Monday, 28 March 2016

Army & Navy Stores, Chowringhee

I distinctly remember the day I first heard the name “Kanak Buildings”. I was in college and was entering the Maidan Metro station when I happened to look up and on the wall found the sign saying “Kanak Building Exit”. While I was much less curious about heritage buildings back then, it did strike me as very odd. The red and white building in Edwardian style could pass for a Raj era government building. But “Kanak” was an Indian woman’s name! What the hell was going on here anyway? Many years later, when I started writing about Calcutta’s (Kolkata) heritage buildings, I chanced upon the Flickr page of DCR Finch and discovered that this was once The Army & Navy Stores.



One of the amusements from which the European females are supposed to derive infinite delight (shopping), is almost denied to the ladies of India, who can receive little gratification from visiting the dingy depots, in which a multifarious assortment of articles, more distinguished for their variety than for their beauty, are heaped together with a very slight attention to method in their arrangement”. 

Emma Roberts’ rather unflattering description of Indian markets was published in The Athenaeum, in September 1830. Back then, for Europeans, when it came to shopping, Calcutta (Kolkata) was probably the best bet between the Middle East and China. Calcutta’s famous hotels all had retail areas. Legend has it that the Great Eastern Hotel’s arcade could supply everything a gentleman needed, from top to bottom. But the modern departmental store would evolve out of shops that in colonial Calcutta, were known as “drapers and mercers; shops which sold cloth. The first such store was Francis, Harrison, Hathaway and Co., described as "first class drapers" in 1864. By the 1890’s, they had adopted a “departmental” organisation and repeated it, with great success in branches in Simla, Lahore, Darjeeling and Allahabad. Not many are aware that P. N. Hall and William Anderson, who started Park Street’s famous Hall & Anderson, the first shop to formally advertise itself as a general departmental store, were both employees of Francis, Harrison, Hathaway and Co., as was E. Whiteaway, who would go on to start Whiteaway Laidlaw. Into this rather competitive market, The Army & Navy Stores arrived in 1901.


Incorporated on 15 September 1871, The Army & Navy Co-operative Society Ltd was formed by a group of army and navy officers for the supply of articles of domestic consumption and general use to its members at the lowest remunerative rates. It was based on the model of two earlier middle-class co-operatives, the Civil Service Supply Association and the Civil Service Co-operative Society. The first store opened in London’s Victoria Street in February 1872. Business expanded rapidly, and the society began opening stores abroad, starting with Paris in 1875. The Indian arm started with two stores, one in Apollo Street in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1890, and another in Bundar Road, Karachi, in 1892. The decision to not start up with Calcutta (Kolkata) was probably driven by the fact that the retail sector in the then capital, was already very developed. The Bengal Club had been eyeing the plot on Chowringhee, considering purchasing it for a new clubhouse. But members objected to abandoning their old building, and the negotiations came to nought. The price of the plot, Montague Massey writes, was “some Rs. 2,50,000 or Rs. 3,00,000”. The Calcutta branch opened with great fanfare in 1901.


I can’t find the name of the architect, the firm which executed the design, or the cost of construction of the building, but the style is very Calcutta. Cotton writes, “The stranger may be forgiven if he mistakes it for the University or the premises of some Government Department”. Indeed, the red walls, the multiple pediments, and the white stucco decoration are very reminiscent of Writers’, although the mansard roof is not present here. Tall columns with Corinthian capitals hold up the central pediment, which faces Chowringhee while a smaller pediment crowns the entrance on the ground floor. The façade is characterised by a series of semi-circular arches with stucco decoration in the spandrels. Stucco faces or figurines, seen in many of Calcutta’s (Kolkata) finest buildings, such as The Standard Life Assurance Building, are not seen here. Vigorous modifications of the interiors have made them completely modern and even on the exterior, one cannot miss the regular punctuation of air-conditioning units. But short of that modern intrusion, the exterior looks rather spectacular, especially in the golden light of the setting sun. “The Telegraph” of 4th April 2010 reported illegal constructions on the building’s roof, speculating that this may make the building unsafe, but a modern sprinkler system has been installed, and the pipes for it may be seen on the southern side of the building.


