Sunday, 16 July 2017

Basu Bati, Bagbazar

Basu Bati on Bagbazar Street in North Calcutta (Kolkata) deserves to be known as one of the most unique heritage buildings in the entire city. Its architecture is in a style that is not seen anywhere else and its history is rich and eventful. But while few have stepped into its hallowed portals, fewer still know its full story.

 
THE STORY OF THE BASU FAMILY

The scions of Basu Bati, Nanda Lal, and Pasupati Basu, were of the 24th generation descended from Dasarat Basu, the first man in recorded history to use the Basu surname. All Basus and Boses can trace their lineage back to him. Among Dasarat’s illustrious descendants are the Sarbadhikari family of Amherst Street, among them Sisir Prasad Sarbadhikari, who was part of the 49th Bengalee Regiment that saw action in the Mesopotamian campaign of WWI. Among Dasarat’s other noteworthy descendants, are the Indian freedom fighter, Subhas Chandra Bose (aka Netaji), and Amar Gopal Bose, founder of the Bose Corporation, famous for their high-end audio products.

Nanda Lal and Pasupati Nath were sons of Madhav Chandra Basu and grandsons of Jagat Chandra Basu, of the distinguished Basu family of Kantapukur in Shyambazar. Madhav Chandra died in June 1859, leaving behind three sons – Mahendra Nath, Nanda Lal, and Pasupati Nath. Around 1874, Mahendra Nath’s uncle passed away and he inherited a large zamindari in Gaya from him, which he helped extricate from legal complications. Because of the lavish income from the zamindari, the family was able to acquire the land in Bagbazar, on which Basu Bati stands today. The foundation stone was laid in October of 1876 and the family moved in two years later.

Top - The Basu family tree printed in 1933. Bottom - crop of the bottom left showing the Basu Bati residents

NILMANI MITRA: THE ARCHITECT OF BASU BATI

As the architect of their family seat in the city, the Basus selected Nilmani Mitra, who also happened to be the first Bengali to qualify as a civil engineer. Mitra’s family is connected to Calcutta’s history in a number of ways. He was a descendant of Rudreshwar Mitra, who was the elder brother of Kashishwar Mitra, who built the famous Kashi Mitra Ghat. They had been residents of the village of Govindpore, which had long existed before Calcutta came to be. However, in the wake of Siraj’s invasion of Calcutta in 1756, the British chose to relocate Fort William to Govindpore and threw out all the residents of the area. From his new home in Jelepara, immediately to the southeast in Bhawanipore, Mitra would go on to study at the Duff College near Nimtala crematorium [Burning Ghat?], which had since been merged with the Scottish Church College. The Duff College building served for many years as the Jorabagan Police Station and is now an abandoned, overgrown ruin. Mitra would rise to the post of Assistant Engineer in the Presidency Division, but quit government service over a difference of opinion. In addition to a number of palatial buildings in Calcutta, Mitra also designed the Chariot of Jagannath temple of Mahesh in Serampore.

The Thakurdalan
FLOOR PLAN AND ARCHITECTURE OF BASU BATI

Given the way Basu Bati has been divided up, the floor plan of the building can seem confusing initially. But if one were to look at the drawings of Shivashis Bose, currently in possession of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, it becomes clear that the building follows a plan common for great houses of the time. The two-storeyed building faces the south. The southern face has 5 bays. The central and corner bays are projecting and contain columns. 8 columns in the central bay have lion capitals while 4 columns each in each of the corner bays have plain capitals. Through the central bay, one enters a large courtyard. There are rooms on the southern, eastern and western side of this courtyard, behind colonnaded verandas, while the northern side is occupied by a magnificent thakurdalan, of double height. This raised and covered space was used for religious functions and festivities, such as Durga Puja. The rooms to the east of the main courtyard Shivashis Bose’s drawing labels as “baithak khana”, a sort of drawing room where guests were entertained. This formed the bahir mahal or outer house. The building extends further north, into the andar mahal or inner house. Back in the Basu Bati’s heyday, conservative Hindus would observe purdah, by which the women of the household were sequestered, and not seen by outsiders. The andar mahal was where the women lived and only female outsiders and close male family members would be admitted here. This particular section contains another smaller courtyard.

