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 www.oldindianphotos.in

 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

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