State of abounding grace

Remembering a historian and the buildings he loved

By Gopalkrishna Gandhi
  • Published 5.04.15
A heritage building on Chittaranjan Avenue, 2005

It will soon be two years since Barun De, historian and teacher, passed away. He is remembered by a constellation of students as a reflective historian and sensitive teacher who thought sharply, spoke persuasively but wrote astonishingly little. He edited prolifically but for all the knowledge and concomitant historical wisdom that his mind held like an oyster-clasp, he did not put it down on paper. It was almost as if Barun De stored his immense understanding for chance discovery by discussants. Was that a kind of laziness ? No, for lethargy is a mental trait and his mind never dozed. Was it shyness? Heavens, no, for Barun De was the most self-confident of thinkers. It was a kind of aristocracy of the mind which believes in being discovered than being on offer, being a surprise than an all-too-known. And being found by the discerning to be far better informed than the better known.

Many of those who learnt from him in class or in the cloisters of research became known in the larger world of academe through their published work. Barun De's was an un-inked watermark that was viewed best when back-lit by others' shining mediocrity. All his better known students knew that their teacher's mind was of a calibre that could have bested the best and rather enjoy doing so. He was capable of making connections in timelines that had not quite been made like that but seemed so obvious when he spelt them out. And he was incapable of what may be called the fond and the facile. At lectures that Barun babu attended, his questions, invariably wordy, revealed depths of understanding which left the speaker wondering if Barunbabu and not he or she should have been at the lectern.

He was a historian of secular trends. The stomping grounds of Chenghis Khan's descendants and the dust-clouds raised in the wake of Babur were his special turf, which is why and how he and the historian-governor of West Bengal, Professor Nurul Hasan, formed a lasting and close friendship. He related to Persian, Arabic and Urdu even though he did not vocalize that branch of his specialization. And he could tell a fine biryani from a failed one, and a flawless sherwani from a fake.

But it was British India, specifically Curzonian India, that drew from him his most consummate historical empathy. Buildings, old buildings, monuments, were his territory. He was at home amidst peeling plaster and exposed brickwork. Old-time portraits of British nobility were for him not just framed oils but windows into history. Barun babu's list of heritage buildings in the state is recognized as a lasting contribution not just to documentation but to conservation. Through our high commission in London, I remember, I obtained for the then mayor of Calcutta, Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, London's Blue Plaque Guide which has a list and routes for all the heritage buildings in that city. Round blue plaques fixed on their outside tell the passerby or visitor in very few words about who lived in them and when, a basic heritage primer. But it is also much more - a document that confers status and casts responsibilities.

All over the country heritage buildings remain fragile, decaying. And like in all those places, the developer's bulldozer is waiting in Calcutta to crunch them up. As one who was privileged to live for five unforgettable years in one of the most striking of them, Raj Bhavan, beside Dalhousie Square, where so many of that type still survive, I cannot but express great happiness at the way that building has been nurtured - who by? The state public works department.

But heritage conservation is not about 'saving' colonial or imperial buildings. It is about the conserving of architectural forms into the making of which Indian skills, the artistry of simple Indian workmen and women, have gone. It is those that we are conserving.

Calcutta is not just another city where land matters the most and land values determine the future of its buildings and building activity. It is a city with an ethos, a personality and a presence that casts a responsibility on its inhabitants and its authorities. It needs rescuing from the jaws of its own self-destruction. If cities like London and Paris and Berlin can have regulations to prevent the alteration and destruction of heritage buildings, why should Calcutta not have the same ?

Calcutta and Barrackpore, for instance, have too much character in them, too much history and heritage, to become a battleground for developer armies. Not just the great manors of north Calcutta and its colonial buildings, but the city's many neighbourhoods and smaller towns that have small and modest but the most stunning heritage buildings, deserve the protecting cover of heritage conservation. A fragile cornice here, a precarious lintel there, a wooden balcony beautifully carved, a slatted window, telling us a story of grace and artistry, can take one's breath away.

So is there hope? Despite the threat, there is.

INTACH's deep concern and interventions and that of architects who have been making brave interventions have long been known. But I have received two major intimations of hope in recent days. Lord Charles Bruce, descendant of Robert the Bruce and the Earl of Elgin who was Viceroy of India just before Curzon, tells me that not only is work on restoring the Scottish Cemetery in Calcutta going well, the Calcutta Scottish Heritage Trust has been organizing workshops for second-year undergraduates studying architecture, art history, archaeology and landscape architecture. They are provided with pencils, erasers, rulers and paper and are encouraged to observe and draw architectural detail, something they may not do in class. With this they are learning to value the traditional craft-skills which were once responsible for creating such fine work. And I am delighted to learn of an initiative started by the novelist and teacher, Amit Chaudhuri, to instil a sense of urgency in those concerned about the threat to Calcutta's heritage buildings. With a group of concerned citizens, he is sensitizing those concerned about the loss of their city's built heritage and the concomitant loss of the city's identity.

There is a market issue here which is also a legal issue. Owners of properties have the right to sell their holdings. But when those buildings are nor just old but are, in terms of architecture and history, priceless and irreplaceable, should the collective personality of the city not step in? Should there not be some control, some regulation, some restriction on those who are interested in the land on which the heritage buildings stand and will, without any thought, demolish them and, with them, history ?

If by a combination of legal, administrative and brick-and-mortar steps the state government nurtures the many small miracles of architectural creativity in the state it will help West Bengal remain a home of abounding grace under unrelenting stress.