A Walk Down the History of Colonial Calcutta

Niladri R. Chatterjee

Photography by Niladri R. Chatterjee

Photograph by Niladri R. Chatterjee

In the United States there is the notion of a “Main Street”, a stretch of road that functions as a spine, as it were, to the town. Cities tend not to have any one main street because of the rhizomatic nature of a city’s development. Although a metropolis, Calcutta can boast of a main street. This ‘main street’ however is so more because of historical, rather than practical, reasons since there are numerous board roads now, and indeed flyovers, that are of greater significance as far the continuous circulation of traffic is concerned.

This road is important because it could very well be the first British-built ‘pucca’ road in Calcutta. The road provides the axis along which the city’s north-south orientation may have developed. It was built sometime between 1804 and 1834 and paid for out of the money that was raised through Lord Wellesley’s brainchild – the Improvement Committee Lottery. The road, when finally constructed, was named after Lord Cornwallis. Till the 1960’s the road was known as Cornwallis Street. However, it is better known now as Bidhan Sarani.

For the last few years, I have been taking friends from out of town and sometimes even friends from outside India on a leisurely one-and-a-half-hour walk down a short stretch of this road. We walk from Shyambazar Five-Point Crossing to the birthplace of Swami Vivekananda. What this allows us to do is take in the cultural, economic, and political importance that the street once had. As we walk down, we have to constantly look to the left or right to spot buildings that speak of the way Calcutta came to be the city that it is.

Our walk begins with a quick exploration of one of the residences of the famous Mullick family. Built in a style that is Modernist, verging on Art Deco, the residence includes a spacious inner courtyard and a large Shrine Room at the Western end of the courtyard. Stepping into the Mullick residence helps us understand the significance of the lion as a symbol of power. In colonial Calcutta, ‘natives’ were forbidden from decorating their gateways or pediments with the lion rampant, that being an icon that only the British had the right to use. The ‘natives’ were however allowed to use the lion to decorate the facade of their houses as long as the beast was dormant. On entering the Mullick residence one is struck by the presence of two dormant lions. However, on the pediment of the house, there can be found another lion. This one is neither dormant, nor rampant, but – a clever compromise between the two positions – crouching! If one enters the inner courtyard, one finds two lions guarding the Shrine Room as it were. They are not rampant, but strident!

Leaving the Mullick residence behind us as we resume our southward walk, we note the way in which some houses have been restored by local businesses. Notable among them is a house built in 1916 but restored by the garments business house of K.C. Dass. Buildings that may not otherwise be all that historically significant still can be noted for a certain uniformity of style: mimicry of keystones over windows, louvered shutters, elaborate pediments decorating the terrace front, wooden slattered blinds with scalloped ends, and – occasionally – a richly decorated Shrine Room spire on the terrace. Several houses sport the year of construction somewhere on their pediment. One particularly grand mansion puts its dates as 1924-26.

Walking down the left pavement one passes the first of three cinema houses. Since the default style of all cinema houses tends to be Art Deco, Darpana is no exception. One still admires the Art Deco gates at the entrance. Another aspect to note is the way the name of the cinema house is displayed. The word is broken up into three parts and they are shown one below the other. These three characters are arranged in the form of a ‘chandmala’ – a decorative item made of three stiff paper discs set one below the other and held together in a vertical row with two strands of string. The chandmala is hung from the hand of the god or goddess being worshipped. This incorporation of a religious item into a building made for secular entertainment perhaps points the way in which religion and entertainment often merge into one another in Bengali culture. Other free-standing cinema houses follow. These days they all screen Bengali films and cater to the north-Calcutta Bengali cinema-goer.

On the right pavement stands the first 19th century building that one meets on this walk – The Town School. Established in 1894, it is a functioning school. Looking at it, and by placing it beside the Scottish Church College and Bethune School (1879) – both of them on this same street – one begins to wonder if a certain kind of architecture had come to denote pedagogic authority as an extension of state authority. The keystones, the pediment, the quoins, and the rustication point towards a certain architectural normativity which was being, pun intended, solidified.

But perhaps the most important building as far as the entertainment industry of colonial Calcutta is concerned greets us as we keep walking down the left pavement moving southwards – the Star Theatre. Although originally built at the juncture of Beadon Street and Central Avenue, the theatre moved to its present location in 1888. Innumerable theatre, film, and television actors have cut their professional teeth treading the hallowed boards of this theatre. Much of the theatre was destroyed by a fire in October 1991. Although the building now functions as a cinema house, the facade was lovingly restored and the theatre re-opened in 2004 and still bears testimony to 19th century British architecture adapted to Indian conditions. Notable are the twin statues of Garuda that flank the entrance to the theatre.

From the pavement one takes a left turn into a lane in which one finds two residences of significance: one of Nati Binodini, who is arguably the most famous Bengali actress of the 19th century, and the other is of the artist Nandalal Bose. Residents of the lane have put up a plaque outside Nati Binodini’s house which makes it easy to identify. There is, however, no such plaque to mark the house of the artist.

One returns back to the left pavement of Bidhan Sarani and soon finds on the pavement what remains of a cinema house. This is “Roop-bani”. Legend has it that the name was a Tagore invention.

A few steps ahead, on the other pavement, one notices a snack shop. But this is no ordinary snack shop. This snack shop, Lakshmi Narayan Shaw and Sons, distributes free fried snacks every year on 23January to mark the birth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

Back on the left pavement one finds the Scottish Church Collegiate School. Established in 1830, one should note the existence of the same architectural constituents that one notes in the Town School. What is of particular interest is the emblem of Scottish Church School. It is divided diagonally into four parts. In each section one finds an image: in one there is a thistle, in another there is a lotus, in yet another there is an open book (which is easily identified as the Bible), and in still another there is what appears to be “The Burning Bush.” So, the almost organic intermingling of political control with religious and pedagogic control becomes stark in the emblem. Close by is the Scottish Church College, which was attended by Narendranath Dutta before he became Swami Vivekananda. In those days, it used to be called General Assembly’s Institution.

A turn left takes one to Duff Church (1848). This is where early Bengali converts, such as Toru Dutt, worshipped. Nearby is Christ Church (1839). It is outside the latter that one can still find engraved in marble the words “Cornwallis Street”.

Our walk ends with a tour of the lovingly-restored birthplace of Swami Vivekananda. This being the 150th anniversary of his birth, a great effort has been made to furnish the rooms with as much period furniture and effects as possible. A short video presentation narrating the extraordinary story of the restoration of this house is not to be missed.

Here, I have taken you on a walk along a short section of Bidhan Sarani. There are, however, many interesting gems that are hidden in the back alleys that skirt this street. For that, you will have to come to the city and take the walk with me.

NiladriNiladri R. Chatterjee is Associate Professor and Head, Department of English, University of Kalyani, West Bengal. A recipient of Fulbright Scholarship and the British Council-Charles Wallace Fellowship, Chatterjee has co-edited The Muffled Heart: Stories of the Disempowered Male (New Delhi: Rupa and Co., 2005), contributed to glbtq.com, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: OUP, 2004), The Isherwood Century (Wisconsin: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2001), and Reader’s Companion to Twentieth Century Writers (London: 4th Estate and Helicon, 1995). He has published in the journal American Notes and Queries (Taylor and Francis) and Intersections and has reviewed for Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide (US).

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Filed under Essays, Non-fiction

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