Monday, 13 July 2015

Why is South Calcutta losing its buildings?

Author Amit Chaudhuri’s campaign to save Calcutta’s old residential buildings, its old neighbourhoods, seems to have caught on. It is sparking discussions in social media and articles about it are getting written and shared. But the houses that he wants to save are not what Calcuttans call “heritage buildings”. They are not colonial, and are not homes of famous people or zamindars, Bengal’s fabulously wealthy landlords. They are family homes of nameless, faceless Bengalis mostly from the middle-income group. What makes these buildings unique and interesting is their often eccentric and unique architecture. A colonial building in Dalhousie Square in Calcutta will find echoes in London, Rangoon and even Australia. But these buildings in Dover Lane, Puddapukur, Bhowanipore and Lansdowne Road are unique, and they are unique to Calcutta. Even more interesting are the few features that almost all these houses share. Two of them in particular have caught Amit Chaudhuri’s eye.

A building near Northern Park being demolished


“Laal Cement” is the name that Bengalis use to refer to Red Oxide flooring, a feature typical to houses right up to the mid-20th century in Calcutta. The red colour comes probably from an oxide of iron, which is mixed with cement to create these floors. So why are they no longer seen in modern buildings? For starters, the red oxide used to be imported, and the stuff manufactured in India now simply isn’t of the same quality. But more importantly, laying these floors is a laborious process, and success depends completely on the skill of the mason. An inept mason equals cracked floors. The floors also do not react well to the mildest acid. If a child were to vomit on a red oxide floor, for instance, that would leave a white mark which would take several days of mopping to disappear. It’s a pity really, because these floors remained beautifully cool in the height of Calcutta’s cruel summer and offered a shine that today’s mosaic and tiled floors simply cannot match.

The green shuttered panes are an oft-talked-about feature of Calcutta’s houses, and I have always wondered why they are green. Perhaps green is suggestive of cooling vegetation? Who can tell? The shutters are, like many architectural features of Calcutta’s buildings, an adaptation for the local climate. In summer, unlike Delhi, Calcutta is both hot and humid. Tatties therefore, will not work here like they work in North India. What is needed is a system that allows air to circulate, while still keeping the sun out and preserving privacy. Voila! You get this unique contraption, which has slats on each pane, running horizontally and pivoting on axles attached to the surrounding frame. Those slats have a long piece of wood attached to them on the inside, running vertically, which allows the slats to be raised and lowered as required and locked into position. Bengalis inexplicably call this vertical piece of wood “pakhi”, meaning bird! While these shuttered panes are most definitely not invented in Calcutta, they remain one of the city’s most recognizable architectural characteristics. To recreate Calcutta on celluloid, one need simply show a yellow or red building with green shuttered panes, a hand-pulled rickshaw and a tram!

But what is happening to these widely-loved buildings and why are they disappearing?

Banerjee residence, Puddapukur Road

Singer Pankaj Kumar Mallick's house, Sebak Baidya Street

Ask any man in in the street why Calcutta’s heritage buildings are disappearing and nine chances out of ten, he will tell you it is the work of unscrupulous property developers. Rogue developers have destroyed and continue to destroy much of the city’s architecture. Some are known to be ruthless and can “apply pressure” to get what they want. Gauripur House on Ballygunge Circular Road, once home to legendary singer Pramathesh Barua, has been brought down and a multi-storeyed building erected in its place. But Gauripur House was a listed heritage building, so how could this happen? It is a mystery! The municipality has renamed Ballygunge Circular Road Pramathesh Barua Sarani. So we now have the ridiculous situation where the street carries the man’s name because he lived on it, and yet nothing remains of his house! But it’s not as if all property development happening in Calcutta (and that would be a lot) is shady. Most of the buildings that Amit Chaudhuri talks about are private residential buildings that have been acquired by developers using perfectly legitimate means. And here we come to another problem. The skyrocketing prices of real estate in South Calcutta.

When my grandfather decided to move out of the joint family home on Garpar Road, he came looking for property in South Calcutta with my great grandfather in the 70’s. My great grandfather took one look at Southern Avenue and said “no gentleman will live here”. Almost 50 years down the line, the only way to live in Southern Avenue is to inherit property there or have a bank balance the size of the Empire State Building! The oldest families in my locality say that when they moved in, most of the place was still farmland, and at night, you could hear jackals calling. Now, it is prime real estate and developers are willing to pay top dollar. I am led to believe that if I sold my family home, I could get more money than I could make in a lifetime! So suppose you’re old, and don’t have a lot of money but have a large house. You sell it to a developer, make a pot of money, move in to a small modern flat and live off the interest. Convenient, no?

A house behind Lansdowne Market


I remember looking at grand old buildings as a child and wondering what it would be like to live in them. My mother had a more practical concern in mind; the number of servants that would be needed to keep a house that size, clean. Servants, domestic help, kaam-wali bai, call them what you will, they have been an intrinsic part of life in India. But two things have changed over the years. First, the average domestic help’s wages have risen dramatically, and second, their supply has diminished. Even in the 80’s there would a constant stream of rural poor coming to Calcutta, to work in city homes, dusting, mopping, doing the dishes, doing the laundry, cooking, and doing a variety of other odd jobs. Many servants spent their entire lives with the families that employed them. My family once employed a small army of them. While it is still relatively simple to find a maid in Calcutta, if you have a palatial residence, your domestic staff will be a source of considerable financial strain. Most would find it much simpler and cheaper to move to a flat.

