Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, has a plethora of architectural marvels. The Bengali finesse in art and architecture is evident from the ruins of archaeological sites in Bengal. Formerly known as Calcutta, it had become an experimental lab for colonial architecture and town planning in India. It is referred to as the “colonial capital” of India.
The concoction of Mughal and European architectural styles can be evidently derived from the structures. Once ruled and dominated by the administrative, economic and recreational activities of the Europeans, central Kolkata has now become the nucleus of Victorian architecture. Some of these structures have conveniently become renowned heritage spots. The richness in diversity is impeccable– homes, churches, palaces, and even synagogues date back to the colonial era. The grandeur and flamboyance of these neoclassical buildings have given Kolkata its Victorian identity. Its glorious past seems to seamlessly conceal its current economic bottom.
The opulent community occupied north Kolkata and possessed exquisite courtyard-style mansions, which derived their architectural styles from a unique blend of Mughal, European, and Bengali architecture. This part of the city was addressed as “The Black Town” because it was dominated by Bengali landowners.
Post-independence Kolkata experienced a heavy influx of migrants who couldn’t afford the affluent mansions of north Kolkata. They adapted the Art deco architectural style of the western countries to build their houses in south Kolkata. It was characterized by semi-circular balconies, a long, vertical strip comprising glass panes for the stairwell, porthole-shaped windows, and the popular sunrise motif on grilles and gates. This went on till the mid-20th century.
Post this period, houses with porches, verandas, terraces, and cast-iron elements dotted the streets of south Kolkata. Meanwhile, the Maoist movement led to the government neglecting the infrastructure of the city. The colonial fabric leveraged this period to restore its pride and interest.
The 20th century saw the superiority of Bengali architecture. This architectural style had finally evaporated into a time and space where it could live and breathe freely. It consisted of ancient urban architecture, religious architecture, rural vernacular architecture, colonial townhouses and country houses, and modern urban styles. It extracted elements from other architectural styles due to the Mughal and European influence. Owing to the absence of good building stone, bricks, bamboo, and wood were predominantly used as construction materials. Terracotta was used for ornamental carvings.
Numerous structures have been falling prey to real estate gimmicks. Most developers are chasing such properties to revamp them into residential or commercial buildings. The value of these heritage buildings is negligible to them. Meanwhile, while most developers have been chasing obsolete structures with prestigious heritage value for ulterior motives, a group of investors, called the “urban nostalgists,” set out on a mission to refurbish as many of them as possible. Restoring their essence by approaching suitable architects and interior designers and selling them as stores or boutique hotels overpowered egocentric motives. For instance, the Calcutta Bungalow, a 1920s townhouse, was adapted to a boutique hotel.
It is disappointing to see that Calcutta’s architecture spurs thinking only along the lines of structures built by the British and the infamous Black Town. What about the houses built for middle-class Bengali professionals (like lawyers, doctors, professors, and civil servants) that sprawl across all parts of the city. Even though these houses share similar features like red floors, slatted windows, cornices, open rooftops, no two houses resemble each other.
According to Amit Chaudhari, an author and critic, “the style – which can only be described as Bengali-European – is neither renaissance (hardly any Corinthian pillars, as you might spot in the North Calcutta villas) nor neo-Gothic (as Bombay’s colonial buildings are) nor Indo-Saracenic, which expresses a utopian idea of what a mish-mash of Renaissance, Hindu and Mughal features might be. It’s a style that is, to use Amartya Sen’s word, “eccentric” and beautiful, and entirely the Bengali middle class’s”.
Kolkata is gradually adapting to contemporary architecture. This transitional phase of the city from colonial architecture to contemporary architecture is painting a new picture of Kolkata. It’s juggling between two distinct identities. Kolkata’s strong colonial past is in amalgamation with the present-day neo-classical architectural style. Its post-colonial architectural development had reached a standstill, followed by a gradual evolution. It lacks a distinct post-colonial identity.
According to Philip Davies, “Its unparalleled heritage is crumbling from neglect, and falling prey to random, speculative development,” which implies that Kolkata is rushing towards a future rather than leveraging its rich heritage.
The language of architectural discourse is quite evident in this scenario. The overarching question that can be derived from this would be, why does the plant have to choose between the roots and the fruit? Why does Kolkata have to choose between black and white? Why can’t it float in the greys? Several cities across the world have succeeded in reaching an equilibrium- one leg in the past and the other in the future. Is Kolkata there yet?
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