Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Office of Military Accounts and Rai Bahadur Satyendranath Aditya

There only two buildings on the Southern side of Koilaghat Street (now Babu Tarapada Mukherjee Sarani). Between the corner of Charnock Place (now N.S. Road) and Bankshall Street lies the Edwardian “blood and bandage” looking Royal Insurance Building. The corner from Bankshall Street, Westwards, to the corner with Strand Road, is occupied by an extremely large and magnificent exposed brick and stucco building, currently in possession of the South Eastern Railways.

Upjohn’s map of Calcutta identifies this building as the Office of Military Accounts. The building originally provided accommodation for the Commissariat and Pay Offices, the Controller of Military Accounts, the Examiner of Commissariat Accounts, the Inspector General of Ordnance, the Pay Examiner, the Examiner of Marine Accounts, the Examiner of Ordnance and Clothing Accounts, the Examiner of Fund Accounts, and the Examiner of Medical Accounts. Today the computerized reservation system of South Eastern Railways takes up most of the building and people may be seen queuing up outside it’s counters as early as 6am on Sundays. The building also houses certain printing facilities of the government.

The Office of Military Accounts, Koilaghat Street

While the specific date of construction remains unknown, we do know that the building was built by the Public Works Department, Mr. C. A. Mills being the Executive Engineer in charge, assisted by Mr. William Banks Gwyther. The overall look of the building is very similar to two better known buildings nearby; The Writers’ Building on Dalhousie Square North and The Treasury Building on Council House Street. Indeed, the same crossed palm tree motif may be seen on the railings on this building and Writers’. The only publication to deal with the building at any length is British historian, film-maker and Indophile, Brian Paul Bach’s formidable tome “Calcutta’s Edifice: The Buildings of a Great City”. Bach says, “Being built in the Writers’ style, it has a multitude of points of interest. One of its most admirable features is the series of genteel balconies which extend the whole route of the second floor’s main windows. Their tokenism is noted, but what a splendid Neapolitan effect they make. The engaged columns all along the façade are topped with Corinthian capitals. They support an entablature (structure between the columns and roof) which is busy without being fussy, and conspicuous blank spaces in the wall surfaces are nicely accented by relief busts of utterly unknown and probably allegorical humanoids. The parapet all around is lively and cheerful, full of variety which in itself is a great achievement, certainly unlooked-at, but in prime repair. Finials of shapes inspired by Burmese or Sri Lankan abstractions of Buddhist pagodas, a low-profile mansard roof, little cupolas at different levels, dormer windows, and mini-pediments thrown in for good measure”.


Marble nameplate on the Rai Saheb's house on Lansdowne Road

Frustratingly little is available on this Calcutta personality, and all that can be gleaned from “Second supplement to Who's who in India: brought up to 1914” is this...

Satyendra Nath Aditya, Rai Saheb — of the Military
Accounts Department, Eastern Circle. The title of Rai Saheb
was conferred on him in June, 1912, in recognition of his
public services”.

But what manner of service did the Rai Saheb perform? Did he donate money to a worthy cause? Help start a school? Have a tank dug? It is impossible to say. His rather unique looking house, though, may be found still standing on 133 Lansdowne Road (now Sarat Bose Road). Like it’s former resident, no information is available about when the house was made, or who designed it. But it’s exposed brick frontage and the two castle-like towers looming above the neighbourhood, make it easy to spot.

There are two boards hanging from the building’s façade. One is the municipality’s warning that this is a dangerous and derelict building. The other is a board which announces that part of the building is being used as a municipal primary school. I wonder if the school is still operating. The poor can be far less caring about the dangers of collapsing buildings than those more fortunate.

The Rai Saheb's unique looking house on Lansdowne Road

The building is not listed anywhere as a heritage structure, and has passed into the hands of a promoter. A guard has been posted to the gate to prevent squatters (or curious urban explorers) from accessing the wooden staircase inside. Very soon, this unique piece of architecture will be brought down, and a bland or garish apartment block will take it’s place. Amit Chaudhary in a recent article mourned the wholescale destruction of such buildings. While they may not be heritage structures, they add a certain unique look to each city. There are the kind of buildings that set Calcutta apart. Unfortunately they are being replaced, shockingly fast by the bland uniformity of modern apartments and garish atrociousness of shopping malls. 

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The McDonnell Drinking Fountain: A Forgotten Monument of Calcutta

On Esplanade Row West, opposite Calcutta’s historic Town Hall, and near the High Court, lies a forgotten monument of Calcutta. The Neo-Classical monument, located within the premises of the the West Bengal State Legislature, is a drinking fountain, with a lion’s head protruding from the front and a decorative urn on top. The marble plaque which identified the man the monument was dedicated to is long gone. This is the monument to William Fraser McDonnell.

