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Preserving the Past: The Surviving Legacy of British Architecture in Kolkata



Preserving the Past: The Surviving Legacy of British Architecture in Kolkata

~By Denis D. Gray (Associated Press)

The British left footprints across their far-flung colonial empire from Toronto to Yangon. But nowhere is there as vast and varied a collection of heritage architecture than in Kolkata.

Thousands of buildings — including homes, churches, palaces and even synagogues — survive here from the days of the Raj, when Britain ruled India.

This marvelously exuberant, maddeningly chaotic city began as a small trading post in the 1690s, rose to become the seat of British power and now ranks as India’s third largest city, a megalopolis of some 15 million people.

Unlike countries which opted to eradicate the physical legacies of colonialism, India has accepted them as witnesses to history. The prime eradicator of Kolkata’s past has not been politics but those whom preservationists call “land sharks,” developers against whom they wage a sometimes winning, sometimes losing battle.

To dip into Kolkata’s bygone era, my wife and I stayed at the Oberoi Grand Hotel, took afternoon tea at the still oh-so-English Bengal Club and best of all signed up for a guided walk around Dalhousie Square, the onetime epicenter of the British Raj.

Dating back to the late 1880s, the Grande Dame of Calcutta, as the Oberoi and Kolkata were earlier known, was the social hub of the colonial city. During World War II, it was party time headquarters for American soldiers. Today the hotel is an oasis of tranquility amid the surrounding vibrant street life, offering palm-shaded courtyards, Victorian four-poster beds and service which viceroys would find hard to fault.

The Bengal Club, another enduring social fixture, has been catering to elites since 1827, and the lovely premise strives to keep the modern world at bay. One may forget it is 2018 while sipping tea in a politely hushed room named after the prominent 18th century British painter Joshua Reynolds, one of whose works hangs on its pastel yellow walls. The colonials also tried to shut out a dramatically changing India: Incredibly, the club only opened its doors to Indians in 1959 — 12 years after independence was won.

“‘It was from here that 200 British officers ruled over 200 million Indians,” remarked our guide Ramanuj Ghosh, pointing to what is now the 133-room home of the state governor, where British viceroys resided during most of the decades when Kolkata served as India’s capital. Modeled on a stately home in England, it was encased in 6 acres of lush gardens and built in the Gregorian style.

What soon became obvious on our walk, even to an untrained eye, was the incredible architectural melange. The Victoria Memorial, the city’s most imposing colonial structure, is described as designed in “the Indo-Saracenic revivalist style which uses a mixture of British and Moghul elements with Venetian, Egyptian, Decanni and Islamic architectural influences.” Dedicated to the memory of Queen Victoria, its vast art and artifact collections include her childhood piano and a writing desk.

Our four-hour stroll through several centuries of history took us past the 1868 post office and the Royal Insurance Building, still busy today, where British officials would ride their horses right up to their desks. At the vast Writer’s Building, India’s still notorious bureaucracy administered a population which also included Greeks, the Dutch, Armenians and others.

Kolkata once was also home to some 6,000 Jews, though there are just a handful living here today descended from the Jews who settled here in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The city’s oldest, now restored synagogue Neveh Shalome dates back to 1831.

Most of the buildings we saw are about on a protected heritage list. But many others are decaying or have been razed.

“Indian people want to preserve the past. We don’t easily make way for the new, but powerful market forces are working against this,” says Bonani Kakkar, who heads People United for Better Living in Calcutta, an environmental and preservation group.

Developers, she says, approach owners of dilapidated homes, offer them new condos in exchange and then take them down to build high-rises. The solution, she believes, is to either “make people boast that they live in old buildings” or to bring them to life again by turning them into B&Bs, art galleries and music venues.

Philip Davies, an authority on colonial architecture, notes that there are more heritage buildings in this city than all of the United States, but that Kolkata is a “sleeping giant at the crossroads.”

“It is stumbling toward the future rather than grasping the spectacular opportunities afforded by its heritage,” he said. “Its unparalleled heritage is crumbling from neglect, and falling prey to random, speculative development.” But he hopes a brave new vision will save one of the world’s great historic cities.

Latest Art & Culture

Singer Shaurya Mehta’s indie song Ungin is a fusion of pop and EDM

For Ungin, the singer drew inspiration from the surreal surrounding around the Hanle Observatory in Ladakh.



Singer Shaurya Mehta

Shaurya Mehta’s new track Ungin is finally out now on his official YouTube channel. Ungin is a fusion of pop and electronic music and is receiving rave reviews from the audience.

