The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Paved with china chips

Hundreds and thousands of small, irregular pieces of broken porcelain were once used to embellish the surfaces and floors of dwelling houses, temples, mosques and eateries in Mumbai and Calcutta. Known as crazy paving (some say mosaic), these shards of china, some patterned but mostly white or blue, turned buildings into pieces of gleaming jewellery that stood out a mile. Bijou, in the true sense of the term.

The most striking of structures decorated in this fashion is the Parasvanath Jain temple of Maniktala. This fantastic, quaint shrine with a pond in front and Palitana-fashion shikhara is still encrusted with tiny chips of porcelain in floral motifs. Most of these gleaming china pieces have dropped off but what remains still makes this temple a very precious example of a craft that has all but disappeared.

Crazy paving may remind one of the work of architect Antoni Gaudi, who had created a huge undulating bench of the same material in a park in Barcelona. This form of embellishment was very popular in Latin American and Spain and other Hispanic cultures.

Pieces of china were used maybe because they had a cooling effect on the interiors in climes that were relatively warm by European standards. Perhaps it has something to do with the Islamic occupation of Spain but few have any idea of how crazy paving arrived in India.

I asked pioneering potter Ira Chaudhuri if she had any clue. All she could say was that in Mumbai, where she grew up, there used to be several houses owned by Parsis with crazy paving, which was locally called “kodi” floor, which was a popular term for porcelain even among Bengalis. Now most of them have disappeared.

Although developers are playing havoc in Calcutta too, things are not as bad as in Mumbai. So some buildings and eateries where crazy china was used have survived. There are still some houses in the Ripon Street-Eliot Road neighbourhoods — Anglo-Indian heartland of yore — where one can find houses with traces of crazy china flooring. The shards gleam like mother of pearl through the layers of cement.

If one looks carefully, one can detect some Muslim eateries resplendent in crazy china. There is a particularly beautiful example on Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road diagonally opposite Wellesley Square. Inside this eatery, which must be close to a century, green creepers grow all over the walls against the white background.

I saw some beautiful crazy china on the oven of a tiny little eatery in Colootolla. Beef kebabs are cooked in it. One evening I had stumbled upon some beauties in a most unlikely place — a potato godown behind Futnani Chambers at the other end of Society cinema, closer to Rani Rashmoni’s house in Janbazar. The flowering creepers were clearly etched out against the dark walls.

But to catch sight of two truly spectacular examples one has to travel from one end of the city to the other and beyond — Bagbazar and Barisha, close to Behala.

Siddheswari Kali temple in Bagbazar is opposite Gobindaram Mitter’s once-lofty Black Pagoda. There is little worth seeing in this temple dedicated to Ginnikali (housewife), as the deity is locally known. Except for the stunning crazy china flowers which could have been painted by Jogen Chowdhury. Even more remarkable is the lettering in Bengali announcing the names of the sebayets (those who have the right to perform puja) all over the walls. Though much of the crazy china on the pillars has been effaced whatever remains is unique.

The dargah of Moulali close to Sealdah station was once a fine example of crazy paving. It has lost that beautiful skin for years, but the sanctum sanctorum where crazy china glowed till the other day is now being replaced with tiles in the name of repairs.

There is, however, a showstopper of a mosque in faraway Barisha. It is at 109 Diamond Harbour Road, and according to a small plaque, it is wakf estate which belonged to Azimunnesa Bibi and Amina Bibi. It is a tiny, feminine mosque with graceful minars and a flat dome. Severe geometric designs relieved by crazy china flowers cover all of the structure.

A few paces away from it is a crazy china notice board which reads: Established 1929, Azimunnesa Free School, Barisa. Was the mosque too built in that year'

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