One of the reasons why I do what I do, photographing and writing about old buildings, is because I personally got fed up looking at buildings and not knowing what they were. According to author Brian Paul Bach, Calcutta is one of the least demolished cities in the world and a combination of declining economic activity in the East of India, a hopelessly overstretched judiciary and antiquated laws has meant that many of Calcutta’s colonial era buildings survive, still occupied by tenants. However, pro-tenant laws ensure that the revenue generated by many such buildings is so minuscule that their proper upkeep is often not possible. The sad truth is that if you own a commercial building with a heritage tag in Calcutta, it is much more profitable for you if that building collapses or goes up in flames. Thus, many of Calcutta’s old buildings continue to exist in a precarious condition, ghostly reminders of a colonial past. One such building is the one at 14, Netaji Subhas Road (formerly Clive Street).
DUDE, WHAT THE HECK WAS THIS?
I have passed it many times on my way to and back from Howrah station, and I remember thinking how this building and its surrounding buildings made Calcutta look so very different from the South Calcutta where I lived. To a child, this part of the city with its towering colonial structures looked a little bit like London. This particular building was all the more remarkable because it seemed to stand in the middle of the road. This was the point at which Netaji Subhas Road forked. Dr Rajendra Prasad Sarani (formerly Clive Row) branched off to the right while Netaji Subhas Road continued further North to merge with Brabourne Road, leaving this one sole building facing South. To add to the mystique was the fact that the building’s façade (just a fancy way of saying front) was curved instead of straight, which made it appear similar to Gillander House, right across the street. But dude, what the heck was this?
There are some questions the answers to which you think you will never get, and you make your peace with it. It is easy enough to find out the history of a famous building. But what about a building that is not famous; just old? How could anyone know what it used to be? The people who built it have gone home, the people who remember are dead. It’s only when I started writing about Calcutta’s heritage buildings that I understood that answers to such questions, most of them at any rate, could actually be found. One simply needed to look at books. The first book which I looked at was one of my earliest acquisitions. INTACH’s “Calcutta: Built Heritage Today”. This contains painstaking documentation of the heritage buildings of the city and I used it as a guide to decide which buildings to cover. I just happened to be flipping through it one day when I saw the photograph, and all my childhood memories came rushing back to me. Memories of early morning taxi rides through streets still dark, of huge shapes looming in the distance, silhouetted against a sky that was blushing pink, of these magnificent buildings, this little London, of which I managed to catch only a fleeting glimpse. But there wasn’t much by way of information. It simply said, “Commercial Building, 14 Netaji Subhas Road”, followed by a few words about the architectural style. INTACH’s guess was that this was an early 20th-century building. But dude, what the heck was this?
THE FIRST CLUE
An Armenian journalist living in Calcutta had once written a book about the city under the pseudonym, John Barry. This book, Calcutta Illustrated (sometimes also called Calcutta 1940), contains street by street descriptions of the city, including details of major buildings. Unfortunately, I have never been able to get my hands on an actual physical copy. No problem though, since some folks have put the entire book out on the web, on a website called gypsyscholar.com. This was my next point of reference. What is now Netaji Subhas Road was known as Clive Street back then, and John Barry’s book has a section dedicated to it, under the title “Clive Street: the Wall Street of the East”. In it, among other buildings, he describes one which is adjacent to no. 10 - “Adjoining it and facing south, is Graham Building, giving accommodation to the Eastern Bank Ltd., the Bank of India Ltd., the Federal Union Insurance Co. Ltd. and the Bank Line Ltd., (formerly Andrew Weir & Co.). By the side of Graham Building is Clive Row, running across Canning Street and rejoining Clive Street at No. 14”. The description was an absolute match. There is only one building on all of Clive Street which faces South, and running next to it is Clive Row, which has been renamed to Dr. Rajendra Prasad Sarani. So, this is the Graham Building then!
ENTER THE EDIFICE-MAN
Author Brian Paul Bach, whom I mentioned earlier, has collaborated with me on several blog posts. He has edited my text, provided feedback and supplied photographs and references from obscure volumes in his vast personal library. In many ways, Brian is my secret weapon. Brian has authored many books. Among them is a scholarly volume on Calcutta’s Architecture called “Calcutta’s Edifice: The Buildings of a Great City”, and hence the nickname, Edifice-Man. I shot off a mail to Brian with the details I had managed to find, asking if he could confirm that 9 Clive Street was indeed the Graham Building, and if he could find any more details about the building. The reply from Brian came back the very next day. “This was almost too easy” Brian had written. He confirmed that Graham Building was indeed the building in question, and its old address was 9 Clive Street. He even sent me this map…
Name and address confirmed, the Googling could now begin. A great advantage that people like me now have is that Google can actually go through entire books to find words or phrases that I am looking for. Often, these happen to be books which are out of print and therefore not otherwise available. I have tried to piece together titbits of information that I found from various sources and tried to create a backstory for this building.
