French consul general cries heritage neglect

French consul general in Calcutta Damien Syed on Tuesday expressed concern about the crumbling French heritage buildings in Chandernagore and sought the Bengal government's help to protect them.

By Kinsuk Basu in Calcutta
  • Published 29.11.17
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French ambassador Alexandre Ziegler, followed by the embassy's counsellor for cooperation and cultural affairs Bertrand de Hartingh and consul general Damien Syed, during their visit to Chandernagore's Registry Building in February

Calcutta: French consul general in Calcutta Damien Syed on Tuesday expressed concern about the crumbling French heritage buildings in Chandernagore and sought the Bengal government's help to protect them.

"Nearly half of the 99 French structures are in very bad shape," Syed told Metro.

"They are of historical importance. Nothing has been done to protect these buildings."

He was speaking on the sidelines of a news conference for the 42nd Calcutta Book Fair.

"I have spoken to urban development minister Firhad Hakim and to the state tourism minister," Syed said. "Chandernagore could emerge as a great tourist destination. But no such effort seems to be in place."

Minister Hakim said the government couldn't do much because of funds crunch.

He said: "The French had spoken to me more than two years ago. They only offered consultancy. We had asked what about the funds. They hadn't said anything about it."

Chandernagore, on the banks of the Hooghly, about 60km from Calcutta, became a French colony in 1673 when France wanted to set up a trading post.

The French lost the town to the British in the 1757 Battle of Chandernagore and regained control of it in 1816. It remained a French territory in India till 1950.

Buildings and structures bearing the hallmark of French architecture, including the Strand Boulevard, dot the town.

Many of the landmarks are lost because of poor maintenance. Also, families living in them haven't been able to invest in their upkeep.

Chandernagore's connect with its former ruler lies in a French cemetery opposite the Lal Dighi on GT Road and a heritage museum, to name a few.

The Chandernagore Gate, built in 1937 to mark the fall of Bastille, has the French Revolution slogan - "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite (Liberty, Equality and Fraternity)" - inscribed on it.

"We have taken pains to identify and shortlist the 99 buildings and understand their historical importance," Syed said.

"Take for instance the Registry Building... we want to restore it. We want everyone - including people of the area, architects and even heritage lovers from Mumbai and Delhi - to participate in this project."

Architects and government agencies have attempted conservation several times over the years.

Architect Aishwarya Tipnis has been involved in restoring the town's heritage since 2011. The project is titled: Know your Indo-French heritage.

"Some of the French heritage buildings are making way for real estate projects. I have even had talks with Chandernagore Municipality and the Bengal heritage commission officials," Syed said.

"But unfortunately, nothing much is being done to protect these buildings."

As part of French festival in India, Bonjour India, the consulate will hold workshops between January 5 and 12.

Students, people of the area and architects will get to know ways to preserve the Registry Building.

"Almost Rs 2 crore will be needed for the restoration," Syed said. "The heritage of Chandernagore is under real threat."