The McDonnell Monument

McDonnell was born in 1829, and joined the Bengal Civil Service in 1850. On the two sides of the monument are the dates 1850 and 1886, which mark the 36 years that McDonnell spent with the service. Posted to Bhojpur (aka Shahbad), in Bihar, McDonnell was witness to the particularly savage fighting in the area on the outbreak of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The fight in Arrah, where he was, was led by the formidable Babu Kunwar Singh. Outmanned and outgunned, the Company’s soldiers were forced to retreat, and it is during this retreat that McDonnell showed his bravery.

Dates on both sides marking McDonnell's career. In the centre is his signature.

On 30th July, 1857, 35 of the Company’s soldiers found themselves besieged in the boat, unable to make good their escape, as the boat’s rudder was secured to it’s side by lashings. Under heavy and constant enemy fire, McDonnell jumped out of the boat, and cut the lashings, freeing the rudder. His actions having saved 35 lives, McDonnell was awarded the Victoria Cross, becoming one of only 5 civilians to be so honored. His medal may be seen today in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery of London’s Imperial War Museum.

Wikipedia's picture of William Fraser McDonnell

The monument today is in a deplorable state. There are no markers identifying what it is. The brass troughs on both sides that once provided drinking water for horses are long gone. The Lion’s head shaped spout is broken, and the water that used to pour out of it has long since dried up. The ugly railing infront of it is used by locals to sun their laundry.

The Lion-Head spout

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Royal Insurance Building, Dalhousie Square

The insurance sector in India, in the days of the British Raj was initially completely dominated by British firms. Indians infact, were prohibited from buying insurance. Among the earliest companies to offer insurance to British subjects in India were Standard Life Assurance and The Oriental Assurance Company. Closely following them, came the Royal Insurance Company, and the grand building housing their offices in Calcutta survives to this day.

The Royal Insurance Building today
Royal Insurance was founded in 1845, and their Calcutta office was built in 1905. The architects were Edward Thornton and William Banks Gwyther. Located on the Western side of Dalhousie Square, at the corner of Charnock Place (now N.S. Road) and Koilaghat Street (now BTM Sarani), opposite the GPO building, the Edwardian style building, with it’s blood and bandage look has recently been spruced up, and looks very well maintained. The building sports a dome on it’s North East corner, which, though far more modest that the gigantic dome of the GPO, is elegant all the same. Originally accommodating Sandersons &. Morgans (Solicitors), and the Manufacturers' Life Assurance Company of Canada (1887) apart from Royal Insurance, the building continues to be used as an office.

Royal Insurance Building and GPO lit up to mark the visit of King George V in 1911
William Banks Gwyther, one of the two architects, is the man behind a prodigiously large number of buildings in Calcutta. Among them is the clock tower of Calcutta Port (1899), the Military Secretariat Building on Esplanade Row East (1901) and the headquarters of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (1905). Gwyther received his technical training at the Thomason Engineering College, Rorkee, and entered the Bengal Public Works Department in 1876. He rose to be executive engineer, and was appointed Under - Secretary to the Government in 1892, reaching the rank of Superintending Engineer in 1903. His death, in Shillong, was announced in The Times of 29th June, 1910.

The Royal Insurance Company today operates under the name RSA Insurance Group Plc., RSA being the abbreviation of Royal and Sun Alliance. RSA operates in some 31 countries today. Curiously enough, the Royal Insurance Building has a twin in Liverpool, which, however is in far worse condition. Plans are on to convert Liverpool’s Royal Insurance Building into a hotel.
- by Deepanjan Ghosh

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Black Hole of Calcutta

Let me start by differentiating between the place and the event. The Black Hole of Calcutta was a place, and about it’s existence, no controversy exists. The Black Hole Tragedy was an event which, many historians say, did not happen at all. My search was for the place, and it’s existence does not in any way corroborate the events alluded to by John Zephaniah Holwell in his letter of 1758.

Now, to the beginning. The original Fort William of Calcutta stood where the GPO, the Collectorate, the RBI and the Fairlie Place offices of Eastern Railway stand today. It’s construction began around 1696, and continued through 1706. The fort housed, among other things, the East India Company’s factory, the Governor’s mansion, living quarters for the employees or factors of the company, and various offices and godowns. When the new Nawaab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula attacked Calcutta in 1756, the fort fell. St. Anne’s Church, Calcutta’s first Church, which stood where the main rotunda of the Writers’ Building stands today, was also destroyed in the attack. The heavily damaged fort was ultimately torn down, and the GPO and other buildings took it’s place.