GRAHAM & CO. – WHAT WE KNOW
Graham & Co. it seems were the Calcutta arm of a Scottish firm. An obituary in the Glasgow Herald of 27th February 1945 announces the death of Sir Cecil Graham. Sir Cecil came to India in 1897 at the age of 25 and would become the head of the Calcutta branch of Graham & Co. He shows up in a Bourne & Shepherd photograph of the Calcutta Polo Club, seated next to the “Maharaja of Kishenghur” (Krishnanagar?). He was a member of both the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and the Bengal Legislative Assembly. Apart from Calcutta, the company also seems to have had a presence in Bombay (now Mumbai) and there is mention of Grahams’ Buildings of Bombay in “The India List and India Office List of 1905”. But when exactly did the building come up? I can’t find a foundation stone, so we shall have to indulge in some guesswork. A clue is provided by the venerable Montague Massey, in his book “Recollections of Calcutta for Over Half a Century”, where he writes, “Graham & Co., on their first arrival in Calcutta, occupied 14, Old Court House Lane, and afterwards removed to 9, Clive Street, which, as we all know, was pulled down a few years ago, and the present palatial premises erected on its site”. The book was published in 1918, and I assume when Massey says “a few years” he means 10 years or less. So, therefore, we narrow it down to somewhere after 1908. Somerset Playne writes in his book “Bengal And Assam, Behar And Orissa” that by 1916, Pyne, Hughman & Co. Ltd. had installed a modern electric lift (elevator) in the Graham Building. This would mean we can further narrow down the time to between 1908 and 1916. Earlier maps suggest that the property was owned by the certain Mr. Griffiths in the 1760’s. As was typical for the time, the building was much larger than what the company itself needed and portions were rented out to other companies.
Exactly what businesses were Graham & Co. in? In all their advertisements, Graham & Co. are described as “agents” for a large number of shipping lines and insurance companies. These are the people you went to for booking passage or for an insurance policy. This kind of work is not possible any more thanks to modern communications and the internet. Brian says, “Clive St. was a virtual beehive of offices where whole empires were run just by pushing papers”. Nowadays, if you want to go somewhere, you just go to the company’s website, make your reservations and pay via credit card; no middleman involved. Travel agents in India still make train reservations for you, thanks to the railways website being one of the most difficult to navigate, and charge a small percentage of the price of the tickets.
GRAHAM BUILDING – PRESENT CONDITION
INTACH’s book describes the maintenance of the Graham Building as “fair to poor”. The building is still in use and accommodates several firms. Google Maps says “Dumdum Foundry and Engineers Private Limited” have their offices here. So the building isn’t exactly collapsing. But it is in far worse condition than both Andrew Yule House and Balmer Lawrie, which are both quite close by. The façade has both stone cladding and brick which gives it a handsome appearance, although trees have taken root in several places. Firms which occupy the building have placed modern signs in a haphazard manner, covering up the pediment above the ground floor entrance. The arched windows with shuttered panes are typical of Calcutta, although several windows are boarded up to accommodate ACs. Calcuttans seem even less willing to put up with the heat and humidity of their city than their erstwhile colonial masters.
The pavement around the building is taken up by labourers and migrants, mostly from Bihar. They live here and many of them run food stalls that cater to the office crowd on weekdays. One of the items available here is “litti”, a round, toasted bread, eaten with spicy mashed potatoes. As I was walking around the area, I suddenly smelt spices. Ramdev Yadav, from Darbhanga dictrict, Bihar, sells sprouts tossed with powdered masalas, and he was pounding his masalas in a mortar and pestle, right there on the pavement. The aroma was absolutely delightful. As is typical of the Dalhousie area, a bewildering network of wires is spread out all over the building. The cast iron gate on the Western side contains the monogram “G & Co.”, confirming the building’s identity. One of the security guards tells me that the building is owned by a certain Mr. Bangur, who lives in Alipore. I wonder if the reference is to Keshav Bangur. The maintenance is pathetic he says, but the same is true for many buildings in the area.
And so Graham Building carries on. Structures from this period were built to last, and lasted she has. Blogger Rangan Datta says that history is spread all around us like a jigsaw puzzle. I’ve supplied you with all the information I could find about one piece of the puzzle. So the next time you’re in this part of town, and happen to look up, you will know what you’re looking at.
- by Deepanjan Ghosh
Brian Paul Bach, without whose help, this story would not have been possible. Find Brian’s Goodreads page here. He is presently working on an updated, electronic edition of his book, Calcutta’s Edifice. Check out Brian's Blog here.
Barry, John – Calcutta Illustrated
Thacker’s Calcutta Directory – 1929/1945
Lal, Nilina Deb - Calcutta: Built Heritage Today
The India List and India Office List of 1905
Playne, Somerset – Bengal And Assam, Behar And Orissa
Massey, Montague – Recollections of Calcutta For Over Half a Century
Cotton, Sir Harry Evan Auguste – Calcutta Old & New