What is the story of Kolkata

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Kolkata doesn't have a good image. Even though the picture is slowly changing in the media too, for many Kolkata still stands for unimaginable poverty, miserable life in slums, illness, death and the work of Mother Teresa for the poorest of the poor. The novel too City of joy by Dominique Lapierre (1985), made into a film in 1992, paints a picture of the city characterized by economic misery and human infirmity. And Günter Grass also titled Kolkata in show tongue (1988) simply called "God's shit", even though he had lived in the city for several months. Wrongly, because Kolkata can look back on a rich history, is today a modern Indian metropolis, at the same time still the cultural heart of India, and those interested in architecture will get their money's worth when visiting the city. It was not for nothing that Kolkata was once known as the "City of Palaces".

Courtyard on Chitpur Road (now Rabindra Sarani) Photo: Mariella Ourghi

In 2001 the city dropped its colonial name - as in the 1990s Mumbai (Bombay) and Chennai (Madras) - and has officially been named Kolkata in Bengal since then. The anglicized form Calcutta is - like old street names - still in use in parallel. With over 15 million inhabitants, the agglomeration of the capital of the state of West Bengal takes third place among the megacities of India after Mumbai and Delhi.

Job Charnocks (1630-92) octagonal mausoleum, built in 1695 by his son-in-law, Sir Charles Eyre. Photo: Mariella Ourghi

There are several theories about the origin of the name, but there is probably a connection to the black goddess Kali and the former fishing village of Kalikata. In Kalighat, a district in the south of Kolkata, there is a well-known Kali temple, which in its current form was only completed in 1809 on the site of an older temple and is a national pilgrimage site.

Testimony of Anglo-Scottish rivalries in colonial Kolkata: St Andrew's Kirk Photo: Mariella Ourghi

For a long time the British claimed to have founded the city. Job Charnock (1630-92) acquired three villages for the East India Company in 1690, including Kalikata, on the Hooghly, an estuary in the western Ganges Delta. But before the British, the Portuguese, Dutch and French had established trading posts along the river in the 16th and 17th centuries. Charnock's octagonal Islamic-style mausoleum (whether Charnock is actually buried there is not certain) is in the garden surrounding St John's Church, which was built for the servants of the East India Company (completed in 1787) and modeled on the London's St Martin-in-the-Fields was constructed with a portico. A painting by Johann Zoffany (1733-1810) hangs inside the church.

St John's Church Photo: Mariella Ourghi

Stylistically similar is the St Andrew's Kirk in Dalhousie Square (today Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bagh, short B.B.D. Bagh), which was built by Scots from the East India Company in 1818. Its steeple is taller than that of St John's Church, a testament to Anglo-Scottish rivalries in colonial Kolkata. The largest church in Kolkata is St Paul's Cathedral, southeast of the Maidan, the city's largest central green space, which is also the seat of the Diocese of Kolkata, which is part of the Church of North India. The neo-Gothic building with a large stained glass window and what was then the world's longest iron girder roof was completed in 1847. The original steeple collapsed in an earthquake in 1897 and was redesigned to resemble the Bell Harry Tower of Canterbury Cathedral after another earthquake in 1934.

Kolkata was the capital of British India until 1911, when the seat of government was relocated to the newly founded New Delhi. Numerous monumental buildings and the design of entire streets are evidence of this long history of colonial rule. To this day, Kolkata's architecture is largely shaped by European influences. One of the oldest buildings is Fort William, a massive fortress on the east bank of the Hooghly and in the western part of the Maidan, which was built on Kolkata from 1758 to 1781 after the attack by the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ad-Daula (1729-57) was erected. As Fort William now houses the headquarters of the Indian Armed Forces Eastern Command, not all areas are accessible.

The Victoria Memorial Hall: Pompous neo-renaissance with influences from Mughal architecture Photo: Mariella Ourghi

At the southern end of the Maidan rises the imposing Victoria Memorial made of white marble and surrounded by a park. After Queen Victoria's death in 1901, Lord Curzon (1859-1925), then Viceroy of India, commissioned the building; It was not completed until 1921. The architect, Sir William Emerson (1843-1924), designed the monumental building with a large dome in the center in the neo-renaissance style in combination with influences from the Mughal architecture. The Victoria Memorial houses a museum with various exhibits from the colonial era.

The Supreme Court in Kolkata Photo: Mariella Ourghi

North of the Maidan, the series of monumental colonial buildings continues: the Raj Bhavan, which dates back to the early 19th century and is architecturally based on Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, formerly the residence of the Viceroy of India and now the seat of the governor of West Bengal (therefore not open to the public), opposite the Old Town Hall in Palladian style from 1813 (today it is the Kolkata Museum) and just a few minutes' walk away the red and white plastered Supreme Court, a building in neo-Gothic style completed in 1872, its model the Cloth Hall in Ypres, Flanders, dates back to the 13th century.

