Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Standard Life Assurance Building

 On the corner of Dalhousie Square South and Wellesley Place (now Red Cross Place) can be found the Standard Life Assurance Building. A beautiful structure, it was designed by the same man who designed Bombay’sVictoria Terminus, Frederick William Stevens, and constructed in 1896

Founded in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1825, Standard Life Assurance was a pioneer in life insurance for British subjects living in India, and the other colonies. This was at a time when most insurance companies would discourage travel to the colonies thanks to the extremely high mortality rate. Standard Life Assurance, was, in it’s heyday, the best known life insurance company in the colonies.

Like many other colonial buildings, this one also looks like it has simply been plucked out of Victorian England, and placed here. The building can be identified from a distance thanks to the large domed tower on it’s North East corner.

Exquisitely detailed, the building contains some very fine stucco work above the windows. 

Like it’s cousin in Bombay, it features Standard Life's logo of the biblical Ten Virgins in statue form in the main pediment. Derived from the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13,) this was thought to be an appropriate motif for an insurance company with the message of always being prepared for future contingencies.

Sadly, the building is now in an almost derelict state, even though it continues to be used as government youth hostel. Several trees have taken root all over the structure, and one of the upper balconies looks like it is beginning to cave in. The overall sooty and grimy appearance of the building also does not inspire confidence.
When we visited the building, we were happy to see scaffolding, which might mean that long overdue restoration work on the building has finally begun. There has been talk of restoring all heritage buildings in this part of town, to revive interest as a tourist attraction. Let us hope something concrete is done before it’s too late.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Justice! Science! Commerce! Agriculture!

Initially constructed by Thomas Lyon (of Lyon’s Range fame) to provide cheap accommodation to the clerks of the East India Company (writers), the Writers’ Building of Calcutta continued to evolve, through the late 1700’s and well into the 1800’s, slowly becoming the landmark structure that it is today. It acquired it’s present Greco-Roman look between 1879 and 1906, during which time, two new blocks were added, as were a large number of statues to the newly built parapet lining the terrace.
The statues had been carved by William Fredric Woodington in 1883, and chief among them, are four groups of statues, each containing three figures. Each group is seated on a pedestal, on which is etched a single word. The four words are Justice, Science, Commerce and Agriculture. Together, these words do not make as impressive a statement as say, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, but that hardly seems to be the point of having them there. The central statue of each group seems to be the Greek God or Goddess of the subject whose name is etched on the pedestal below.

Atop the central set of columns of the Writers Building may be found the statue of Minerva.

Even though the Chief Minister’s office has shifted to the new building “Nabanna” security at Writers’ Continues to be tight, and there are policemen present there day and night, who are the extremely overzealous sort. They come rushing out to prevent you from taking photographs of anyone and anything, including the memorial to Colesworthy Grant, the founder of Calcutta’s Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

If you’re going to visit Writers’, come very early on a Sunday morning, when the roads are empty and the cops are dozing, if you’re lucky. And if you’re going to take photographs, for heaven’s sake, be quick and be discrete. 

Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Old Telegraph Office, Dalhousie Square

Thanks to it’s latest coat of paint, the Old Telegraph Office, also known as the Dead Letter Office, is now virtually impossible to miss.  Located at the corner of Dalhousie Square East and Dalhousie Square South, with a 120 feet tall bell tower, the remarkably beautiful and ornate building was constructed between 1873 and 1876. It served as a sort of sorting office for all international mail coming in to Bengal, and when letters could not be sent to someone because of errors in the address, and couldn’t be returned to the sender, they ended up here.
You can check out some older photos of the building here and here.

The postal department is still using the building, but there are no restrictions on photographing the building from the outside. And do try the tea from the stall across the road. He makes it with green cardamom, and early in the morning, it's just what you need.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Esplanade Mansions

Built in 1910 by Sir Rajen Mukherjee’s firm, Martin and Co., for Calcutta’s Jewish real estate magnate, David Joseph Ezra, Esplanade Mansions is probably the only art nouveau building in all of India. It is located at the crossing of Esplanade Row East and Govt. Place East, opposite the Eastern gate of the magnificent Government House (Raj Bhavan). It is currently owned by the Life Insurance Corporation of India, which owns a number of heritage structures all over Calcutta, and has been, happily, restoring them.