Shivashis Bose's drawing of Basu Bati. North is to the right.

The reason Basu Bati looks so different from any other building from this period is because Nilmani Mitra chose Islamic and Hindu influences for the building, as opposed to the more conventional European styles. The capitals and columns used in Basu Bati are dramatically different from anything one sees in European style mansions in Calcutta (Kolkata) or Bengal in general. The 8 columns on the central bay in the south have capitals which I have never seen anywhere else. Instead of the commonly seen floral motifs, they contain a circle of lion heads in relief. Each is connected to the other by a double row of beads. The thakurdalan has 3 rows of columns. The outermost columns contain Hindu style capitals with lotus motifs in stucco. The two rows of columns on the interior are short and squat with square bases and look like medieval Hindu temple columns. The capitals here are floral but different on each row. Around the thakurdalan, the columns on the ground floor are ocatagonal on the ground floor and round on the first. The capitals on the first floor are of the more conventional European floral type, but not of any specific order, while those on the ground floor contain an unusual pattern of stucco beads. The smaller courtyard once again contains octagonal columns on the ground floor with plain capitals, while those on the first floor have capitals with foliage patterns halfway up, and circular faux columns with floral capitals emerge above them. It is quite clear that Nilmani Mitra tried very hard to create as much variety as possible.

The andar-mahal courtyard
Another feature of interest are the arches of Basu Bati. All the arches in Basu Bati are scalloped, Islamic style. The same goes for the arches above the windows and doors in the rooms. But even with these arches there is an attempt to create variety. While the arches around the northern courtyard are smaller than those in the thakurdalan, they are more fanciful. Also of note in the lotus motif, which keeps popping up all over the house, on capitals, on walls and even on floor tiles. Fine marble flooring survives in much of the house, especially in the andar mahal. But the star of the show, is without question, the thakurdalan.

Intricately decorated, it can take quite a while to absorb its splendours. Apart from the 3 rows of columns, the interior is richly decorated as well. Above the arches are a number of stucco medallions containing Hindu religious and mythological figures. I could identify only Ganesha, which is easy, since he has the head of an elephant, but Joanne Taylor identifies Shiva, Brahma and Parvati as well. The rear wall contains a series of mysterious female faces whose eyes are closed. The overall impression is as if one were inside an ancient Hindu cave temple, such as Ellora. Inside the thakurdalan there were once panels with Kalighat-style pawt paintings. The last person to get a photograph of them was blogger Amitabha Gupta. Since then, much of the plaster has fallen off the walls, revealing the brick underneath. This was once the venue for very grand Durga Pujas, filled with light, colour and the sounds of celebration. It is now a dark, dank, cavernous space where the only sound is that of pigeons who have built their nests on the rafters.

Lotus capitals on Thakurdalan columns
Towards the left of the entrance, through the central bay on the south, is the stairwell that leads to the first floor. The stairs are wooden, as is typical for the period, with decorative cast iron posts holding up a wooden handrail. There is a skylight above the stairwell, somewhat unusual for a Bengali house, but perhaps not so unusual if you consider that the house came up before the advent of electricity. On the southern side are two rooms, one of them very large, both with very large arch patterns formed by plaster on the walls. In the larger room, there appear to be arched openings near the ceiling which have been bricked-up. Journalist Gautam Basu Mullick speculates that these may have served the same purpose as the skylight above the stairs. The rooms on the western side are clearly private and residential and look very different from the southern rooms. They appear to have been lived in until recently, and the walls and flooring tiles look like they are in much better shape.

Lion capitals on southern columns

A wall divides the southern veranda in half. The rooms to the east of this wall, the rooms on the east of the main courtyard, and the northern section of the house, i.e., the andar mahal, are presently occupied by the Ramakrishna Day Students Home, which is a state government initiative. Started by West Bengal’s visionary Chief Minister Bidhan Chandra Ray in 1956, Ramakrishna Day Students Home, which locals simply call “home”, provides a library, several reading rooms and a canteen to college students at a nominal cost. Even today, when a bottle of water costs 22 rupees, the canteen serves a full lunch for 4 rupees and snacks for 2 rupees to students with library membership. On the ground floor, the rooms to the south of the smaller courtyard are currently used as offices for the Ramakrishna Day Students Home, while a large room on the north of the house serves as the canteen. On the first floor, the southern rooms along with a portion of the corresponding veranda (which has been bricked-up), function as the library while a few other chambers are used as reading rooms. Several rooms on the first floor are under lock and key, and are not in use. While this section of the house appears to be in somewhat better shape, employees of the library say that leaking roofs and plaster chunks falling off the ceiling are common occurrences here as well. 