The financial situation of many of South Calcutta’s oldest residents has changed over time as well. Many of the houses are from the pre-Independence era, when it was possible to have a much more lavish lifestyle on a much more modest income. Consider the house of Rai Bahadur Satyendranath Aditya on Lansdowne Road, now scheduled for demolition. Rai Sahib was an employee of the Military Accounts Department, Eastern Circle. How many government servants can build a house that size today? And while Rai Sahib was surely a rich man, he was a salaried man. What if his son didn’t manage to rise quite as high as him? Maintaining that house would become a serious problem.

Rai Bahadur Satyendranath Aditya's house, Lansdowne Road


Take a walk down Harish Mukherjee Road in Bhowanipore, South Calcutta’s oldest neighbourhood, and you will see magnificent mansions on either side of the road, many still well maintained. Most of these palatial houses started out as home to a joint family, where male siblings lived together with their wives, children and unmarried female siblings. Joint families had a common kitchen and were usually led by the senior-most male family member. But with the 20th century came the rise of the individual. The “I” would no longer make itself subservient to the needs to the group or the will of the patriarch. With a change in the nature of the economy of the country, opting out and making it one one’s own also became a viable option. These houses were built with a different social structure in mind, where a premium was placed on communal space. The courtyards were large, the verandas that everyone shared were airy, but individual rooms were smaller, and contained far less personal belongings than they do today. Today the stress is on personal space. You come back from work, enter your room and shut the door. Today’s people in yesterday’s homes are rather like square pegs in round holes. Some families can adjust to this. For instance, I eat things my parents don’t. They, however, do not create a problem when I cook these things at home. Neither do they object when my friends come over for a drink. In many Bengali homes, even today, such liberties cannot be imagined. And while they may seem trivial such differences are symptoms of a larger problem. Disagreements between brothers often result in large buildings being partitioned, and a part of them being demolished for a multi-storeyed building. One brother has his way. The other parts of the building remain standing, bereft of a context. A good example of this would be the Banerjee residence on Hazra Lansdowne crossing; the central section of the mansion has been replaced by a block of flats!

Bose residence, near Puddapukur Road


For several decades now, Eastern India’s economy has been in decline. Many point to the rise of the Communists in West Bengal as one of the primary reasons for the exit of capital from the state. Companies left Bengal, leaving behind in Calcutta a hollow shell known as a “registered office”. Like them, young people continue to migrate out of Bengal, to Delhi, Bangalore and Bombay in search of work. As Sumana Mukherjee puts it in her article in Mint Lounge, “the houses...were occupied only by my friends’ friends themselves were only on Facebook”. Iftekhar Ahsan, explorer Ifte, of Calcutta Walks however is of the opinion that so much has survived in Calcutta precisely due to the lack of economic activity. If there was as much happening in Calcutta today, as there is in, say Bombay, Amit Chaudhuri wouldn’t have had much to write about. Most of it would have already been gone. But having said that, these are homes after all, and they need the next generation to be living in them to survive.

A residential building on Ritchie Road


“Why do you need to save these buildings anyway”, asked one of my friends. It’s like someone asking you, “why not send your parents to an old age home”? You know there’s something wrong with it, but when someone asks you what exactly it is, it’s difficult to put it in words. The easiest thing to say would be tourism. The often eccentric architecture of these houses would attract tourists and shutterbugs, and that would equal money. But beyond that, the deeper reason is that all the world’s great cities have one thing in common; character. Part of that character comes from the culture and the history of a place. But the most visible part of it comes from the city’s architecture and world’s greatest cities fight to protect it. These houses are a visible reminder of a different time. Each house was attached to a character who lived there, and would serve as much as a destination as a navigation aid. If you were new in the neighbourhood, you said you lived “in the second building on the right after Dhiren Babu’s house” or something similar. All the people in my neighbourhood still call my house “Judge Shaheb er baadi” (Judge Sahib’s house), even though the judge in question, my grandfather, died when I was 5. Now, every delivery man who calls to confirm my address asks me which floor I live on, and I tell every one of them with a laugh that I live on all the floors, “baadi, flat naa” (it’s a house, not a flat). Deep inside your heart, no matter how practical or hard boiled you may be, you know it’s wrong to allow the entire city to turn into a bland palette of sameness.

Calcutta CLinical Laboratory, Ritchie Road


This is the tricky part. If you close one door, you are also obligated to open another. So how are these buildings to be saved? Many of South Calcutta’s residents with large houses are now taking in “paying guests”, mostly students from out of town, who pay for food and lodging. Adaptive re-use is another option. Calcutta Clinical Laboratory adjacent to Maddox Square has for the longest time operated out of what is unmistakeably a residential building whose exterior has been left unchanged. Amit Chaudhuri wants three things –

1.       The West Bengal Heritage Commission and the KMC Heritage Committee should have more teeth to be able to take action.
2.       The list of heritage buildings should be urgently and substantially extended.
3.       Various neighbourhoods should be declared heritage zones or precincts

But what then? My uncle’s house on Amherst Street for example has been declared a heritage building (ironically after the destruction of the building’s projecting front porch to widen Amherst Street) and he has been informed that he cannot make structural changes to the building without first seeking permission. He has a simple and valid question, “how about paying me at least some part of the maintenance cost”? That is something the government needs to look at. A small start would be to offer owners of heritage buildings tax incentives that would encourage them not to tear them down.

Sarat Kutir, Ritchie Road

What can you, the reader do, to help? For starters, read Amit Chuadhuri’s letter to the Chief Minister of West Bengal, and his article in The Guardian. Then, if you feel convinced, please sign the petition. These grand old buildings are part of our collective inheritance, and hence it is we, the citizens of Calcutta, who must fight to preserve them. It is not going to be easy. But things really worth doing, rarely ever are.

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


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