Writers’ Buildings, the seat of governance of Bengal, stretches across BBD Bag North. Long before it came up, to its left, close to Netaji Subhas Road stood the St Anne’s church constructed in 1716. Its steeple fell in the earthquake of 1737, and during Siraj-ud-Daulah’s sack of Calcutta, the church was not spared; it was demolished in 1756. The rotunda under the central dome is where St Anne’s church used to stand.
Writers’ Buildings — which has 13 blocks now — has witnessed a battle of bullets and many of ballots. On December 8, 1930, Benoy Krishna Basu, Badal Gupta and Dinesh Gupta had burst into the first-floor corridor of power in the famous red building north of Laldighi with the intent of striking terror and killing Colonel NS Simpson, the infamous inspector-general of prisons. A brief gun battle ensued, the operation was a success, and decades later, Dalhousie Square was renamed after them. A plaque on the wall of the VIP corridor commemorates this heroic act.
A few days before the big ballot question is answered, the famous first-floor corridor of power shows no sign of the usual activity. Slouching policemen and unkempt peons occupy the rows of chairs adjacent to the huge arched openings in the walls of the corridor. These openings are opposite the offices of the ministers that are in tandem with those of their secretaries (mere cubby holes for them). The floors and walls are clean but drab and easily induce claustrophobia. The last entrance at the left end of this corridor leads to a staircase, a lift and the rotunda, where meetings are held.
The succession of arched openings of the corridor once used to offer a clear, unimpeded view of Laldighi opposite it, but these have been lined with glass slats for close to 40 years.
The VIP corridor on the first floor of the main block is lined with Minton tiles of 19th century vintage. Potted palms add a touch of green. Only the mid-section, that is more spacious, has a white marble floor, and this is where the chief minister’s office is situated, with the lift close to it. Opposite the chief minister’s room across the corridor is a space for visitors, and to the left is a lectern where reporters are briefed occasionally. Adjacent to it is a tall wooden screen fitted with glass panels that not long ago displayed pictures of the “achievements” of the Left Front government. Faded likenesses of the three martyrs, Benoy, Badal, Dinesh, are displayed above the screen, along with a rather large photograph of a young Rabindranath, a portrait of Chittaranjan Das and another of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
Right in the middle of this power centre is a bronze bust of Bidhan Chandra Roy, before a smallish balcony overlooking Laldighi. When you stand on this balcony, you feel dwarfed by the enormous dimensions of this neo-classical red building with the Corinthian columns soaring above you. The carved figures on the parapet are not visible from here, nor is Minerva standing right above the triangular pediment with one arm outstretched. But the acanthus leaves on the capital look as fresh and crisp as heads of lettuce. Under the balcony is the VIP entrance through which the CM enters every day.
The acanthus motif of the columns is repeated in miniature form along the corridor. Looks like our British rulers had compared notes with the Romans and perfected the art of using architecture to make a strong impression on the subject race. None of this expertise has rubbed off on the succession of political parties that took over. The drabness of Writers’, its grandeur notwithstanding, is inescapable. The dull grey atmosphere seems to permeate the soul of all its denizens.
The corridor has several entrances, and one of these leads to the iron staircase that connects all the three floors of this “heritage” block. It leads to the maze of offices in the blocks behind. Each vast hall with false ceilings is crammed with tables that have a mountain of files piled on each of them. There is no semblance of grandeur in this pen pushers’ paradise. People crawl all around, drink endless cups of tea or chatter. There is little left of what used to be the courtyard. The blocks are connected by gangways and it is easy to get lost in this labyrinth. Sooty eateries and tea stalls have sprouted around the slice of a courtyard and old furniture is dumped here and along the passages.
Each entrance of the VIP corridor is manned by policemen in dazzling white, in stark contrast with the sloppiness of their colleagues inside the corridor. Yet another entrance leads to the VIP staircase and lift. Gewgaw and kitsch masquerading as handicraft are displayed in glass cases outside the lift.
BRICK BY BRICK
The site of the demolished St Anne’s church and the adjoining plot were granted to Thomas Lyon, after whom Lyons Range is named, to construct buildings to accommodate the junior servants of the East India Company or the “writers”. Lyon was acting on behalf of Richard Barwell, member of the Council, when Warren Hastings was governor. Writers’ Buildings was the first three-storeyed building in Calcutta
Barwell leased out the range of buildings to the Company for the rent-free accommodation of its writers “for five years by his own rate at 31,700 current rupees per annum to be paid half-yearly in advance”. Writers’ looked like a “shabby hospital, or poor-house”
Fort William College, opened to train writers in Oriental languages, later moved to this building. Over the next 20 years, structural changes were made: a hostel for 32 students and an exam hall, which still exist, a lecture hall, four libraries and rooms to teach Hindi and Persian
A 128ft-long verandah with Ionic style columns, each 32ft high, were added on the first and second floors
The College moved out of Writers’ and the building fell into the hands of private individuals who turned it into living quarters, shops and godowns. The Government College of Engineering functioned from here for some time
George Campbell, lieutenant governor-general, felt the need for a secretariat for “quick disposal of work”. But the East India Railway Company occupied a large space at Writers’ and was unable to find alternative accommodation
Ashley Eden, lieutenant-governor of Bengal, was told to shift the principal offices, housed on Sudder Street and Chowringhee, to Writers’. Because of the space crunch, initially three blocks were constructed
Two new blocks were added, approached by iron staircases that are still in use. Writers’ acquired its Greco-Roman look, complete with the portico in the central bay and the red surface of exposed brick. The parapet was put in place and the statues sculpted by William Fredric Woodington in 1883, that line the terrace, were installed. Minerva stands above the central portico And Pre-Independence, Writers’ had a large courtyard with seven blocks. By 1970, all 13 blocks were constructed. The main block, including the rotunda and five main blocks, are heritage structures.