The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sudden flight of swans
(Above)House in Hindustan Park with swans ready to take flight on terrace. Picture by Soumitra Das. (Below) The house in Hindustan Park that is a flight of fancy. Saraswati in the pediment. Pictures by Soumitra Das

Calcutta has some old buildings where the Roman eagle with outstretched wings perches on the wall to break the monotony of an unembellished facade as also to create an impression of gravity at a time when imperialism was the order of the day. There is one building at the crossing of Rambagan and Jatindra Mohan Avenue, just off Beadon Street, where double Garudas sit on top of the terrace with folded hands.

The house is known as Brajadham, and when a chicken hawk alights on the ledge next to this mount of Vishnu, whose favourite snack was serpents of every ilk, it is difficult to distinguish the anthropomorphic, winged and beaked minor divinity from the real feathered creature.

The motif of the preening peacock with its fantail spread out in full glory is used extensively in the Allahabad Bank building on Clive Street. The architect was obviously taken in by Rajasthan’s favourite iridescent feathered motif and it gives the building with an arched entrance an exotic look.

If one looks carefully, one can detect tiny birds nestled amid the flower trees above the rows of columns outside the Calcutta High Court building. They look like figures from a fable in this neo-gothic structure.

Although floral motifs and acanthus are common enough in the embellishments of old Calcutta buildings, our feathered friends rarely feature in these. However, there are striking exceptions to the rule.

Swans, those elegant winged birds with white feathers and long necks that were the inspiration behind the Sanskrit compound word for a woman with a beautiful, figure in the emblem of the Ramakrishna Mission. Vivekananda while explaining the significance of the swan swimming in choppy waters wrote that the wavy waters were symbolic of Karma while the swan stood for paramatman or supreme self. This emblem can be seen on any Ramakrishna Mission building.

A knight in shining armour appears in a boat on a river drawn by a swan in Wagner’s opera Lohengrin.

In the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, the ugly duckling is transformed into a creature of peerless beauty. In Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Swan Lake, the beautiful princess Odette, on whom a spell has been cast, turns into a swan maiden, and the prince, who had intended to hunt her, is smitten by her beauty.

But I have the feather-and-blood bird in mind whose beauty can charge the imagination of artists and I am sure that a man with an artistic bent of mind had conceived this magical little house in Hindustan Park.

On the face of it, it is indistinguishable from any of the elegant dwelling houses belonging to the Bengali gentry who constructed these in the 1930s. It is a ground-plus-two building with a verandah bordered with concrete jalis instead of balustrades or grilles. It is badly in need of repairs and it has turned dun coloured with age. One hardly notices such a lack-lustre building next to the art gallery that has come up there.

But tiny details attract the eye. Above the entrance are a pair of elephant heads, trunks outstretched. In the middle of the pediment above is Saraswati playing her veena, flanked by mangal ghats on both sides. Greek and Hindu go hand in hand in this house, and Rajasthani chhajjas, too, have been appended to create a harmonious whole.

On top of the terrace is a small stupa-shaped structure that is not visible from all sides of the building. Perched on it on each side of a square are four swans with their wings outstretched, about to take flight.

In the twilight they look as if they have alighted there to carry Saraswati back to Mansarovar, which is their most likely breeding ground.

Hindustan Park is changing fast. Practically every other day another old house is demolished. Are the days of this house also numbered'

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