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River retreats

Few things are as dazzling as Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. But she faced competition when she visited the banks of the Hooghly recently to shoot for Mani Ratnam’s film.

“No visit to Calcutta is complete without an excursion on the river,” wrote Julian Cotton, ICS, at the turn of the 20th century. His statement still holds true. Filmmaker Ratnam may or may not have heard of this civil servant from British India, but he must have realised that the river is the city’s comfort zone, and it is Calcutta at its most picturesque.

Paris and its graceful, airy bridges over the river Seine have inspired a good number of Hollywood films from Gigi to Can Can. Vivien Leigh burned the Thames forever in our memory as she jumped off Waterloo Bridge. More recently, Joseph Fiennes as the Bard romanced on this river that used to stink in his time in Shakespeare in Love, and the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough opened with a boat chase on the same river.

For no fault of its own, all of the Hooghly banks may not look as pretty as the Thames or Seine riversides, but the river still has the houses on both its sides that are things of beauty.

In the late 1940s, Jean Renoir came down to the city to shoot The River. The son of the great Impressionist artist was drawn by atmospherics. Since then, a number of films, especially those shot by filmmakers from outside the city or the country, have featured the set-piece boat-ride showcasing the river. Till Mani Ratnam in Ravana, featuring Ms Rai Bachchan and her husband Abhishek, chose to highlight the glamour and beauty of the white-and-blue bungalow popularly called Saheb Kuthi, the guesthouse of the Agarpara Jute Mill on the northern fringes of the city. Which, though made of concrete, is no less exquisite than Ms Rai Bachchan.

The new-rich Brits or nabobs built splendid mansions along the Hooghly, none of which has survived. However, Saheb Kuthi is not the only showpiece here. It’s just one of Calcutta’s forgotten bevy of beauties dotting the banks of the Hooghly. Most of these — relics of the almost dead jute industry of Bengal — are examples of handsome colonial architecture.

Only suffering, unlike Ms Rai Bachchan, from age and neglect. Both banks of the river are dotted with innumerable unnamed bungalows belonging to defunct jute and flour mills, officers’ quarters in factories, crumbling villas that also served as warehouses, stately homes turned government office buildings, derelict godowns and acre after acre of picturesque properties of the Calcutta Port Trust that could be dream destinations for film crews or as weekend retreats.

Bleak, gritty, lean and mean and yet photogenic in a Bladerunner and Chinatown way, the abandoned railway godowns along Foreshore Road near Ramkrishnapur ghat in Howrah and further down could turn into gangland without any make-up. It is easy to picture Akshay Kumar pursued by thugs flying from one roof to another in these perfect examples of mid-Victorian architecture, with exposed brickwork, now scabby, but once uniformly painted red.

Rattling house

Roland Joffe had not needed any prompting. Several shots of City of Joy were taken in Putul Bari, the most ornate and dramatic building near the Sovabazar jetty. It was once a warehouse with the marble-lined top floor used as the owner’s residence. It stands out from far off, as stationed on top is a centurion with two unclothed maidens inspired by classical statuary to keep him company. Even at night, its shadowy but distinct form stands out against the dark sky, mysterious and enchanting like the house in Tagore’s story Manihara, whose mistress had an unnatural craving for jewellery.

But the house shakes, rattles and rolls every time the circular rail passes by, and it is uncertain how much longer it will last.

It is not accidental that architect Charles Correa has for years cried himself hoarse to attract the government’s attention to the development of the banks of the river that is the city’s lifeline. About seven years ago, on one of his visits to the city, he had stressed that Calcutta was being “pulled away from the river” like London. Like Paris or Rio de Janeiro, it should be a “celebration of the river... Varanasi should be a better model for Calcutta,” he said.

Although his repeated pleas fell on deaf ears, Correa has always emphasised the preservation of Calcutta’s heritage buildings and the houses along the riverfront.

The state government, Calcutta Municipal Corporation and the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority have apparently taken up multi-crore projects to beautify the banks with walkways and refurbish the 41 ghats along the Hooghly. But there is little progress.

A few ghats away from Putulbari is Baranagar, where wealthy Bengalis once built their garden houses, close to the city yet comparatively peaceful. If one sails down the river towards Belur Math one cannot miss the red signboards of the Eveready factory in Cossipore that closed down after the Bhopal disaster. The factory is flanked by two old properties, the one on the left crowned with a turret, Rajasthani style. This building on Ratan Babu Road is overshadowed by Cossipore Institution. Local people say it was built by a Dutch named Forte who had a jute mill press here.