Stucco medallions inside Thakurdalan
BASU BATI: FROM REGALITY TO RUIN

Even before Basu Bati had been completed, Mahendra Nath died on 16th August 1874, from complications of diabetes. The property passed on to Nanda Lal and Pasupati Nath. Nanda Lal had five sons: Binod Behari, Bipin Behari, Banku Behari, Bono Behari and Boto Behari. Pasupati Nath’s two sons from his first marriage, Amarnath, and Amulyanath died in their 30’s. The youngest son from his 2nd marriage, Ananthnath Basu would continue residing in the house, along with Nanda Lal’s descendants, until around Independence. That the relationship between them wasn’t always cordial is shown by Swati Chattopadhyay in her book “Representing Calcutta”, which provides significant insights into the conditions of the house at this time. Nistarini Dasee, a young widow of one the Basu men, dragged Pasupati Nath and Nanda Lal into court, claiming they had carved the property amongst themselves and made no provisions for her. It would seem that property disputes had already caused a partition of the house by 1898 when Nistarini filed her case. But the final blow would come almost 60 years later.

Matching engineering drawings to photos of the southern face of the building explains what is visible

Anathnath Basu was a flamboyant man, known as Kali Babu in the Bagbazar area. He was married to the daughter of Nirmal Chandra Chunder, a wealthy solicitor and one of the “big five” of the Indian National Congress in Bengal. According to sources in the Basu family, in the period immediately after Independence, Chunder had managed to run up huge debts. In an attempt to pay off his father-in-law’s debts, Kali Babu decided to sell off his half of the house. Journalist Gautam Basu Mallick contends that Anathnath may have had to sell his house because of his own extravagances. For example, with his niece’s aashirbaad, a Hindu pre-wedding ceremony, Anathnath arranged an 112-course feast. The menu was printed on silk handkerchiefs and distributed to guests. Basu Bati was split down the middle in 1956, with the government of West Bengal, headed by the legendary Dr. Bidhan Chandra Ray, purchased the eastern half of the main courtyard and the northern andar mahal, with the western half remaining in possession of Nanda Lal’s descendants. Although many, including the venerable Joanne Taylor, are under the impression that this half of the house was donated, all my sources are confident that it was sold.

The 1st-floor southern hall. Note bricked up arches, top left
Anathnath Basu, along with his family, i.e., Pasupati Nath’s descendants, moved to Sinthee in North 24 Parganas, after the sale. Meanwhile, in Basu Bati, with Nanda Lal’s sons getting married and starting families of their own, the house was no longer adequate for their needs. Nanda Lal’s 2nd son, Bipin Behari Basu would eventually move back into the original house of his ancestors, which is today the Girls’ Hostel of Manindra College. Binod Behari would move out and build himself another house to the northwest corner of Basu Bati, on land where the stables once stood. That left Banku Behari, Bono Behari and Boto Behari in possession of Basu Bati. But by now, with Independence and the abolition of the zamindari system, maintaining such a large house was becoming more and more difficult. The interiors of the thakurdalan contained Kalighat pawt style paintings, depicting scenes from the Mahabharata on one side and Ramayana on the other. When this began to show signs of damage, Bata Behari Basu’s sons, Shailendra Nath and Shibendra Nath approached the curator of the Victoria Memorial for help with maintenance, but the expense was too great and so nothing came of it. At one point, family members had even proposed a family fund, to which everyone would contribute, to maintain the house, but this proposal fell through, as well.