The administrative and economic center of Kolkata is located on Dalhousie Square, which is now called Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bagh and thus recalls the names of three Indian independence fighters. In the middle of the square there is a large water basin (Lal Dighi).

The Writers' Building is now the seat of government for the state of West Bengal Photo: Mariella Ourghi

The north side of the square is completely dominated by the monumental red Writers ‘Building, a neo-Renaissance building with a Corinthian main facade. The basic construction of the Writers' Building in its current form dates from the 18th century, structural extensions were carried out until 1882. The name comes from its function: It served the writers of the East India Company as an administrative building, but also as a residential building. Today the building functions as the seat of government for the state of West Bengal. Diagonally opposite on the western edge of Dalhousie Square stands the impressive building of the General Post Office from 1868 at the point where the first fortress of Kolkata was once located. The white classical building impresses with its high dome and its Corinthian colonnade.

The Chowringhee Road (now Jawaharlal Nehru Road) runs along the eastern edge of the Maidan. The wide, boulevard-like street and the quarters adjoining it to the east formed the business district of Kolkata with restaurants, cafés, theaters, cinemas, but also spacious residential buildings during the time of the British - and still do today. Particularly striking are the huge Indian Museum, the largest museum in India, from the 19th century in the style of the Italian Renaissance and the former Victorian Grand Hotel (now the Grand Oberoi Hotel).

Park Street Photo: Mariella Ourghi

But Kolkata has even more to offer in terms of exquisite architecture - in the northern part of the city, where even less of the already not many visitors today get lost. Here you can discover a unique architectural legacy with a meanwhile morbid charm that makes the city a kind of "Havana of the East": the city palaces of the Babus. The common term in Bengali Babu is used as a name addition for Hindus who have achieved a certain social status. However, the positive connotation of the word does not necessarily apply to that Nabababoos, the new Babus, which is roughly comparable to the expression "Neureiche" used pejoratively in German (Harder 2006: 231 f .; Raychoudhuri 1990: 68-75 here 68). The Babus were particularly Bengali merchants who had made their fortunes by trading with the East India Company since the mid-18th century.

Nimtala Ghat Street Photo: Mariella Ourghi

This new class of Bengali reflected their fortune in the construction of palazzi, which are heavily inspired by the classicist buildings of the British colonial rulers. But cultural and socially critical engagement also sprang from the stratum of Babus: Many important representatives of the Bengali Renaissance, an intellectual reform movement, came from it. The many dozen of palaces are located in the quarters to the right and left of Chitpur Road (today Rabindra Sarani), which is the direct extension of Chowringhee Road to the north: the districts are called Jorasanko, Kumartuli, Beniyatula and Shova Bazar.

Kolkata began to decline economically in the 20th century. In 1911 the British moved the capital to New Delhi, after India's independence in 1947 and the emergence of East Pakistan, Kolkata lost almost all of its hinterland and saw an immense influx of refugees. In addition, from 1951 restrictions on land ownership came through the Zamindari Abolition Act and with the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 a renewed flow of refugees. Hardly any descendants of the former Babus managed to maintain the family wealth. Rooms and entire wings of the palazzi had to be rented out. The Communist Party, which had long ruled West Bengal, kept rents at a low level. Apart from the lack of money, which is urgently needed for restoration work, and inheritance disputes that have been pending for decades, which leave the ownership structure open, the hot and humid climate does the rest of the ruin of the palazzi. And unfortunately these monuments of a Bengali era do not enjoy any state or supranational protection.

Courtyard of the House of Ramendranath Mallik on Darpanarayan Tagore Street Photo: Mariella Ourghi

That is all the more meritorious Kolkata Heritage Photo Project by Peter Bialobrzeski, Professor of Art and Design at the University of the Arts Bremen, which he carried out in 2006 in collaboration with 21 students and the two architects Manish Chakraborti and Kamalika Bose from Kolkata. He and his students took pictures of the inside and outside of the city palace and published them in an illustrated book with the title Calcutta. Chitpur Road Neighborhoods (2008).

If the external appearance and decor of the palazzi are based on European models, their spatial division also had to meet the needs of a large Bengali family. Columns, triangular gables, friezes and stucco decorate the entrances. Inside most of the palaces there are two courtyards: a large one for events with a small private temple at the front adjoining the drawing rooms, library rooms and business rooms, and a smaller one for the women and children with utility rooms and music and classrooms connected. On the upper floors, behind the verandahs, were the bedrooms and other living rooms.

