Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Imperial Department of Commerce & Industry, Council House Street

The Imperial Department of Commerce & Industry, North view

Taking up an entire city block, on the corner of Hare Street and Council House Street, on the South Western corner of Dalhousie Square (now BBD Bagh) is an Edwardian office block known today as the Commercial Library Building.  Montague Massey’s book, “Recollections of Calcutta for Over Half a Century” identifies this as the offices of the Imperial Department of Commerce and Industry. The book also says that this building was built on the grounds where the old Foreign Office once stood. 

Set up by Lord Curzon in 1905, the Imperial Department of Commerce and Industry controlled almost every aspect of British commercial interests in India, from the postal system, to factories, railway lines and even mines and ports. While not much information is available about exactly when this building was built, or who the architect was, the ornamental pediment on the Council House Street side of the building says “GEORGIVS REX IMPERATOR MCMXI”. MCMXI is the year 1911 and GEORGIVS REX IMPERATOR, or Georgius Rex Imperator is the royal cipher for both George V and his son, George VI. George V and Queen Mary had visited India in 1911 for the Delhi Durbar, and had come to Calcutta, and the pediment probably refers to this event.

The Imperial Department of Commerce & Industry, South view
The Directorate General of Commercial Intelligence and Statistics (DGCI&S) was set up in Calcutta in 1914. Two years later, the Department of Commerce and Industry opened the Commercial Library, unifying the departmental libraries of the Department of Commercial Intelligence, Department of Patents and Designs, and Department of Statistics. This library currently occupies part of the building. There is also the Council House Street Post Office on its Eastern side. While the building seems to be in decent shape on the outside, blogger Rangan Dutta says that inside, there is a dilapidated wooden staircase, and by it, a sign which reads “Unsafe staircase. No more than three people at a time”.

 - by Deepanjan Ghosh


Recollections of Calcutta for Over Half a Century – Montague Massey

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Ralli Brothers, Hare Street

Mention Ralli’s to anyone in Calcutta today and they will think of the sherbet and syrup making company. But Ralli Singh Arora who started that Ralli’s in 1898 in Calcutta, has no connection whatsoever with the Ralli’s building that stands today on Hare Street. The story of the company begins in 1815, in the Aegean sea, in the port of Chios, then part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ralli Brothers, a family of Greek merchants began importing corn, timber and hemp from the Black Sea to Leghorn on the Ligurian Sea, and from there to England, under the protection of the British fleet, stationed in Naples. By 1823, they had set up shop in England, expanding to Tabriz, Iran, by 1837. But important changes had happened in another part of the world by then. The East India Company’s monopoly in the Indian trade had been abolished, and Pandias Stephen Ralli, realizing that that’s where the future lay, decided to expand to India in 1851.

Ralli Brothers, Hare Street

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Fort Mornington Point, Gadiara

All that remains of Fort Mornington Point

Just over 80 km from the state capital of Calcutta is the village of Gadiara. A popular spot for picnics and day trips, Gadiara has three principal attractions. There is a government bungalow with beautifully manicured lawns, which is now available for picnics. There is a lighthouse, which is…err…well, a lighthouse, which did not interest me much. But the third item in the list most certainly did; the ruins of an old English fort.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Hanging of Maharaja Nandakumar

The well at the place of Nandakumar's execution

The trial and execution of Maharaja Nandakumar (referred to in contemporary documents as Nuncomar) was one of the most infamous episodes of the early days of the East India Company’s rule in India. Nandakumar was an Indian tax official, appointed collector of Burdwan and given the title “Maharaja” by Emperor Shah Alam II in 1764. A bitter enemy of Warren Hastings, Nanadkumar accused him, through a letter, of accepting a bribe from Mir Jafar’s widow Munny Begum for securing for her the guardianship of the Nawab Mubarak-ud-Daulah, then a minor. The case was taken up in the Supreme Council of Bengal by Hastings’ rival, Philip Francis. But Hastings was able to overrule the Council, and even though he admitted to accepting a bribe, could not be brought to book.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Goenka Ghat and its Environs

Ram Chandra Goenka Zenana Bathing Ghat as seen from Howrah Bridge
The flower market at Mallik Ghat, near the Howrah Bridge is certainly not for the faint hearted, or the claustrophobic. Hundreds of stalls and thousands of people jostle for space, bargain and make purchases in an area designed to hold a fraction of that number. But for photographers, it is a paradise. Teeming with life and a riot of colours, it is full of opportunities for those willing to brave the crowds.

