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Kolkata's crumbling legacy

A group of artists, economists and historians has launched a crusade to rescue the city's old houses that are part of its history, but it's a difficult fight

Kamalika Ghosh 

A dilapidated, old residential building near Park Circus

In one of the lanes of Lansdowne in south Kolkata stands a two-storey bungalow with French windows and large pillars. The house, measuring about 1,000 square feet, was built around 1945. What stands out is its unique architectural elegance: red oxide floors, green shuttered windows, wrought iron grills and an open terrace. The interiors are well maintained. Its 65-year-old owner, a retired government employee who does not wish to be named, is fighting hard to keep the bungalow alive. For the last two years, he has been hounded by builders who want to buy his house and probably raise a multi-storey apartment complex here. “The house shall remain (the way it is) for at least as long as I live,” says its owner. Many others have succumbed to the relentless pressure — and inducements offered by builders — and sold their old homes. As a result, in several parts of the city, apartment complexes today stand where once airy bungalows and traditional houses celebrated space and time. The Kolkata skyline is changing — fast. With space at a premium, the city’s architectural heritage is vanishing. Its disappearance, and the abysmal state of old houses, has caused a fair amount of alarm in the city’s intelligentsia who, led by author Amit Chaudhuri, have launched a campaign to save these spaces from demolition and decay. They have written a letter to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in this regard and sent copies of it to the mayor, the commissioner of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, and several other bureaucrats. “Like other great modern cities, Kolkata’s cultural inheritance is contained not only in its literature, cinema, art and music, or in its political and intellectual history, but palpably in its lived spaces and its architectural ethos,” the letter says while making a plea to conserve these houses. The group acknowledges the effort that has gone into preserving the Rajbari mansions of north Kolkata and the colonial buildings of central Kolkata, but feels that the traditional houses where people have lived, and still live, in various neighbourhoods in the city —Bakulbagan, Hindustan Park, Kidderpore, Paddapukur Road, Bhowanipore, Sarat Bose Road, and Ganguly Bagan, to name just a few —too need attention. A walk down the lanes and bylanes of south Kolkata shows these houses have distinctive structural features. Like the red oxidised stone floors and Venetian or French shuttered windows of the house on Lansdowne, they have long verandas and open terraces. The ventilators sit carved into the walls and motifs like those depicting sunrise decorate railings of balconies. Through these, the buildings tell the history of Kolkata and of the many architectural influences the city has seen and adopted. “This hybrid amalgamation of styles isn’t found anywhere else,” says Chaudhuri. “Mumbai, which invites a comparison, has neo-Gothic or Indo-Saracenic architecture. The architectural style found in Kolkata is as much an embodiment of cultural transition as is (Rabindranath) Tagore or (Satyajit) Ray. It’s a product of history. No two houses are identical in spite of shared similarities.” “Berlin, Istanbul and Paris — every city in the world has fought to save its neighbourhoods, which have come to become a symbol of historical resistance.

But the destruction of these buildings in Kolkata would mean destroying the city’s rich historical legacy,” he adds.

At Hindustan Park, an example of the old, withering architecture that activists and authors are fighting to preserve

Among the others who have taken up the cause with Chaudhuri are economists Pranab Bardhan, Kaushik Basu and Esther Duflo, historian Sugata Bose, architect Partha Ranjan Das, Presidency University Vice-chancellor Anuradha Lohia, Aparna Sen, photographer Dayanita Singh and Prasar Bharati Director Jawhar Sircar. While the bungalows of south Kolkata are the worst impacted by the spate and pace of development, the buildings of north Kolkata too haven’t been spared, though a greater number of buildings here still retain the original architecture. North Kolkata has also been historically neglected by both the authorities and the intelligentsia. As a result of this, property prices here are less than those in south Kolkata. This is an opportunity, Chaudhuri feels, which could have been tapped. “What the artiste community could have done was to make use of the low rents and use up these spaces, like what happened in East Berlin,” he says. “They took advantage of the low rents and transformed the neighbourhoods into vibrant living spaces in East Berlin. But here, the old north Kolkata has died. And all of us have killed it.” Protecting these neighbourhoods when space is becoming a luxury isn’t easy. The petitioners are aware of this. “Areas that have a high concentration of such houses can be declared as heritage precincts,” says Chaudhuri. “The authorities must come up with laws that will prevent the demolition of houses. They could perhaps offer tax relaxation to the owners of these houses.” There are, however, more practical concerns: how to accommodate the increasing population of the city? Architect Partha Ranjan Das has proposed a solution to this in the form of transfer of development rights. Under this scheme, the owner of the house transfers the value of his land to the builder for a certain amount. The buyer can transfer the floor area for which he has paid to other projects that he is developing or building elsewhere in the city. The owner can use the money only to restore the house. The owner gets money and the builder gets land, while the government has to bear the burden. Perhaps that’s why the Kolkata Municipal Corporation hasn’t warmed up to the idea, though it has been proposed several times. “It’s impossible to preserve these neighbourhoods,” says a Corporation official. “Yes, a lot of people have suggested policies and ways, but I don't think anything worthwhile can come of it.” As of now, the future holds little promise for these buildings that represent the past. History disappears, brick by brick “The architectural heritage of the region in which Calcutta is located goes back more than two thousand years — even Ptolemy, the pioneering geographer, wrote about the old settlement around what is now Calcutta. The rich history of early habitation in Calcutta region has suffered not only from intellectual neglect, but also from the destructive tendencies of our past (only some glimpses have survived in literature, for example in the pages of Mangalkavyas). As your letter brings out, the richly original and deeply engaging buildings of the past two or three hundred years in Calcutta are threatened with demolition — those that have not been destroyed already… I hope our joint plea will receive the listening it deserves — and the action we demand." ... An excerpt from Amartya Sen's letter to Amit Chaudhuri

First Published: Sat, July 04 2015. 00:24 IST