Of Boto Behari’s 3 sons, Shibendra Nath had no children. Shailendra Nath had a son and a daughter. But it would be Satyendra Nath’s sons, Amit and Alok Basu who would remain in the house until the end. Family members say that after Alok’s death in 2005, Amit would approach the family members with a plan. Harshvardhan Neotia’s Ambuja Realty had a plan to develop Basu Bati into a heritage hotel. Details of the plan were discussed with family members and Amit managed to get all members of the family on board. Ambuja Neotia would take possession of the thakurdalan in 2007 and the southwestern and western portions of the house the following year.

A portion of the southern veranda has been walled up and turned into a room by the government.
Initially, the plan for turning Basu Bati into a heritage hotel seemed unrealistic to Basu family members. The approach roads to the property are all narrow and the surrounding land has either been sold or encroached upon. A hotel would surely require wider roads and parking space. Then there was the issue of the government occupying half the house. According to plans shared amongst them, Ambuja wanted to relocate all the people living in the slum to the north of the house and clear it out. There, on a smaller plot, they would construct a smaller, modern building the library could move into, thus solving their problems of full possession, parking space, and approach roads. While there were enthusiastic reports in the press initially, not much actual work has happened in the past decade. A well-placed source in Ambuja places the blame for this squarely on the state government. “This is a Grade I heritage building, which means we cannot so much as hammer a nail into a wall without government permission. We have shared our plans with the government. We have taken multiple officials on tours through the building. But that permission has not been granted”. While government departments juggle files and stall the work, lacking necessary maintenance, Basu Bati’s condition has worsened further. The roof has sprung leaks in several places and weeds have taken root all over the structure. Plaster and mortar chunks falling off the ceiling are common occurrences. To make matters worse, the source says, Basu Bati cannot, or should not be repaired using modern methods and materials. Only a small number of people in Rajasthan have the requisite skills to repair the building using the materials it was built with. Therefore, even if permission were to be granted immediately, it would be some time before actual repairs got underway. However, a privately-owned property may cite a number of reasons for failures in maintenance, including a paucity of funds, legal complications, and a lack of return on investment. None of these excuses are applicable to government. So, why is Basu Bati’s andar mahal, which is owned by the WB government and occupied by the Department of Higher Education, also in such bad shape? The department’s annual budget for 2013-14 was more than Rs. 2487 crores. Surely it can spare a few lakhs to repair a leaky roof in a heritage building that it occupies?

The western stairwell
BASU BATI: WITNESS TO HISTORY

The rich are often patrons of the arts, and Nanda Lal and Pasupati Basu were no exceptions. Over time, they acquired a spectacular collection of paintings, many in the Kalighat pawt style. There were also paintings by Bamapada Banerjee, a famous artist in 19th century Bengal, who depicted scenes from Hindu mythology. Also of note are a set of stained glass paintings of the "dashavatara" said to have been in the large southern hall on the 1st floor. These, it is said, were two-sided, and would appear straight when viewed from either end. Bengali painter Jamini Roy is said to have been a frequent visitor to Basu Bati. He would evolve his rather distinctive style from observing and appreciating paintings in the collection. Basu Bati is also said to have had a good collection of Tanjore paintings. Developed in Thanjavur or Tanjore under Maratha and subsequently Wadiyar rule, Tanjore paintings are made on wooden boards, using rich, flat and vivid colours and precious stones and gold foil as ornaments and clothing of the figures, which are mostly from Hindu mythology. Nanda Lal was a disciple of the famous mystic and religious reformer, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, who is said to have visited Basu Bati and greatly appreciated the paintings. Such paintings, along with many other priceless artifacts, had been sold before the Basus vacated the house. Among them was Nanda Lal’s magnificent bed, made entirely of brass, with a set of marble steps.

The Basus were also noted for their enthusiasm and support for the theatre. In 1891, when a dispute arose between the Star Theatre and the father of the Bengali stage, Girish Ghosh, the Basus made their house available for actors who left The Star and began performing under the name “City Theatre”. Basu Bati was also one of the only Bengali homes to have been visited by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last King of Oudh, who was in exile in Garden Reach. Wajid Ali Shah’s visit to Basu Bati was in order to watch a performance of the play entitled, “The Victory of the Pandavas”. Since the Nawab’s house in Garden Reach had its own ghat or landing stage (read about it here), it is quite possible that he may have travelled the distance by river, alighting at the Bagbazar Ghat, which is not far from the house.

