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

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