An old durwan, who could switch roles with Cerberus, the canine gatekeeper to the netherworld, looks after the house now.

Its current owner’s office is in Burrabazar. It may look prosaic from outside but from the Hooghly it appears haunting. On the other side of the Eveready factory is the thakurbari of Paikpara Rajbati with a pretty ghat of its own and acres of land behind it, on which stand the main shrine with the deity within it, and an adjoining mansion that could crumble any day.

At Alambazar near Dakshineswar stands Tagore Villa that was once the summer retreat of the Tagores of Pathuriaghat. This house amidst a huge tract of land next to Bally bridge is occupied by the Border Security Force that acquired it in the late 1960s and turned it into officer’s quarters. That symbolises Bengal’s way of paying its debt to the past.

Cruise down the river

Still further down, way after crossing Dakshineswar and Agarpara is Barrackpore, and nestled amid the sprawling parkland is the Government House, which served as the summer retreat for the British rulers of India.

Surrounded by trees and the statues of Brit bigwigs that were uprooted from their positions of eminence in the heart of the city and installed in the solitary splendour of this nook, it has steps leading down to the river.

On special evenings, when the pathway strewn with pebbles is lit with hurricane lanterns, it looks quite magical. One can almost hear the susurrus of silk gowns. How about a full English breakfast in its sun-shaded verandahs?

Not that such a possibility has not crossed certain minds. Francis Wacziarg of Neemrana Fort fame, who visited Chandernagore earlier this month, and has been looking for suitable buildings that can be turned into heritage hotels, suggests a cruise on the Hooghly to cover some of these heritage destinations.

“There need not be places to live in in all of them. There should be two or three places. They can stay in one and have lunch in another,” he says. Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi is keen on such a project.

The cruise vessel would perhaps then slow down at Chanak, a tiny settlement off Barrackpore on way to Gandhighat. It is a secluded spot on the river where the beautiful Annapurna temple is located, and next to its “bejewelled” spire is a large double-storeyed building that looks as European as the shrine is Bengali.

The house has a tower and a porch. But the view from the river is blocked by an ugly new house in front. Local lore has it that the old building was constructed by a Dutch indigo planter, and this perhaps could not be written off as a figment of imagination. For on the opposite bank are the former European settlements of Serampore and Chandernagore.

The house with the shrine belongs to a trust and is now let out to the fire brigade.

So as of now, on the beautiful banks of the Hooghly, with no sign of an approaching cruise launch or another big film crew or government interest, if the BSF doesn’t get you, the fire brigade will. Maybe that’s why Mani Ratnam picked Saheb Kuthi to shoot his Ravana.

The fairest of them all

It would not be an exaggeration to say that BNR House in Garden Reach is the prettiest of all the bungalows on the Hooghly. It belongs to the South-Eastern Railway (once known as BNR) and is close to its red headquarters building, but unlike the latter it is dainty and small. It has a garden with flowerbeds in front and serves as the residence of the general manager. Modern apartment blocks rise behind it but this is built on classical lines. It was constructed in 1846 and its design was apparently inspired by the Temple of Winds of Athens. The latter was also the inspiration behind Metcalfe Hall on Strand Road.

The agents of BNR used to live here once, but it served as home for many eminent personages, the most famous of them being Wajid Ali Shah, the nawab of Oudh. The nawab arrived in Calcutta on May 6, 1856, and after his release from Fort William, he was allotted this building as his residence. In those days, it is said, it was called Parikhana, perhaps a reference to the ousted ruler’s habit of becoming enamoured of any woman he set his eyes on. The Garden Reach area was called Muchikhola then.

The other important person who called this house his home was Sir Lawrence Peel, the chief justice of India in the 1850s. Sir TR Wynne, the first agent of BNR, lived in this house from 1897 to 1902 along with Lady Wynne, his children and grandchildren.

Earlier these premises also housed the Central Hospital, whose dental clinic had equipment imported from Czechoslovakia. The building is raised on a solid but ornamental basement and columns that are 36 feet in height and 28 in number. Originally the rear of the building had six more pillars, which have been demolished. The agents’ jetty is still used as a ferry ghat to embark on launches to reach Howrah and Shalimar on the opposite bank.

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