Cast-iron brackets, possibly for gas lanterns in the thakurdalan.
Most of all, Basu Bati is remembered for its connection to the Indian Freedom Movement. In July of 1905, George Nathaniel Curzon, the Viceroy of British India, announced the partition of the province of Bengal, separating the Muslim-dominated East from the Hindu-dominated west. The official reason was greater administrative efficiency, but Bengalis viewed the action as an attempt by the colonial government to drive a wedge between the Hindu and Muslim communities; a continuation of the infamous “divide and rule” policy. The partition was announced in July of 1905 and was effected on the 16th of October. On that day, a massive procession was led from Federation Hall on A.P.C. Road to Basu Bati in Bagbazar by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The procession ended with a rakhi tying ceremony in Basu Bati, where Bengali Hindus and Muslims tied the sacred thread on each other’s wrists to symbolise their unity. This would introduce Bengalis to the rakhi ceremony, previously observed only among brothers and sisters among Calcutta’s non-Bengali communities. It is a context that is still remembered by Bengalis today.

Alongside the ceremony, there was a meeting that established a national fund to help revive Indian–based industry. This marked the beginning of the “Swadeshi” movement, in which Indians rejected imported goods in favour of those manufactured by Indian entrepreneurs and Indian labour. The fund would collect Rs. 50,000 that day, which would be almost doubled within a few more days. The following year, Bengal’s first exhibition of khadi or homespun cloth, to challenge the produce of the mills of Lancashire, was held in Basu Bati. The Basus also supported the striking press workers of Calcutta in October 1905 with a donation of Rs. 150.

A giant grandfather clock from Basu Bati, now in Abhijit Basu's home
CONCLUSION

The fact that Basu Bati’s southern face now lies behind several large buildings is one big reason why more people aren’t aware of its existence. Another would be the ban on casual entry, although I cannot fault Ambuja for that, it is, after all, a private property. The building regularly serves as a location for fashion and film shoots, most recently for Srijit Mukherjee’s film Baishey Srabon, where Basu Bati is shown as the home of a disgraced former police officer, played by Bengali superstar, Prasenjit Chatterjee. Like many other buildings in Calcutta right now, Basu Bati has a glorious past and an uncertain future. If something isn’t done urgently, the risk that it might actually collapse and that a part of history will be lost forever is very real.

Prasenjit Chatterjee's room from Baishey Srabon




-          By Deepanjan Ghosh (Edited by Brian Paul Bach)


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

  • My thanks to Arindam Sil for arranging the necessary permissions to enter and photograph Basu Bati. If you are interested in shooting in Basu Bati and other locations in Calcutta, have a look at Nothing Beyond Cinema. Their website is http://nbcinema.in/http://nbcinema.in/
  • Thanks to Ambuja Realty for permitting photography within Basu Bati
  • Thanks to Reeta and Abhijit Basu of the Basu family for their cooperation.
  • Thanks to Gautam Basu Mallick for his help with research materials.
  • Thanks to Soham Chandra for accompanying me to Basu Bati. Check out Soham’s blog here.
  • Thanks to Amitabha Gupta for help with engineering drawings of the building. Check out his post on Bati here.
  • A very special thanks to teacher, author, filmmaker and artist, Brian Paul Bach for editing my text. Check out Brian’s blog here, and Goodreads page here.
SOURCES

Sarkar, Sumit - The Swadeshi Movement In Bengal [1973]
Dasgupta, Hemendra Nath – The Indian Stage Vol. III [1944]
Ghose, Aloke Nath - The Modern History Of The Indian Chiefs, Rajas, Zamindars, And C. Part. 2 [1881]
Deb, Chitra - Bibaho Bashor ey Kabbo Kotha
Datta, Kiran Chandra – Bagbazar [2009]
Taylor, Joanne – The Forgotten Palaces of Calcutta [2006]
Chattopadhyay, Swati - Representing Calcutta [2005]
Iyer, Viswanath K. - 7 Steps to the Art of Tanjore Painting [2013]
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