The Telegraph
Friday , December 14 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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The colonial legacy of Calcutta as preserved in its architectural monuments has already been studied from various angles in numerous books on the city. So yet another book on the subject has to offer something different, at least as a promise, in order to justify its appearance. Pradip Kumar Das, the author of COLONIAL CALCUTTA: RELIGIOUS ARCHITECTURE AS A MIRROR OF EMPIRE (Bloomsbury, Rs 1,200), pleads his case in the Introduction: “This book is not, as some people might imagine, a eulogy to the Raj, nor is it written in a fit of elegiac nostalgia. It deals with the religious architecture of colonial Calcutta, which notwithstanding its common platform with other civic spaces, focuses specifically on the subtle and not so subtle attempts to project the ‘refinement’ of Christian influences on a ‘heathen’ population used to worshipping strange gods.”

To put this in a simpler form, Das tries to show that the legacy is not as glorious as it is made out to be. He argues that Calcutta’s Christian architecture, designed to wean away the native population from their own religious beliefs by impressing them with its grandeur, was often second rate when compared to the European models. Das’s contention is understandable up to this point. But what he says later sounds contradictory. According to Das, “They [the colonisers] did not feel the need to compete with the parallel streams of Hindu and Islamic culture in the state…” And then, “the interiors [of the Christian monuments] were lined with characteristic Indian doorways and other elements to invite local interest and participation”. So, if Das’s argument is to be followed, on the one hand, colonial architecture deliberately insulated itself from local styles to underline its superiority and, on the other, it imbibed native influence to adopt itself to the culture of the colonized country. As a thesis, this sounds unique enough as an apology for the book.

The text, in general, is too turgid for the reader to figure out what the author is trying to say. And the photographs by Mala Mukerjee, while being valuable as documents, are curiously flat, as those on this page will testify. This, again, is surprising and disappointing since Das himself calls the photographs “outstanding” and declares that it has taken him and Mukerjee “two years and several hundred photographs to cover the shrines featured in the book and to select the ones we thought were appropriate to the text”. The photographs indeed match the text in their lifelessness. The captions inside the pictures spoil them further and are themselves often lost against the background colours. And Das says that St John’s Church was Calcutta’s first cathedral. But it needs to be noted, as Radharaman Mitra pointed out in his Kolkata Darpan, that the oldest Anglican church in the city is the Old Mission Church.

Left is the tomb of Charles ‘Hindu’ Stuart (1758-1828) from the Park Street Cemetery. Stuart was an officer in the service of the British Army in India who adopted Indian customs and exhorted his fellowmen to embrace Hinduism, much to their chagrin. His tomb is a cross between a temple and a mosque. The onion-shaped dome is Islamic, but the entrance has a plaster cast of a full-blown lotus, the flower associated with Lord Vishnu in Hindu mythology.

Top right are the Palladian columns and arches inside the Tipu Sultan Mosque in Tollygunge. It was built by Gholam Mohammed Shah, the son of Tipu Sultan, who was eager to please the British rulers. The Adam style fanlights, Tuscan pillars and the arches visible in the picture make the interiors of the mosque quite similar to those of churches like St Paul’s or St John’s in Calcutta.

Bottom left are the spectacular murals and stained glass windows of the Magen David Synagogue. The idol in the Chinese Sea Ip Temple at Tiretta Bazar, Calcutta, is on bottom right. One of the idols in the temple — not in the picture — shows a remarkable likeness to Vishnu, thus again pointing to the cultural melting pot that was colonial Calcutta.