The building originally contained some 24 flats, which were much sought after as they offered a view of Government House’s beautiful wooded gardens. It currently houses the offices of the Chief Public Relations Officer of the Eastern Railways, the Railway Claims Tribunal, the Vice Chairman & Member Technical’s offices, along with offices and rest houses of LIC. Several of the flats remain residential. Ex Indian cricketer, Arun Laal had a flat here.

For many years the neglected building was an obnoxious shade of pink. The recent restoration has left it dazzling white and spotless. 

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Currency Building: A Sunday Morning Adventure

In 1833, a handsome, three-storied building came up on the Eastern side of Dalhousie Square. It was built to serve as the headquarters of the Agra Bank, which went into liquidation in 1900. The British Indian government occupied a large portion of the building for it’s currency department in 1868, and that is how it came to be known as the Currency Building.

Built of brick and lime, in Italian style, it had a roof that was arched on an iron joist. That roof unfortunately has collapsed, thanks to decades of neglect. However, the Archaeological Survey of India has possession of the building at present, and is doing a great job of restoration. The officer on the spot informed us that the roof would soon be repaired, once funding was secured. You can see the dilapidated condition of the building in this government photograph, and the original state in this photograph from the1870’s. While people are allowed to enter the building, free of charge, we (me and my friend Amartya) had to have some unique photograph, and hence embarked on a very dangerous adventure. While entrance to the building is from the front, we sneaked in through the rear entrance, which was unguarded. A few laborers stared at us, but did not attempt to challenge us in any way. The plan was to get on the roof, which we thought would give us a good view over Laal Dighi. But access to the roof could only be obtained by climbing the world’s most dangerous spiral staircase.

It was tall. It was old. It was rusty. And it shuddered with every step. I don’t think I have vertigo, but looking down from that staircase, seeing nothing below, was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. My fear was compounded by the fact that there was no such thing as a half landing, so once you get on, you keep climbing till you reach the roof. Getting on to the roof is a fairly frightening experience as well, since the staircase is held in place by one, single, rusty bolt, which fastens it not to the building, but the parapet. But the view we got from the top was well worth the risk.

The expression on the faces of the policemen stationed to guard the building, when we walked into the hall was worth a million dollars. They were completely flabbergasted, as the only proper way into the building was through the main gate, which they guarded. How did two boys come trotting into the hall? Where did they materialize from? We just continued walking around like we owned the place. I do not recommend what we did for anyone else, but you can get some fairly spectacular shots from the hall itself.

Be warned, the overzealous guards can stop you from shooting with DSLR cameras, which makes absolutely no sense, since ASI rules prohibit only video cameras. Be prepared to argue, or get your photos done quickly when he isn’t looking.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Foreign & Military Secretariat, Esplanade Row East

Most Bengalis remember Lord Curzon for one thing and one thing only; the partition of Bengal. But the fact is that Curzon was behind many of Calcutta’s colonial landmarks, and did much to modernize the city and it’s administration. One example may still be seen on Esplanade Row East.

Built in 1909, and designed by PWD architect W Banks Gwyther, the Foreign and Military Secretariat Building, is a clear indication that the Brits wanted to create in Calcutta a mirror image of their beloved London. Afterall, Calcutta then, was still the capital city of British India. The vast Neo-Classical building, with it’s wide verandahs, recessed rooms and large central court yard, would not look out of place in Edwardian London. Sadly, the capital moved to Delhi only three years later, but the building is still occupied by the Ministry of Defence, and currently houses, among others, the office of the Ordnance Factory Board.

Being an MoD building, there are soldiers and guards who may harass you if they find you taking photographs of the building, even from the road, so if you must photograph, please do be discreet, or do what I did; turn up at some ungodly hour, like 6 am on a Sunday, when no one is around.