Rai Bahadur Bissessur Lall Hurgobind Sradh Ghat
We ventured into the melee on a Sunday morning in winter. Our objective was to locate and photograph the ornate ghats behind the market.  A walk across the Howrah Bridge early in the morning in winter is highly recommended, especially if you get there before sunrise. Watching the sun rise over the Ganges, known here as the Hooghly, and watching the first rays of morning light bathe the Howrah station is an experience to remember. The station complex looks rather like a fort when seen from the middle of the bridge. At the Calcutta end of the bridge, get off on the right, or southern side of the bridge and you can descend into the heart of this flowery chaos using a set of worn out and slippery stairs. Passing through the maze that is the market, as you try and get closer to the river, the first ghat you find, right next to the bridge, is the Rai Bahadur Bissessur Lall Hurgobind Sradh Ghat. All that is known about the gentleman after whom the ghat is named is that he was a rich Marwari businessman, and his “sradh” ceremony was conducted on that spot. The ghat that was erected in 1916 was probably meant as a sort of marker and memorial. Infront of the ghat maybe found a raised area with parallel bars. This spot was in use as a wrestling ring by local “pehelwans”. It may still be used for the purpose, but that seems unlikely considering the garbage that is found piled around the corners. Infront of the ghat was also a park, and it’s railings may still be seen, but the park itself has vanished, encroached upon for decades by slum settlements. Nearby are also five banyan trees, each containing a small shrine at its base.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Posta Rajbari, Ratan Sarkar Garden Street

Posta Rajbari

It’s a Sunday morning as our car ventures into the mercantile chaos of Calcutta’s Posta Bazaar area. The fact that even God took rest on this day, seems to have no bearing on the people who live and work here, because although we are assured by people familiar with the area that what we see is very light traffic, there are hardly any trucks for instance, the whole place is buzzing with activity. Burrabazaar is said to have been in existence before Siraj’s sack of Calcutta in 1757 and as we go past the old silver mint, now occupied by the CRPF, through roads and lanes that are almost as old as the city itself, we note the changing look of our surroundings. From the people who are mostly Bihari labourers, to the food which the street shops serve, to the ramshackle buildings with temples on their terraces, this is not a Calcutta that most people living in the residential areas in the South would be familiar with. Indeed, it doesn’t even look like Calcutta. Its appearance is more akin to small town UP or Bihar. We come to a halt in the heart of the bazaar, next to a petrol pump, and lo and behold, a small, but magnificent Rajbari seems to pop up, as if from nowhere, it’s recently painted fa├žade standing out against a backdrop of squalor and urban decay.

Shyam Sundar temple courtyard
The Bengali word Rajbari literally means “King’s house”, but those who built these houses, were, mostly, not kings, atleast not in the conventional sense of the term. Raja was a title awarded by the British to large landowners, the zamindars, who would be responsible for tax collection and general administration of their vast estates. The actual job of collecting revenue would be left to the “nayeb”, the estate manager, while the Zamindar himself, with his accumulated wealth, would build a palatial residence and settle with his extended family, in Calcutta. Attached to the Rajbari would be the temple of the zamindar’s family diety; in this case, it is the temple of Shyam Sundar Jew.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

In Print - 2

If there's one thing I love more than taking photographs, it's telling stories, and war makes for some of the very best stories. Hidden in plain sight, in Calcutta's Dalhousie area, are remnants of a war that happened 258 years ago, when the Nawaab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah, sacked Calcutta. The ill-prepared and ill-equipped English were routed, and in a controversial, and hotly debated incident, 123 of them perished in what was to become known as The Black Hole Tragedy. I told this story for the readers of Alaap Parba magazine, in Bangla. 

There are some embarrassing typos in the article, including one which says that the original Holwell Monument was 500 feet tall (!!!), but I wasn't given the chance to proof check the article, so I can't really take responsibility for that. Also, had I known that they would print the photos in black and white, I'd have processed them differently. But inspite of the shortcomings, I think it's not bad for a start. I am grateful to Barnali Jana and the folks at Alaap Parba magazine for giving me this opportunity.

Here then, is the article for your reading pleasure.