Calcutta’s lost Heritage

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In Goethe’s words “ A man does not learn to understand anything unless he loves it” and this my feeling for Calcutta .  My love for this city in spite of its being unorganised, complacent and cluttered,  has stimulated and motivated me with the love and warmth I received from various quarters.  My new quest begins to discover some of the old areas of Calcutta  where heritage houses and history fill every crowded lane  and abandoned courtyards . Languishing in another time and place , at the end of narrow lanes and behind unkempt commercial establishments. Calcutta’s rich heritage waits to uncover. These great houses of Bengal’s merchant princes have been largely ignored, forgotten.  Most of the interiors have remained the same for over 300 years but the exteriors look dilapidated . These families have experienced enormous changes in fortune over the centuries, from great wealth and power during  colonial times to dramatic economic and social  upheaval post independence. For the remaining, their ancestral homes are bitter sweet symbols & memories of family pride & prestige. Almost impossible to restore or sometimes even to maintain due to lack of resource, government grant or basic infrastructure.

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To understand this history, it’s imperative to reel back to 1690 the official birth year of “CALCUTTA”. Although many traders and weavers had settled in the area as early as 15th century, French and Dutch had started trading bases in Chandanagore and Chinsurah, it was the arrival of British Merchant Job Charnock made way to the birth of Calcutta . Bengal was very beneficial  for trading base then for geographical reasons. What we now see as Calcutta was then made up of three village markets surrounded by jungles. “Sutanati”-  the thread market which was a prosperous markets for traders and weavers. “Govindapur” was fishing village and least recorded in the history is “Kalikata”. The city flourished and strengthened  with British setting their base .  1757 was the year consolidation for the East India Company , which by then had began to function more as a colonial government and less as trading company. All Indians living  in the area of  Fort Williams were evicted which was earlier established  by British to maintain their position by building a fort .

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As Bengal then was the wealthiest province in India and earlier mentioned  conducive for a trading base, Calcutta also soon became the city of palaces .  Owner of these palaces and mansions were landowners , zamindars, merchants or were  at various positions in East India Company or the British Lords then like Lord Robert Clive & Lord Warren Hastings. These administrative men were significantly powerful to the British administration and this alliance was on the basis of their accumulation of wealth & position. With the British’s introduction of the Permanent Settlement Bill in 1793, they became even more wealthier and prosperous by buying up impoverished rural estates or zamindars and employing “Munshi” (Manager) to run them.  Most of these owners were ‘Absentee landlords’ and the managers would run their estates for them and most were were cruel, shrewd and dishonest and hence the common man suffered. For these wealthy landowners , the countryside/ villages was forgotten and ignored, they never bothered to check the administration of these estates , for them the pleasures of growing metropolitan city of Calcutta beckoned.

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Some of these urban “Rajahs” had inherited the titles but most had titles conferred to them by the British.  Not only did these titles gave them great prosperity but it also gave them power, influence and status . Famous families included names like Tagore, Mullicks, Dutts, Sens & Mitra are some of the examples . Although, presently their fortunes have declined drastically, many former aristocrats and famous personalities have lived in these ancestral homes of historic North Calcutta.

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These wealthy Indian merchant kings sought to display their wealth by associating with the rulers. As the colonial city of Calcutta evolved , mansions and palaces in North Calcutta began to appear increasingly hybrid with the addition of more European influences. In early 19th century  some great economic and social changes influenced the style , architecture and lifestyles of these great houses even further.  Amazed with these palaces and their heady mix of architectural styles there seem to exist in an irrepressible harmony . Neo –classical , Islamic & Hindu influence can be found in the structure of these buildings. Intricate archways & doorways wide enough for an elephant to pass through, lead to vast inner courtyards with temples of ancestral deities  . The unique style of architectures in these palaces began to develop .  These enormous houses where not only residences  they were  places of business, worship and opulent lifestyle .

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Many  of these houses became infamous for their extravagant and slothful lifestyles.  Calcutta still thrives with stories of these long gone wealthy residents. Their opulent lifestyles became to be known as ‘Babu Culture” a phenomenon exclusive to Calcutta. These babus were determined to spend their inherited wealth from their ancestors.  They decorated their homes with chandeliers from Venice, mirrors from Belgium , crystals from France and furniture , paintings, sculptures & music boxes from England.

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The lavish lifestyles o and the competitiveness with which they displayed their wealth became the talk of the town. As time progressed their increasingly affected manners and wasteful lifestyles began to be mocked by British Associates as well.  Things changed when the British moved their capital to Delhi. First city of India- Calcutta became secondary. Shocked and disappointed these great families began to looking for ways to re-establish their influential positions and blossoming independence movement seemed to be the answer . Babus where hanging to whatever there were left with and they chose independence from the very people who had empowered them to attain their wealth and positions. The final outcome was obviously bitter. However, after independence their situation changed even more dramatically . The British who had given them the power and wealth  had gone and ironically many did not foresee how this would eventually effect their life . The zamidari system was abolished and became part of a new independent India. Their vast estates were gifted away to the new government. The compensation received to maintain these huges estates was not sufficient. It was the beginning of the end for a people who had no experience in dealing with everyday life . Not only did the great houses begin to decline, so did the area of North Calcutta . Nevertheless these ancestral homes remained, many families found they could not agree on what should be done with it . Impossible to restore or maintain , they often resorted to simply drawing straws on who should remain and who could move to the cleaner, quieter areas of Calcutta.  Some family disputes  have dragged on in the courts for decades while the ancestral home decayed and crumpled . One of the main reasons for the plight of many great houses today.  On the contrary looking at the  positive side many agreed to keep their houses by forming a trust which is mostly maintained by the eldest son of each family . In other cases families have leased or gifted spaces in their ancestral homes for much needed schools, research institutions or hospitals. Most of these properties are now rented out for movie shoots, daily soaps and used for their annual Durga Puja festival as well.

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Magnificent ruined mansions now sit alongside small residences , temples, bazaars and hutments abandoned by owners unable to sustain them . Many are hauntingly beautiful , to others they are an unwelcome reminder of Indian’s colonial aspirations and some are grand symbols of Bengal’s entrepreneurship and epitomise Calcutta’s past glory.

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In this series I  intend to take you through long forgotten , locked in time mansions & palaces which had some rich heritage in past but now it stands as a mere reflection of  glory of the past. Watch this space as I take along some of the prominent houses and properties which I can vouchfor looking at them will make you feel wish you were in that era.

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