Thursday, 3 July 2014

The Oriental Assurance Building, Clive Row

I am filled with a deep sadness every time I look up at the Oriental Assurance Building on Clive Row (now Dr. Rajendra Prasad Sarani). What a terrible fate for one of the city’s most beautiful buildings! Though the main door has “LIC City Office” painted all over it, one look through the door at elevator will confirm that the building cannot possibly be in use at the present time. Chunks of collapsing masonry have damaged cars parked in the area. Portions of the staircase have collapsed, making access to the roof a dangerous proposition. Trees have taken root all over the structure, deepening cracks in the structure and the few inhabitants that the building still has, in spite of a vacate order posted on the door, are at serious risk of being buried alive one day. The sheer architectural splendour of the building makes it all the more tragic. The Oriental Assurance Building is one of the finest buildings of the Dalhousie area, Calcutta’s (Kolkata) central business district.



When insurance companies began operating in India, their customer base was limited exclusively to Europeans. European companies and the government were concerned that there were no statistics available about native mortality, and that it was simply not possible to ascertain the value of a native life. The Oriental Government Security Life Assurance Company was in this regard, a pioneer among pioneers. Not only did it offer policies to Indians, Indians formed the majority of its directors. Oriental Life began its journey on the 5th of May, 1874, from Bombay (Mumbai). The company was started by Mr. Duncan McLauchlan Slater, Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries, with Kamrudin Tyabji, Raghunath Narayan Khote, Jehangir Rustomjee Mody and 9 other wealthy Indians. By the 31st of November 1874 they had on their books 17 Policies, insuring Rs. 54,000 with an annual income of Rs. 2,812. Business was good over the next few decades and the company expanded rapidly, opening its first branch office in Madras, in 1901. The 2nd branch office was in Calcutta, built in 1914.


The frontage of the Oriental Assurance Building is 9 bays wide, with the central and side bays projecting forward. The central bay has a pediment at the 2nd floor level. In the centre of the pediment is what is probably the Oriental Life Assurance crest; an inverted five pointed star, set in the middle of a blazing sun, and surrounded by flowers. The building appears to have 5 floors, although the ramshackle looking top floor may have been added later, perhaps illegally. There are four faux columns with ionic capitals separating the bays. The façade of the ground, first and second floors are rusticated. The side entrances are under the two projecting side bays, each is capped with a pediment. Extremely intricate stucco ornamentation is seen all over the façade. Above each 2nd floor window is a human face, over a type of ornamentation called a festoon. The entire thing is done in stucco, and the fruits and ribbons in the festoon are beautifully and remarkably accurately executed. But the most striking feature and one that is not easily visible from ground level are the four giant male figures holding up the roof. Each of these figures is the height of an entire floor, and stands atop each of the four columns that divide the building’s bays. Their arms are extended upwards with the roof appearing to rest on their hands and heads. The figures are definitely Greek, and are bare bodied. The arms have broken off one of the figures, and we can see there that the figures are actually hollow. In the warm evening glow, partially covered in weeds, these figures look like they’re straight out of a Game of Thrones episode!

Standing next to the iconic Gillander House, The Oriental Assurance Building was built in a “somewhat free Renaissance treatment…keeping in view the commercial requisites of the Office”. As was the norm for the time, only a small portion of the building was occupied by the actual company that had it built. The rest was rented out as office space. Further branches were opened in Bangalore, Nagpur, and even Rangoon. Rangoon’s branch office survives to this day, and maybe seen here. But shooting the building was no easy task. The building’s great height, and the narrow street it stands on, made it a very challenging task. Ultimately, my friend Amartya was able to charm his way into the building on the opposite side of the street, and managed to get us onto the roof, and the view from there was truly breath-taking. In return, Amartya asked that we name a statue after him, and I therefore named the figure whose photograph you see accompanying this post, “Amosthenes Bowbazareus”!!!

It is a pity that such buildings in the heart of the city are rotting away. Owners and developers often wait for the buildings to collapse, so that new office blocks may be brought up in their place. To be sure, demolishing older buildings and erecting new ones in their place is nothing new. The Treasury Building, for instance, stands on the grounds of what was once Asia’s first hotel, Spence’s. But in that case, a magnificent building was replaced by another magnificent building. The words magnificent or beautiful simply do not come to mind when looking at a modern glass and steel office building. Most of them are in fact rather unimaginative boxes, which are simply built to serve a purpose. The building is currently owned by the Life Insurance Corporation of India, and I cannot understand why they would allow such a beautiful building to rot away, when they have recently renovated many other heritage properties under their care. A Security guard tells us that corruption and greed have been taking their toll on this entire neighbourhood; priceless furniture is being sold off for a pittance, many buildings are being illegally demolished. I cannot bear to think of the day when a group of workmen will descend on the Oriental Assurance Building, like vultures on an elephant’s corpse, and with their hammers and shovels and chisels fell in a matter of weeks, something that has stood for more than 100 years.

Can the the Oriental Assurance Building be saved? That would depend on you. Contact the people in the Government if you know any. Write to the Life Insurance Corporation of India. The only email address for them that I could find is customerzone_kolkata@licindia.com, their website is http://www.licindia.in/, Twitter handle seems to be @LICIndiaForever, or alert the Calcutta (Kolkata) chapter of INTACH through their facebook page here. For the urban explorers and photographers, the Oriental Assurance Building is simple enough to find. If you open up this Google Maps link, you will find Dr. Rajendra Prasad Sarani branching off to the right from Netaji Subhas Road. Enter that lane, and it’s the 2nd building on your right. See it, photograph it, and be awed by it, before it’s gone forever.

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- by Deepanjan Ghosh (with inputs from Brian Paul Bach)


SUGGESTED FURTHER READING


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

  • I am grateful to Brian Paul Bach for his inputs and encouragement. Brian has written several books, including a scholarly volume on Calcutta entitled “Calcutta’s Edifice”. Check out his Goodreads page here, and his blog here.
  • Thanks also to Amartya Saha for getting us on the rooftop, and to Soumyadeep Ray for putting up with my tardiness with a smile and accompanying us. 
SOURCES
  • Recollections of Calcutta for Over Half a Century – Massey, Montague
  • A Short History of the Oriental Government Security Life Assurance Company
  • DBH Ker’s notes on Flickr
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