made cast iron items became affordable to more people, and by the early 1900s upper middle-class houses flaunted distinctive cast iron grilles, bells and whistles. Soon, the zamindars wrought variations, adding religious motifs or family insignia.
In 1937, entrepreneur R.L. Dutta opened a cast iron shop on Nirmal Chandra Street. The workshop was in Howrah. Beginning with repairs and small orders, his company, Dutta, Ghosh and Co. soon started to work for the emerging giant Tata and for Mackintosh Burn Ltd, creating everything from water tanks to ornamental art deco. They had few competitors.
Sadly, much of the city’s beautiful hand-crafted cast iron heritage was sold as scrap during the building demolition spree of the 70s and 80s. Much has been pilfered too. The Armenian Ghat’s canopy now only exists in a photograph by colonial era photographer Chevalier Federico Peliti.
Where they still remain, the pieces are doing well, often better than the buildings themselves. That’s because cast iron is tough and weather proof. Down Old Court House Street are stylised road guards, which, with a little care and cleaning would be as good as new.
Thankfully, the need to preserve this heritage is now being recognised. Many Kolkata architects have taken on repair and restoration work. For instance, the railings and gate of the Treasury Building, constructed between 1882 and 1884 by architect E.J. Martin, have been recently restored. The decorative iron beams, pillars and stairs of the central hall of the Standard Life Assurance Building, designed by Frederick W. Stevens (who designed Victoria Terminus) and the Gillander House gate, with its large motif of lion-headed shields, are in line for a facelift.
Chakraborti explains that repairing is a difficult process: matching the original with the newer bits or welding an alloy with a low melting point in situ are challenges. But happily, homes with significant collectibles are not being torn down now as often as they used to be, he says. “And even if they are, there are people who may pick up the cast iron or other features,” says G.M. Kapur, regional head of Intach. Kapur himself has reinstalled cast iron balustrades and stained glass skylights that he rescued from the rubble of the British Deputy High Commission building when it was demolished.
“Business is looking good again,” says Sumit Dutta, a third-generation owner of Dutta, Ghosh and Co. People are buying grilles, gates, spiral staircases, but also ‘vintage’ lamp posts and gazebos. Dutta has orders for a park in Gangtok, for fountains in Bangkok and even for film and television sets.
The Kolkata-based writer is passionate about the arts, past and present.