Now, what was the Black Hole? The Black Hole was a military prison, within the walls of the old Fort William. It was located along the Eastern curtain wall of the fort, was about 18 feet by 14 feet, and was completely bricked up, save for two very small, barred windows. What happened here on the night of 20th June, 1756, is a matter of great controversy. The acting Governor, Roger Drake, having fled the fort, it’s defenders chose a surgeon, John Zephaniah Holwell, to lead the defense of the fort against the far superior army of Siraj-ud-Daula. Outmanned and outgunned, the defenders ultimately surrendered, and the Nawab ordered the survivors to be confined for the night. It is most likely that these instructions filtered down through several subordinates, and hence it’s actual meaning was lost somewhere in the chain of command. Holwell claims that 146 people were forcibly driven into the Black Hole Prison, and in the night, through heat and suffocation, 123 of them died. Many eminent Historians argue that this event did not occur at all. However, Holwell did erect a monument to the dead just outside the site of the Black Hole prison, which eventually fell into disrepair and was dismantled. It’s place was taken by a replica built under orders of Lord Curzon, in 1901. That too had to be ultimately removed to the grounds of the St. John’s Church, due to energetic protests by Indian freedom fighters, led by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.

The GPO today

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Small Causes Court, Bankshall Street

One of the unique things about the many heritage buildings of Calcutta in general, and the Dalhousie area in particular, is that many of them remain in use as fully functional offices. Many of them continue to be used, in fact, for the very things that they were originally designed for. One such building is The Small Causes Court.

The Small Causes Court in 1878. Photo courtesy

 In the Presidency towns of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras Presidency Small Cause Courts were established by the Charter of King George II, dated 8th January 1753. Initially dealing with cases whose value did not exceed Rs. 100, the Small Causes Court now deals with all cases whose value does not exceed Rs. 3000. Beginning it’s life in the premises of the Imperial Museum (now Indian Museum) in Sudder Street, The Small Causes Court moved to Mangoe Lane in 1870, and finally to this building, at the corner of Bankshall Street and Hare Street, in 1874. It was built on the site of the old General Post Office, designed by W.H. White of the Public Works Department, and though the building has echoes of the French Palladean style, it also has ionic columns. When the building was later expanded southwards, among the many old buildings that were demolished to make way was Calcutta’s only Ice House.

The Small Causes Court today

Before the Ice House was built, citizens of Calcutta were completely dependent for their supply of ice on The Tudor Ice Company of America, whose specially built wooden ships would cause a sensation when they arrived at the ghat near Hare Street. Large blocks of ice were slid down stairs into underground storerooms, and anyone in need of it, would have to send coolies who would carry the ice wrapped in blankets, something that one gets to see in Calcutta even today. The importers of the ice were the Dutt family of central Calcutta, who made a small fortune in the business.

Infact, the street the court is located on, Bankshall Street, gets it’s name from a Marine House which occupied the same space. Historians differ as to the origins of the word Bankshall. Some point to the Dutch word Bankshall, meaning Marine House, while others say it is an Anglicization of the Sanksrit expression Banik-Shala, meaning a gathering of traders, which is what the Marine House was.


Hara Chandra Ghosh's bust

Located at what was once, presumably, the entrance to the Small Causes Court, is the beautiful marble bust of Huru Chunder Ghose. His name is spelt Hara Chandra Ghosh now (pronounced Haw-Row). Hailing from a family from Sarsuna in the South 24 Parganas, Hara Chandra Ghosh attracted the attention of Lord William Bentinck at a young age. He could not join Bentinck’s staff due to objections from his mother. Nevertheless, Bentinck appointed him Munsif of Bankura in 1832; a position from which Ghosh rose rapidly, through his hard work and diligence, to become a judge of the Small Causes Court in 1854. He remained in this position until his death in 1868.

Motifs on the three sides of the pedestal of the bust

Hara Chandra Ghosh was a member of Young Bengal, a loose organization of young, forward thinking Bengali men, influenced by the teachings of the formidable Henry Louis Vivian Derozio and clockmaker turned educationist, David Hare. His marble bust today is surrounded by filth and the view of the pedestal is blocked by benches and makeshift beds, possibly belonging to the many traders who operate roadside tea-stalls and the like from the area. But a closer inspection of the pedestal is possible, and this reveals three motifs carved on it’s three sides; a coconut tree (or possibly palm tree) with a crescent moon, the figure of justice, blindfolded and with scales in one hand, and a rather curious looking arrangement of flowers, whose meaning is not clear to me.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

Sunday, 8 June 2014

W. Leslie & Co., Chowringhee

Old photograph of W. Leslie & Co.
Millions pass by the twin domed building on Dharmatalla crossing without having any idea of it’s history. Although presently almost derelict, this building still houses offices, lights can be seen in the windows, fans can be seen whirring, and people can be seen hard at work. I would have never found out what the origins of the building was if it wasn’t for Montague Massey’s excellent book “Recollections of Calcutta for over Half a Century”. In the pages of the book is a photograph of something that is unmistakably this very same building. Voila!

