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Philistinism is now official

The ugliness of the new Writers’ on Camac Street is a metaphor for our callousness and our indifference to things of beauty, says Soumitra Das

writers’ buildings has a new address. It is 4 Camac Street. Many offices from the government’s Dalhousie Square seat of power will, some time in the near future, shift to the latter. Apart from this single point of convergence, the 18th century structure with an elegant neo-classical façade and the turn-of-the-millennium blister on Camac Street are separated by an unbridgeable gap in the perception of aesthetics.

Over the past five decades, philistinism has acquired the official stamp of approval. The new building beside Sir Biren Mookerjee’s mansion bears all the unsightly hallmarks of PWD handiwork. It is huge, it is squat, it is shiny.

The only other structure built on this scale and comparable in ugliness is Vidyut Bhavan in Salt Lake. The Bhavan looks like a grounded spaceship too heavy to defy the gravitational pull and take off.

But that the government doesn’t give a damn about an indefinable thing like beauty becomes quite clear if one takes a careful look at the pediment above the entrance of Writers’. The new arm that has been recently grafted on the figure standing on top of the pediment looks gnarled and withered — like a fractured limb after a quack has tried his hand at it.

Perhaps for the government it is only a negligible detail, and why should it be bothered with such minor things when it has much bigger problems to lose sleep over' But it is this very attitude that is symptomatic of the callousness of those who have held sway over us, irrespective of political hue. And culture cannot thrive in a moral vacuum.

But what better can be expected of a city where Chowringhee, once one of the most glamorous hotspots of Asia, has turned into a shanty town with its shoddy highrises, the gutted Firpo’s Market, rundown century-old houses, and cinemas, once the home of Hollywood stars, now pick-up joints, or worse, showrooms of cutprice readymades' Charles Correa calls Calcutta “a real city” because of its colonial buildings. But mayor Subrata Mukherjee dismisses it as “heritage pheritage”. So we happily demolish such buildings and float plans for the makeover of cinema halls that have become a byword in Calcutta’s oral tradition.

Calcutta’s decline may have started after the capital shifted in 1910, but it is only after Independence that all aesthetic considerations with regard to its built environment were thrown to the winds.

In those magnificent 18th century views of Chowringhee as recorded by the Daniells, James Moffat, J.B. Fraser and Charles D’Oyly, the road is a grand concourse of buildings, their chunam plaster gleaming in the sun like alabaster. Now we have jerrybuildings, forlorn and grey after prolonged exposure to exhaust fumes.

Such indifference to the environment in which we live stems from our indifference to things of beauty. We can’t think of displaying in our homes anything beyond hideous pictures of divinities and political leaders or calendars. In the same way, a building to us is just four concrete walls with holes punched in for breathing. This indifference can be attributed to the absence of any form of aesthetic education in our school curricula. We don’t realise that money cannot buy structural beauty. It is also a state of mind.

We have produced a Habibur Rahman, and his brainchild, the New Secretariat Building. It was the country’s first multi-storeyed structure. But after a giant like Habibur, the PWD has only created panjandrums who wear blinkers. After a gap of about 40 years, Prabir Mitra conceptualised the VSNL building, a landmark. But such exceptions are hopelessly outnumbered by the tacky idiom we have evolved all by ourselves.

However, the government alone should not take credit for spawning ugliness. The middle-class Bengali is equally responsible. Octogenarian artist Paritosh Sen recounts how in the 50s, neighbourhoods like Jadavpur and Lake Gardens started burgeoning after middle-class Bengalis frenetically began to build houses on kerchief-size plots.

The builders became their own architects. Unplanned rows of dwelling boxes separated only by narrow lanes were replicated all over the tracts that once belonged to the Bangurs. Their walls were flimsy, and glazed windows turned the interiors into ovens. Soon the art of making blinds, ideal for tropical climes, was forgotten.

Housing history was repeated in Salt Lake, though on a more bizarre note. The builders there had more money to spare, and so they could afford to showcase their bad taste. They let their lurid imaginations run riot by fabricating houses that resembled ocean liners, or humungous tabla-shaped water tanks.

Till the other day, we used to jokingly refer to Santoshpur as the “Bangladesh border”, because it seemed to be in the back of beyond. Now, on a recent visit I discovered that by some magic this hinterland has turned into a poor man’s Salt Lake with its full complement of mean dwelling houses.

When we do try out something grand our limited imaginations can only throw up cheap and tacky constructions. In the past few years, scores of department stores have sprouted all over the posh neighbourhoods. These are basically huge glass-fronted boxes. Appended to them are faux classical features such as rows of pilasters with jungles of acanthus or elaborate wrought iron portals, Raj Bhavan or Rashtrapati Bhavan fashion. The effort is as ludicrous as trying to make Chantilly lace out of coconut coir, or, as they say, a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

In Delhi, they have the Urban Arts Commission to hold in check our natural impulse to propagate ugliness. Bhubaneswar has such a body, too. In our city, on the other hand, the Calcutta Municipal Corporation has abolished the powerful and prestigious post of city architect, who used to supervise the planning of roads and the building of houses.

He has been replaced with the chief municipal engineer (building). Neither structural beauty nor conceiving a structure in its totality is part of the training of engineers. Unfortunately, civil engineers have a stranglehold on both the Corporation and the PWD hindering creative activity.

Calcutta has never had the fortune of a visionary like Corbusier ever working here. Besides planning Chandigarh, the great architect had also designed some private residences in Ahmedabad. So Ahmedabad has inherited a rich tradition of beautiful homes and office buildings. This has been facilitated by the presence of Balkrishna Doshi and enlightened industrialists who have commissioned architects to design for them. However great, architects cannot survive unless commissioned projects.

In the early 60s, Correa had designed a house on Ballygunge Circular Road and another on Palm Avenue for the Sens of Sen Raleigh fame. The latter has been changed beyond recognition. After years, he is building a prestigious city centre in Salt Lake. Perhaps, he will set an example many others would like to emulate. Perhaps, it will save the city from an even more hideous future.

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