Messbari Project: Saving Kolkata's ancient men's hostels, once home to luminaries, from fading into oblivion
The 'Messbari Project' by Heritage Walk Calcutta shoulders the monumental task of tracing and documenting these age-old urban hostels of Kolkata, that were once home to cultural greats of Bengal. The project aims to initiate a conversation on sustainable heritage conservation, and the messbaris of Kolkata are bearers of the city's formidable socio-cultural legacies through the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Shouldering the task of documenting the existing messbaris — both obsolete and surviving — in order to encourage their conservation, is Heritage Walk Calcutta (HWC).
Predominantly male-centric spaces, the messbaris of Kolkata are intrinsic to its history and pop-culture.
Luminaries like writers Shibram Chakraborty, Saradindu Mukhopadhyay, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, filmmaker Tapan Sinha, and speaker Somnath Chatterjee, have lived in many such messbaris across north Kolkata.
According to the survey conducted by HWC, Kolkata currently has 26 functional messbaris, 24 obsolete ones, and four that have been demolished.
Perhaps there are only a handful of Bengalis, even to this day, who don’t know the significance of the words “Mashima, malpoa khaamu”, that are engraved in the community’s pop-culture psyche. Said in the cult-classic comedy film Shaare Chuattor (Seventy four-and-a-half), by legendary Bengali actor Bhanu Bandopadhyay’s character, the film is as much a representation of the tongue-in-cheek humour of '50s Bengal, as it is a portrayal of life back in the days. In the film, the ensemble cast of stalwart actors (including ‘Mahanayak’ Uttam Kumar) are all huddled under one roof — Annapurna Boarding House — colloquially referred to as a “mess” or “messbari”. And it is these very ancient structures dotting the lanes of Kolkata, mostly in its older parts, that went on to become veritable microcosms of the world beyond their now-crumbling walls.
Predominantly male-centric spaces, the messbaris are inherent to the city that evolved from Calcutta to Kolkata. While some have remained untouched by time, others struggle to survive under the weight of their own forgotten histories.
Shouldering the task of documenting the existing messbaris — both obsolete and surviving — in order to encourage conservation of this socio-cultural legacy unique to the metropolis, is Heritage Walk Calcutta (HWC). Led by Dr Tathagata Neogi, doctorate in archaeology from University of Exeter, and his wife, Chelsea McGill, it is an “academic-run, research-oriented company that provides walking tours of Kolkata for locals and tourists to enable them to experience the city in a new way and connect with diverse local communities.” Showcasing their work in a month-long exhibition at Kolkata's Victoria Memorial Hall is 'Calcutta Collages', an initiative of 'Sustainable Heritage and Policy of Kolkata' (SHPK) — a joint project undertaken by the University of Liverpool and Jadavpur University.
Observing the city as a receptacle of personal histories and a space of co-existence and refuge, enterprises such as SHPK and the 'Messbari Project' have rekindled conversations on heritage and what it entails. The initiatives aim to propagate the idea that sustainable dialogues on both intangible and tangible legacies can be accomplished through the participation of local communities as primary stakeholders.
"While working on our first Sutanuti Diaries episode on Kolkata’s old messbaris, we realised that no tangible record of the location and history of the boarding houses exist. The objective of the current project is to create just that; as a first step to stir public awareness about the boarding houses and hopefully generate interest in conserving them," writes Neogi, in the foreword to the 112-page long, publicly available project report. The document is an exhaustive record of the experiences and deductions made by three project interns — Barshana Basu, Anmol Grover, and Dipanwita Paul — who spent two months scouring the city's streets, searching for pieces of an archaic, yet timeless puzzle that Kolkata's messbaris are.
"I wasn't a part of Heritage Walk Calcutta when the idea for the project was conceived sometime around November-December last year . The three of us joined as interns in December and the two months that followed have been the most rewarding in a long time," says Barshana Basu, who's currently pursuing her Masters in History from Jadavpur University.
The legwork involved rigorous poring over empirical sources, including municipal records, street directories dating back to 1915, police archives, newspaper reports, and literary sources like 20th century Bengali novels. While Bengali cinema (like Basanta Bilaap, Saptapadi) has contributed significantly to emblemising these structures as havens for the working class male in the city — whose influx was historically witnessed during the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793 — their gradual loss of relevance with the advent of paying-guest accommodations has left a gap about their modus operandi in public memory.
"Messbaris’ tryst with films do not end here. Quite a few films including Meghnad Bodh Rohosyo, Khawto and the Bollywood venture Gunday, have been shot in a number of messes like the Central Calcutta Boarding and Ruby Boarding," the report mentions. It goes on to enlist a range of popular works of Bengali fictional literature, which includes "(t)he entire premise of Premendra Mitra’ s Ghana Da," centered around Ghana Da’s 72 Banamali Naskar Lane Mess, followed by "Narayan Gangopadhyay’ s Ektala, Tarashakar Bandhyopadhyay’s Holi, Rajsekhar Basu’s Birinchibaba and Amritalal Basu’s Chatujye-Barujyei," all of which are at least partially situated in messes. In fact, Saradindu Bandopadhyay's "celebrated detective Byomkesh Bakshi... started his illustrious career from a boarding house," much like the creator himself.