The Army & Navy Stores, in its heydays, must have been quite something. The Calcutta (Kolkata) and Bombay branches were enormous, and “functioned as travel agents, bankers, caterers, undertakers, and insurance brokers, as well as purveyors of the pith helmets, thunder-boxes (a rudimentary outdoor toilet), plum puddings, and all the other myriad things listed in the Army and Navy's catalogue, which ran to more than a thousand pages. This catalogue was the bible of the British Raj. Kipling's Mrs. Vansuythen and Mrs. Hauksbee would have been unable to function without it”. Famous English comedian and author Terence Alan 'Spike' Milligan, who was born at Ahmednagar in 1918, recalls how eagerly he awaited the Army and Navy Stores catalogue: "It used to arrive three months before Christmas which was just enough time for you to rush through it and order things for Christmas. A large part was devoted to the military services and I remember this complete page on how to go to a military picnic. ... I found it more interesting to look through this book than the Boy's Own Annual...". At its peak, there were A.N.S. stores operating out of Mumbai, Karachi, Calcutta, New Delhi, Shimla and Ranchi.

The in-house whisky, The Army & Navy Scotch Whisky was popular in Calcutta (Kolkata) and by 1876, the firm had got into tailoring and printing as well. The Chowringhee building’s top floor had a tearoom, which sold imported provisions, and items such as tinned beef mince. In spite of being a European store, it wasn’t just European holidays such as Christmas and New Year’s which Calcutta’s departmental stores exploited. The Army & Navy Store had “puja” sales as well, to take advantage of the massive purchases made by Hindus during the period leading up to their biggest festival. Sales were enormous by 19th century standards, thanks to the A.N.S. ordering massive price cuts and advertising playing this up as selling at “real cost”. They were retailers for the Gramophone Company of India and it seemed also supplied the doomed 1924 expedition to scale Everest, in which  George Mallory and Andrew "Sandy" Irvine disappeared.


The Army & Navy Stores suffered significantly during WWII. First The Great Depression of the 1930’s, then the blitz, in which the Turnham Green and Portsmouth premises suffered serious bomb damage while the Plymouth depot was entirely destroyed. The final death knell was sounded by Indian independence. The Calcutta (Kolkata) store shut down in 1948. The last Indian store to wind down was Bombay in 1952. The British arm would continue to operate until 1973, when it was acquired by retail giants, House of Fraser Ltd.

The Chowringhee building was acquired by the Poddars, who own many heritage properties in Calcutta (including Tower House in Dharmatala), and they named it after a lady in their family, which is how it came to be called Kanak Buildings. For a long time Kanak Buildings housed the offices of Grindlay’s Bank. Today, there are a number of offices operating from it, including Standard Chartered Bank and Blue Dart. The giant Blue Dart signage on the façade looks as out of place as the name of the building itself. One more thing that is out of place is the font used to spell out Kanak Buildings. Art Deco font on an Edwardian building?! We are like this only!

-          By Deepanjan Ghosh


Bach, Brian Paul – Calcutta’s Edifice
Das, Soumitra – A Jaywalker’s Guide to Calcutta
Lal, Nilina Deb – Calcutta : Built Heritage Today
Banerjea, Dhrubajyoti – European Calcutta
Richardson, John – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Massey, Montague - Recollections of Calcutta for over Half a Century
Cotton, Sir Harry Evan Auguste – Calcutta Old & New
Norton, E.F. - Fight for Everest 1924: Mallory, Irvine and the quest for Everest
Nayar, Pramod K. – Days of the Raj: Life and Leisure in British India
Smith, Rosemary  - Army & Navy Co-operative Society Limited
Kinnear, Michael S. - The Gramophone Company's First Indian Recordings, 1899-1908
Furedy, Christine – Era of Mail Order Shopping
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