Leslie House today
What is seen in the photograph, is the office of W. Leslie & Co., “Ironmongers”, what we in Calcutta today call a “hardware business”. The business was founded in 1890 in Calcutta and Leslie House, was built in 1912. While World War I made life difficult for many, and forced many firms out of business, W. Leslie & Co. made a killing, supplying large orders of machinery and parts to various parts of India and Mesopotamia. The firm's premises were used as the headquarters for the munitions Department of the Government of India. After the founder W. Leslie passed away, his sons, Kenneth and Mark Leslie carried on the business till the early 1930’s. From private letters, we know that around 1934, the business was sold, and the brothers returned to England. Trading, in the name of the company was carried on for a while by P.B. Shah and Co..

Old photograph of Dharmatalla crossing. Leslie House's twin domes can be seen in the distance
Then, in 1939, W. Leslie & Co. was purchased by Ramji Hansraj Kamani, founder of the Kamani Group. The rest we know from a timeline on Wikipedia. Kamani shifted the company to Bombay in 1941, fearing a Japanese invasion of Eastern India. Further expansion happened, with a new factory being opened in Lahore, in 1942. Unfortunately, this was lost to Pakistan during partition. The W. Leslie & Co. name continued under the newly formed Kamani Engineering Corporation Limited, manufacturing aluminum, brass and stainless steel utensils and importing electrical and mechanical machinery and equipment and spare parts.
Infighting and litigation ensued on Kamani’s death in 1965, and the company accumulated heavy financial debt during the 1973 oil crisis and the 1979 energy crisis. The company was auctioned by the Maharashtra government in 1982 for recovery of dues and was acquired by the RPG Group. In a strange twist of fate, the building is actually just across the street from the headquarters of the RPG group’s power utility, the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

W. Leslie and Company photograph from Recollection of Calcutta courtesy Anirban Hazra

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The New Central Telegraph Office

There are only three buildings on Dalhousie Square South. All of them are heritage buildings, and magnificent examples of colonial architecture in Calcutta. There is the Standard Building, once home to The Standard Life Assurance Company, and now a government youth hostel, there is Hongkong House, now home to the HSBC Bank, and there are the two magnificent buildings of The Central Telegraph Office, one older, and one considerably newer.

CTO, Northern end
The Central Telegraph Office is one of the few Government offices that provides 365 days of service a year, without any breaks, even on public holidays. The site where the present CTO is located was occupied by a tank, or pond in 1757. It was filled up and the plot was occupied the auction firm of Tulloh & Co, who auctioned everything from Indigo factories, to entire libraries, to ale and even horses, and their advertisements may be found in publications such as the Calcutta Literary Gazette. The owner, Mr. Tulloh has been immortalized as Judas in Johann Zoffany’s painting of The Last Supper, which may be seen on the walls of St. John’s Church.

CTO, Southern end
In 1770, the first European style bank in India, Hindusthan Bank, started operating from the premises. When Government purchased the property now occupied by the Central Telegraph Office, Messrs. Burkinyoung, a music shop, selling pianos and the like, F.& C. Osler, makers of fine glass Chandeliers, candelabras etc., and Mackillop, Stewart & Co., a mercantile house, were in possession respectively of the properties once held by Tulloh, the Hindusthan Bank and John Prinsep. The original branch of the Central Telegraph Office is now difficult to miss, partly because of it’s prominent bell tower, and partly because of a particularly loud paint job, which makes the building look like a hunk of vanilla and strawberry ice cream.

While the old building was designed in 1868, and completed in 1876, the new wing of the CTO, which is entered from Wellesley Place (now Red Cross Place), was built in 1914. DBHKer’s notes point to an architecturally similar building in Rangoon, which was built a few years earlier and Melbourne’sMail Exchange, built a few years later.

The lower floors of the new wing of the CTO continue to be used for sorting and storing mail, while the upper floors have been converted into a sort of a guest house for postal employees, complete with kitchen, servants and enormous four poster beds. We met a postal employee from Ambala who was being transferred to Port Blair (!!!) and had stopped over in Calcutta for a bit of rest. He greeted us with a very warm “Good Maaaaarning”!

- by Deepanjan Ghosh