Monday, 13 October 2014

Martin & Co., Clive Street

There is a red building that stands sandwiched between Gillander House and Coal Bhavan on Clive Street (now Netaji Subhash Road). One look at the building and you’ll know that the top two floors were added on much later. While the bottom three floors are ornamented the top two are bland and uninspiring. Get closer to it and you will find a door with a most striking design. I am no architect so I can only guess that the correct word to describe the projection all around the door would be a canopy; an arched canopy to be exact. It is painted in the red and yellow shade of the building and has quite a bit of ornamentation inside. The door itself is fancy looking, made of wood with glass panes with cast iron grilles on top. The old, dirty, cracked wooden boards on its right side contain the names of the many offices which occupy the building, but there is nothing to identify what the building once was. This was the original office of one of Calcutta’s most important and powerful engineering firms; Martin & Co.

Martin & Co. building today

The story of Martin & Co. begins with Sir Rajen Mookerjee. Born in the small village of Bhabla in Barasat, near Calcutta, as a child Sir Rajen was fascinated by engineering. As a thirteen year old he spent hours inside the Taj Mahal, wondering how someone could put such a magnificent structure together. His first major contract was the laying of the Palta Waterworks, followed by similar jobs in Agra, Allahabad and Benares. Through his work he met Sir Thomas Acquinas Martin, another engineer and they decided to go into business together. But when Sir Thomas suggested the name Martin and Mookerjee, Sir Biren refused. A firm with a native name would suffer because of racist prejudices. It would be difficult to secure large contracts from the government. The firm came to known simply as Martin & Co.

The door with the arched canopy
If one were to look only in the Dalhousie Square area of Calcutta, it would be possible to find close to half a dozen heritage buildings, all constructed by Martin & Co. Among them are the CharteredBank Building and Hong Kong House. Sir Rajen was part of the team of experts that recommended the construction of the Howrah Bridge. In 1932 Martin & Co. finished work on the famous and beautiful Belur Math complex. Sir Rajen also built railway lines, known as Martin’s Light Railways, which connected agricultural districts like Amta, Ranaghat, Krishnanagar, Barasat, Basirhat with Calcutta. But the jewel in his crown would be Calcutta’s Victoria Memorial. Initially, it seems, Martin & Co. were awarded the contract for laying the foundations for the grand memorial planned by Curzon. Eventually they ended up with the entire contract for completing construction. The Victoria Memorial was inaugurated by the Prince of Wales in 1921, and won Sir Rajen his Knighthood the next year. Sir Rajen was also the Chairman of of a committe consisting of a team of experts which recommended the construction of Calcutta's other icon, the Howrah Bridge.

Cast iron ornamentation above door
After the death of Sir Rajen in 1936, the business passed to his son, Sir Birendra Nath Mookerjee. Another engineering firm by the name of Burn & Co. (no connection to Mackintosh Burn) had already been acquired during Sir Rajen’s time, and Sir Biren was already on its board. These two companies were merged to form Martin Burn Ltd. In 1946. I would guess that it was after this merger that the offices were shifted from Clive Street, to the present location, opposite the Laalbazaar Police Headquarters, on a street now called R.N. Mukherjee Road. The firm still operates out of its Laalbazaar office.

Among the many illustrious employees of Martin Burn was David Nahoum, of the family that operated New Market’s famous bakery. An engineer by profession, Nahoum quit his job in 1964 to start his own business, but returned to manage his family’s bakery in 1990, after the death of his brothers, Norman and Solomon. Between the two of them, Martin & Co. and Burn & Co. have constructed the vast majority of Calcutta’s heritage buildings, including the Ochterlony Monument and the Belur Math. A list of structures built by them, upto 1931, may be found here.

Stucco ornamentation on building
Sir Biren’s greatest achievement was probably the founding of The Indian Iron and Steel Company, IISCO, with its plant in a place that came to be known as Burnpur. IISCO rose to fame rapidly as one of the best managed steel plants in the country, and was granted loans by the World Bank thrice, which in itself is quite an achievement. But it began a swift fall from grace in 1967, and was eventually nationalized in 1972, without adequate compensation to Sir Biren. The doyen of industrialization in Bengal died a betrayed and broken man, at the age of 83, exactly one year and two days after I was born.

Martin Burn still exists and continues to prosper, although it is now operated by the Fatehpurias, and the Mookerjees no longer hold any stake. The building on Clive Street too continues to exist bereft of a context. Its broken windows, chipping plaster and fading paint a reflection, of Bengal’s lost industrial glory.

-          by Deepanjan Ghosh


European Calcutta – Dr. Dhurbajyoti Banerjea

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