Kolkata as a port city was first established by the colonial powers in the 18th century. Earlier it was just a few scattered settlements, the British consolidated and developed it as the first major port city and the capital of British India. As such Calcutta became the trial ground for colonial architecture and town planning; here one can witness a confluence of European and Mughal architecture finding its roots.
The British planned to develop a neo-classical city in Calcutta but the resistance from the locals resulted in segregation in its organization. Domination on the psyche was achieved by separating the white town from the black town. The White town consisted of Fort Williams and all the British settlements the black town formed on the north and south in the fringe areas. Still today most roads run north-south due to the bordering of Hugli River to the city’s west. Even after the capital was moved to Delhi the city remained an important cultural centre.
The European part of the city is dominated by neo-classical style buildings like the town hall built in the Doric style in 1813 which was intended for social gatherings which have now been turned into a museum. Other notable buildings include the Writer’s building, the city High court, and the Victoria memorial. The Victoria memorial is a unique work of architecture of Kolkata designed by British architect William Emerson it features prominent architectural elements from Mughal, Islamic, and Venetian architecture. Most of the fringe areas gave rise to slum settlements, while the affluent Indians developed a style of architecture that was neither entirely European nor entirely Bengali. The Bengali elite built courtyard-style mansions around north Kolkata which more than anything were ambitious status symbols.
Apart from the local architecture, these buildings borrowed heavily from the designs of their colonial overlords creating an architecture that was an amalgamation of European neoclassical and local Mughal and traditional Bengali architecture. The grandiose mansion of Raja Nabakrishna Deb with its colonnaded veranda and massive courtyard gives us a peek into the life of Kolkata’s elite. Post-partition the city witnessed a surge in migrant population which gave rise to a construction boom there was a need to accommodate the population in the city’s limited space. Commoners could no longer afford the affluent mansions of north Kolkata as a result an experimental architecture unknowingly adapted the art deco a decade later from the western cities. As a result, much of south Kolkata boasts of ‘Art deco’ style buildings which were built up until the mid-20th century. The Esplanade mansion built opposite the Raj Bhavan in the year 1910 is perhaps the only ‘Art Noveau’ style building a style that preceded the art deco movement.
The most recognizable art deco building is perhaps the Metro cinema which was designed by Thomas White Lamb and built by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in the year 1935. Apart from the Metro the Victoria house built around 1930 which now houses the headquarters of the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation and the Reid house built in 1941 is another prominent structure of the era. Post-independence Kolkata witnessed a Maoist movement that led to the swearing-in of a Marxist-communist government that largely ignored the infrastructure and development of the city till the late 20th century. This was a kind of a blessing in disguise as it helped preserve most of the colonial and post-colonial era structures. However, the city has the highest population density among Indian metropolitans, a lot of migrant workers from within the country as well as across the borders enter the city every year. Older structures are being razed to accommodate new office spaces, residential units, and shopping complexes in a city that is on the brink of saturation.
Even though Kolkata today is adapting to contemporary architecture and infrastructure, the colonial and post-colonial architecture, the trams and its rich culture give us a glimpse into the era gone by. The city reminiscent of the ambitious colonial capital is today grappling with a lot of modern urban infrastructural strain. One can only hope that the modernisation doesn’t trample upon the historic legacies of not only the British but also the post-colonial architecture of the common Bengali populace as well.