Sometimes a hashtag is all it takes to wake up slumbering beauties. Who knows when Calcutta had receded from India’s heritage map. Visitors to the city would salute the Victoria Memorial, the Howrah Bridge, pray at Kalighat and then leave with a bottle of Aqua Ptychotis and a red and white “Bengali sari”. In 2001, the then mayor of Calcutta, Subrata Mukherjee, said, “All this heritage-feritage looks great in a European city… What is the point of preserving the heritage of a city beset with basic problems?”
Today, it is not uncommon for visiting non-resident Calcuttans, awakened to the colours and poetry of a lost home, to post pictures of a cemetery here, a church there. Suddenly seeing, locals too have joined in. Photographs of the synagogue Beth-El or Raj era gas light fittings surface on timelines.
The beauties are not just stretching awake, there is serious effort to plug them into the current context. G.M. Kapur of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage or Intach talks about how in recent times a slew of heritage spaces have been turning over a new leaf — the Bawali Rajbari is now a hotel, Metcalfe Hall is an exhibition space, 85 Landsdowne is a retail stop. He points out that 70 of the city’s police stations function out of heritage houses and brings out a stack of photographs capturing their detailing. He says, “We hope to bring out a book that will showcase the heritage at our behest.”
Calcutta Bungalow is a portion of an old house in north Calcutta’s Radha Kanta Jew Street that has been converted into a heritage bed and breakfast (B&B). While the inside has been done up to suit tastes and needs of the savvy world traveller, the experience is in the outside and the immediate environs. Of living in a non-sanitised Shyambazar para, in the midst of gritty Bengal past and present. Says Ramanuj, who is part of Calcutta Walks, the promoters of Calcutta Bungalow, “Much of our clientele comprises tourists who sign up for our walks. But of late, Calcuttans — those from the south — have started to check in for a night or the weekend.” And that’s a start, catching the attention of the insider outsider.
From Kapur we learn about the restoration of the Anglo Persian School in central Calcutta. The school had been set up by the first governor-general of the East India Company, Warren Hastings. Conservation architect Anjan Mitra, who is consulting on the project, says he has worked to conserve the structure while adapting it to the much-altered university context. He says, “I used compatible material matching the original components.” Sounds much like relationship advice, but then that is the crux of all sustainable conservation talk.
There is a distinctive heritage chatter about town. And even where financiers fear to tread — let alone be tempted to drop a wake-up kiss — there are discussions, stirrings, only approaches vary.
Sumona Chakravarty was focussed on “participatory art practices”, bringing locals and artists together, using the public space as canvas. She founded Hamdasti, a non-profit arts organisation, in 2013. “Heritage found us,” she says. In the old Calcutta neigbourhood of Chitpur, she and her associates found a wealth of courtyards, studios, shops, rocks (a local term for porches), which they then proceeded to explore. At some point, art and heritage bled into each other, the art projects drew from the heritage spaces, and the spaces were resuscitated by them.
Likewise in the case of Swati Mishra’s The Community Art Project. Mishra had worked as part of a community outreach engagement in Delhi. Once back in Calcutta, she wanted to reinvigorate the heritage breakfast market in the old China Town of Tiretti Bazaar. The breakfast, a weekend early-morning affair, has Chinese families selling baos or Chinese buns, soup, dumplings with a variety of fillings, chintoy (a sweet snack) and what have you. Mishra got in touch with the Chinese families to understand what had taken away the shine. She says, “A recurring issue was hygiene and waste disposal. After months of engagement and discussion, we will be rolling out mobile waste bins soon. We will also be painting the shutters of some of the shops in the locality as part of the low-cost beautification process. It is a bottom-up place-making approach.”
And so the heritage talk continues, purposeful, animated, breathing novelty into the over-familiar.