The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Victoriana in sear

Why do I write these dry pieces on old, often dilapidated buildings, about which neither the government nor the individual citizen is bothered, particularly at a time when we are told that so many interesting things are happening here'

Yes, nobody can deny that globalisation has at last caught up with our battered city. How can we, when, borne on flyovers, we are whizzing past the terraces of the Indian Museum on Chowringhee and Rabindra Sadan and Calcutta Club' We shop for our daily bread and threads at humongous, multi-storeyed bazaars and malls, instead of the sordid local market. And if we are lucky enough, we live and work in concrete boxes, preferably fronted with glass.

Such being the case, what is the need for preserving either the city’s “white” heritage or those white elephants in north Calcutta which give their poor landlords sleepless nights'

The only argument that can be proffered in their defence is that in a city, where, post-Independence, not a single aesthetically-pleasing or distinctive building has come up, at least the older specimens of architecture (does it matter that these are bastardised forms') have aged gracefully and are still the best things Calcutta can offer. Even the administration has made a grudging admission of the same. These are the only antidote to the ugliness that we are spawning.

Look at Free School Street without Dunlop House and you realise that my argument does hold water.

What’s more, if properly looked after, old buildings can generate revenue. This is done in major cities all over the world, and if landlords stand to gain by it, is there any reason why they would not do it'

The same big-time realtors, who are sure they have the birth right to plant a dense forest of matchboxes after clearing impediments such as beautiful, old buildings, would give their eye teeth to shop at Selfridge’s in London.

But this sprawling shop has looked the same way for ages and will continue to do so. Surely, globalisation has revealed this much to all of us.

The final and clinching argument is courtesy the governor himself. At a recent meet on conservation, he said that we must not look upon colonial buildings as Raj relics but as examples of the fine workmanship and skill of our local artisans and untrained masons. That their work was of a superior order can easily be made out from the quality of brickwork in old buildings which cannot be replicated.

Now back to the heart of Dalhousie Square. Last week I had covered a few of the buildings there. This time, it is the turn of the more notable office buildings on Netaji Subhash Road, former Clive Street. It has everything from Greek to exotic Indian.

The old office of Martin & Co is standard 20th century cement box on top and Indo-Saracenic torso downwards. With its verandahs and loads of terracotta ornaments, including peacocks spreading out their fantails, it demonstrates how Victorians incorporated Indian exotica into their designs. But later intervention has killed the red-and-cream building occupied, among others, by the West Bengal Financial Corporation.

Nonetheless, it complements the ungainliness of Coal Bhawan adjacent to it.

The square, white, colonnaded office of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce, the oldest such body in India, was built in 1917 on a spot traditionally believed to have been the site where stood the residence of Philip Francis, bete noir of Warren Hastings, and of Robert Clive earlier.

The Royal Exchange — the words are still prominently written on the cornice — was on the ground floor of this three-storeyed building. Hundreds of pigeons have left their mark on the columns, three storeys high.

The chamber is a “trade union of companies”, says Bhaskar Mitter, who was once its president. “It holds dialogues with the authorities concerned. Earlier, it was with the Centre. But now it organises seminars and meetings with state government officers on issues which affect business as a whole, like taxation,” adds Mitter.

“In those days it looked better from outside as the grilles erected around the banks on the groundfloor were not there. But with the introduction of air-conditioning, it has become more comfortable inside.”

The grand staircase, like the floors, is lined with marble. Solemnly-dressed Victorian gentlemen stare at whoever enters Williamson Magor Hall on the first floor. There is a smaller staircase of red cement inside the building. Some of its slim brass newel posts have shaken off their heads. A corridor is lined with black-and-white photographs of presidents past. Old clocks, prints, statuettes and sundry Victoriana are strewn all over. The clock on the terrace lights up in the evening.

Chartered Bank Buildings is visible from the Hooghly, its domes bobbing between the Eastern Railway building and Mackinnon & Mackenzie when seen from a boat. The bank moved out some time ago and the ground floor is vacant. But the unchanged signage provides a piece of information. Belonging to the Burdwan royal family, it was constructed in 1908. The office of the once thriving now near-defunct Bird & Company is on the first floor, its walls plastered with posters screaming war. With its red and white bands and its height, it stands out although it has fallen into sear. But the trees that have struck their roots into gleam like hair in shampoo ads.

The girth of Gillander House and its extended curved façade that reaches Clive Row makes up for its lack of height. It has two wings and stone-clad towers capped by domes at either end. Stone is used to dress the projecting top storey supported by brackets.

This gorgeous structure — a cross between Lutyens and Victoria Memorial — was earlier known as Clive Building. It was constructed in 1909. The twin towers have upright, rectangular windows covered with fish-scale-shaped glass in their lead setting. The same design is repeated in the huge cast-iron gates. All the entrances to the building — it has several — are topped with marble lattice-work, held up by squat pillars. Brass elephants raise their trunks in salutation above every arched window on the ground floor. A wide cobbled pathway, used to park cars, divides the two wings.

Gillanders Arbuthnot & Co Ltd, once a British managing agency, is 175 years old and owns the building that covers 125 cottahs and more. It has a startlingly modern office on the top floor. The building is fully tenanted now. It wouldn’t used to be earlier, says G.N. Pathak, a senior officer. So the building is being given a coat of fresh make-up.

Victorian architects seemed to have had a thing for Ganymedes. Rows of these beautiful boys hold up the cornice of the Oriental Assurance Buildings adjacent to Gillander’s on Clive Rows. The wooden awnings above the windows are intact. A large star surrounded by the sun shines in the pediment in the central bay. But there is nothing sunny about the building of 1914 vintage. Like most LIC buildings — and it owns some of the best — this is in a deplorable state. LIC is rolling in public money.

One is not, however, surprised that Yule House is a forlorn desert of vacant office space. Once a giant — its operations included tea gardens, collieries, a newspaper, shipping… you name it — it was taken over by the government in the 1970s and has now been referred to the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction.

Yule House spells symmetry. It has two domes at either corner and a central porch. This building was constructed in 1907 but the history of this Scottish company harks back to post-Plassey times. The logo of the company still shines bright in the tiles all over the first floor.

Typewriters are still in use, the oven in the officer’s canteen is coal-fired, and the peon who showed me around had landed his job after his father retired. So one is not surprised that the wainscoting of the corridors and stairs still gleams with polish.

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