For Ungin, Mehta drew inspiration from the surreal surrounding around the Hanle Observatory in Ladakh. The lyrics and the composition of the song have been receiving plaudits from everyone including some international radio channels & music critics.

Speaking about it, the singer said, “I always enjoy creating songs which have a deep meaning. ‘Ungin’, which we refer to as countless, is for all those who love new-age music catering to the youth and anyone who enjoys a good vibe. It is about stopping time and just being in the moment.”

Sharing his story about the song, he further revealed, “I was in Ladakh for a music video when I got to know about the Hanle Observatory. We could not shoot there, but the place is unreal; you can see stars and galaxies and it has a vibe of its own. I was transcended into a zone of tranquillity, and the place inspired me to write some lines which became the opening lyrics of the song.”

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Ungin beautifully depicts a lover asking for the time to stop and for couples wanting to freeze their special moment. Besides Hanle Observatory, Shaurya took inspiration from the sea in Mumbai. “Everything in Mumbai changes with time. But the sea remains the same with the sound and movement of the waves spilling its magic in nature ”, he added.

Trained by renowned singers Shri Suresh Wadkar and Ravi Tripathi for seven years, Shaurya Mehta is a singer, songwriter, and music composer who collaborated with leading music companies and record labels with songs garnering more than 6-7 million views.

The song has been played on Big FM 92.7 across 58 Indian cities since its release. Shaurya was also interviewed by RJ Rani on her show which recently saw singing maestro Shankar Mahadevan.

This year, Shaurya Mehta has many upcoming projects that include songs from different genres. His next is an EDM track released in May 2023. Shaurya is also keen to take his work to an international level by collaborating with notable artists and music companies in the world.

Currently, Shaurya is also working on independent music through his private record label ‘Chai Coffee Entertainment’.

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Latest Art & Culture

British author Patrick French is no more

The news of his demise was confirmed by Indian writer Ramchandra Guha on Twitter.



British author Patrick French

Noted British author and historian Patrick French passed away on Thursday. He was 57. The news of his demise was confirmed by Indian writer Ramchandra Guha on Twitter.

In a tweet, Guha paid a heartfelt tribute to Patrick French and applauded his books on Francis Youndhusband and VS Naipaul. Guha continued that French was also a kind human being, unfailingly generous to friends, and strangers alike.

Have a look at the tweet:

Patrick French is best credited got his biography on Francis Younghusband, The World Is What It Is and Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer. For his work in writing, French won the National Book Critics Circle Award in the USA.

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2 States author Chetan Bhagat uses Uorfi Javed for 2 minutes of publicity?

If you didn’t know who Uorfi Javed is: she’s an actor-model who has made a name for herself in the entertainment industry, breaking shackles with her unconventional fashion choices.



Chetan Bhagat and Uorfi Javed

Chetan Bhagat, the management grad-turned-bestseller writer famous for flip-fiction, recently showered woke gyan about how the young in India are going to bed with Uorfi Javed’s pictures under their blankets.

If you didn’t know who Uorfi Javed is: she’s an actor-model who has made a name for herself in the entertainment industry, breaking shackles with her unconventional fashion choices. From creating an outfit with just mobile phones and charging cables to acing an outfit of garbage bags, the actor, more of a fashion icon of late, made head turns not once but over a million times.

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Uorfi Javed has also been acknowledged by another fashion icon with an atypical sense of fashion, Ranveer Singh, on the popular talk show Koffee With Karan. But who remembers this?

So let it go and remember what gyan Chetan Bhagat recently put out there for the country’s youth. First, the author has two young sons, who obviously, if one goes by their father’s words, don’t get excited by the female form.

Bhagat not only tagged Uorfi, who is way more popular than him in recent times, as someone using her body for publicity but also promoted the long-lived taboo on sex in the country which may well be called the origin of sensuality and eroticism, Kamasutra.

The author also compared jawans at the borders protecting the country with the youth who are hunkering down with a hot photo under their blankets. As if, the armed forces is meant to be celibate!

Bhagat also said youth nowadays spend most of their time liking women’s pictures and reels on Instagram and Uorfi gets crores of likes. He further called Uorfi a bechari, who is making a career.

Uorfi Javed is a former Bigg Boss contestant, TV actor, and now a social media sensation aka fashion icon! She is no “bechari” and she does not use her body for publicity. But this time, Chetan Bhagat of Three Idiots fame definitely used Uorfi Javed for just two minutes of publicity.

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