Tagore House: Estate of the Tagore family Photo: Mariella Ourghi

Of all the city palaces, only the Tagore House in Jorasanko is in good shape these days. It is the Tagore family estate where Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), poet and polymath who received the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature, was born and also died. It was built by his grandfather Dwarkanath Tagore (1794-1846). Today it is a well worth seeing and informatively designed museum with documents of the Tagore family, paintings and other testimonies, especially from the life of Rabindranath Tagore. The Rabindra Bharati Humanities University is also located on the site.

Not far from Tagore House, on Muktaram Babu Street, is the pompous Marble Palace, which can also be visited. It was built in 1835 by Raja Rajendra Mallik, one of the richest Bengali merchants. It is surrounded by a now somewhat overgrown garden, which also houses a small zoo. Descendants of Raja Rajendra Mallik still live in a wing of the palazzo, but most of the rooms are accessible. Various types of marble from all over British India were used for the classical style building with a massive portico. Raja Rajendra Mallik was a passionate art lover, and so the stuccoed interiors reveal a lavish, albeit very differently thrown together collection of objects: statues (one is even said to come from Michelangelo), busts, Victorian furniture, chandeliers, mirrors, grandfather clocks, Ming -Vases and paintings by European and Indian masters.

Ghariwala Mallik Bari Photo: Mariella Ourghi

Although the hot, humid climate and air pollution have left their mark on Marble Palace, most city palaces seem to have had a far more dramatic fate. Most of the palazzi are still alive, either they are inhabited by the builders' children, some of them only by a single descendant, or many families, mostly belonging to the poorer classes, share one of the spacious domiciles. In the meantime, shops or administrative offices are often housed, especially on the ground floor. Those descendants who have a good income and who still live in Kolkata often preferred to move to neighborhoods with modern apartments surrounded by green spaces. There is no more money left for the old family property - if there is any awareness and interest in preserving the old buildings as historical monuments.

Without targeted maintenance measures, the building fabric will slowly but surely crumble. The point is not to regret that they are often immeasurably rich compared to the majority of the population Babu-Families have not been able to maintain their lifestyle and standards. At least one must not forget that in addition to trading, their wealth was based on the exploitative Zamindari system. It is also certainly not to blame for the people if they prefer to move to more comfortable apartments. But the city palaces are an aesthetic testimony to an era of Bengali history and deserve to be preserved.

Recommended reading

Bialobrzeski, Peter (ed.) (2008): Calcutta. Chitpur Road Neighborhoods. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag.

Chaudhuri, Dipa (eds.) (2009): White & Black. Journey to the Center of Imperial Calcutta, Photographs: Christopher Taylor, Text: Soumitra Das, Foreword: Olaf Van Cleef. New Delhi: Niyogi Books.

Chaudhuri, Sukanta (ed.) (1990): Calcutta. The Living City, 2 vols. Calcutta et al .: Oxford University Press.

Das, Soumitra (2007): A Jaywalker's Guide to Calcutta. Mumbai: Eminence Designs.

Dutta, Krishna (2009): Calcutta. A Cultural and Literary History. Oxford: Signal Books (revised 2003 edition).

Fischer-Tiné, Harald (2006): City of Palaces? European lifeworlds in colonial Calcutta, in: Mumbai - Delhi - Kolkata. Approaches to the megacities of India. Edited by Ravi Ahuja / Christiane Brosius, Heidelberg: Draupadi Verlag, pp. 241-56.

Hanig, Florian (2007): In the Palaces of a Sunken Time, in: GEO Magazin No. 9, 2007, pp. 82-106 (photos online at http://www.geo.de/GEO/fotografie/fotogalerien/54812 .html).

Harder, Hans (2006): Babus, Bibis and Sahibs in Calcutta of the 19th Century, in: Mumbai - Delhi - Kolkata. Approaches to the megacities of India. Edited by Ravi Ahuja / Christiane Brosius, Heidelberg: Draupadi Verlag, pp. 227-39.

Martin, David William (1997): The Changing Face of Calcutta.New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House.

Mukherji, Shyam Chand (1991): The Changing Face of Calcutta: An Architectural Approach. Calcutta 300. Calcutta: Government of West Bengal.

Subir Raychoudhuri: "The Lost World of the Babus", in: Sukanta Chaudhuri (Ed.): Calcutta. The Living City, Vol. 1: The Past, Calcutta et al .: Oxford University Press 1990, pp. 68-75.