For the first time since Independence, the seat of power in West Bengal has shifted from the red edifice called Writers’ Building, albeit temporarily.
With Writers’ set to undergo its first major renovation, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Saturday moved 11 departments to the Hooghly River Bridge Commissioners (HRBC) building — a new 15-storey structure at Mandirtala in Howrah — as a makeshift arrangement. Of the 11 departments, eight are under Banerjee’s portfolio. The other three are finance, public works department (PWD) and disaster management.
Although the official line is that the renovation work could take six months to a year, bureaucrats feel Banerjee may not come back to Writers’ in the near term. “If she does well in the Lok Sabha elections from Nabanna (the new name of the HRBC building), who knows whether she will return to Writers’?” said a bureaucrat.
Nabanna is painted in blue and white, Banerjee’s favourite colours. The interiors are also predominantly blue. Plus, the view from the top has a generous dose of blue and white, in the form of road dividers. That apart, the CM, whose fondness for nature is known, will have a breathtaking view of the river from the HRBC building, once meant to house a garment park.
The conference rooms are corporate-like, unlike the very basic ones at Writers’ Building and the visitors’ room has a neat layout. The price tag for Nabanna’s infrastructure is Rs 50 crore. At least three private agencies have been appointed for the building security. Nabanna, in a way, is almost symbolical; first, it’s everything that Writers’ isn’t. Second, it represents Banerjee, whose aversion to all things red and staid are well known.
The 150-metre long Writers’ Building was built in the 1700s as an office accommodation for the junior clerks, known as “writers” of the East India Company, although the familiar Greco-Roman look with the red surface of exposed brick came decades later. The giant pediment at the centre is adorned with a statue of Minerva and there are clusters of statues of Greek gods and goddesses across the building.
Since its inception, Writers’ has had some structural changes, such as the addition of a 128-ft long balcony in front of the building in the early 19th century only but this will be the first major overhaul. No one can doubt the intent, as Banerjee put it: “It’s a tinderbox.”
In the past two years, since Banerjee set foot at Writers’, there have been two facelifts. The old furniture in the Chief Minister’s room was replaced, walls were repainted (not blue and white), the flooring was changed in places and some rooms were added. The second makeover happened on Hillary Clinton’s visit.
The latest renovation of the heritage building—the blueprint is being done by a Jadavpur University architect, which will be implemented by the PWD department—will cost around Rs 250 crore, though not much can be done to the façade.
Questions were raised whether an external agency should have been appointed for such a major task, but the government felt that the PWD was equipped to handle its heritage buildings.
Prince Charles had described a modernist new wing of the National Gallery as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend”. The wing was scrapped. Loved or not, hopefully, Writers’ will continue to be an embodiment of classical European architecture and not bear an imprint of Nabanna.