The current count for Kolkata messbaris stands at a staggering 54: 26 functional, 24 obsolete, and four that have been demolished, according to the survey done by HWC.
"The idea of heritage is a rather expansive one, and not just restricted to monuments. When the three of us started taking pictures of and talking about messbaris, the locals asked us as to what is so "heritage" about these structures. They advised us to take photos of the temple next door instead. This is the conversation that we wished to start through this project," Basu says.
The iconic Presidency Boarding House on Mahatma Gandhi Road has been home to not only Saradindu Bandopadhyay, but seminal writer Jibananda Das as well. Established in 1917, the messbari continues to be run by its original owners, the Duttas. With a prevailing capacity of 40-45 boarders, the establishment still charges rates as low as Rs 100-200 per day. Even though the surveyors were not granted access into its premises, the facility's towering position in the city's cultural landscape has inspired not only works of literature and cinema, but even sets of Dibakar Banerjee's 2015 crime thriller, Detective Byomkesh Bakshi!
The aforementioned men, however, weren't the only well-known ones to have taken refuge in such messbaris. Barely minutes away from Presidency is the Khetra Kuthi Mess on Muktaram Babu Street, home to writer and revolutionary, Shibram Chakraborty. Chakraborty had turned the walls of his second-floor room into a personal journal; men now inhabit the same space without realising its historical import. The rent is nominal at Rs 2,500 per month, and the walls are rickety. As ownership remains disputed, the pillars of history threaten to come crashing down, with bricks jutting out and cracks adoring floors.
"It was such a strange feeling to realise that icons like Shibram and Saratchandra stood on these exact same spots some decades ago, it's like travelling through a time-capsule of sorts," Basu says with a hint of wonder in her voice. "But the messbaris are not just important because they lived there, these can only help in breaking the ice. The people currently in their 60s and 70s knew a little more about these pasts and were more willing to help when we asked for direction. Since it's only the old generation who know of the import of these structures, we realised the urgency of the situation and how we would have to conserve them and their stories right now."
Adding their names to the list are luminaries like Saratchandra Chattopadhyay (who lived in a now-demolished hostel on 27, Sanjoy Ghosh Lane), Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, filmmaker Tapan Sinha, singer Jatileswar Mukhopadhyay, former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee, and CPI(M) leader, Anil Biswas. Clearly, the messbaris of Kolkata were more than just boarding homes for ambitious men in an industrial town — they were birthing chairs for Bengal's formidable cultural legacy, now threatened with imminent decay.
Some men have spent over four decades in these spaces, earning their livelihoods in the big city, while their wives and children hold fort back in their ancestral homes in neighbouring districts.
"A fact that remains unchanged till today is that most of the establishments still have Odia cooks working for them. Interestingly enough, an erstwhile South Indian messbari in south Kolkata initially employed cooks from South India to cook for the boarders, but they too were soon replaced by Odia cooks who learnt the cuisine from them," says Anmol Grover, an architect by profession. Today, said messbari is known as 'Rao's Udipi Home' that continues to be served by Odia cooks.
Being affordable accommodations for men hailing from different parts of the country meant some of these establishments admitted people only from certain regions. "There's a Marwari mess, Odia mess, a Goan, Chinese, and a Parsi mess. A mess on Madhu Gupta Lane was divided into two areas separately inhabited by boarders from Shantipur and Midnapore districts," Basu informs. While some messbaris have new owners and newer avatars, others have transformed into community spaces shared by immigrant nuclear families. "Most of them still work on the archaic system of reference though, where once a boarder leaves, they refer someone from their locality to fill their spot. Managers too are continued to be chosen from among the boarders in order to safeguard people's money — it's easier to track down a manager if he's come in through reference in case he flees with people's money."
While the world around is in a constant state of flux, Kolkata's messbaris exist in a bubble of their own, unperturbed by change or technology. In a bid to save their fading glory, the push for 'sustainable heritage' needs to be stronger than ever at this point in time.
However, the term "heritage" may often have undesirable results, intimidating the ones who dwell in such spaces, frequently unaware of their cultural merit, explains Grover. "The main stakeholders of the local heritage sector in India are the inhabitants and the communities that live in these structures and neighbourhoods, but unfortunately they are almost never factored in when it comes to working with these buildings in any capacity. Neither are the heritage laws explained to them and nor are their rights as the owners of these buildings discussed. This attitude of the government and developers has made the local community turn hostile towards the very notion of heritage as they view it as gentrification, which in most cases is what happens in India. This then creates a huge chasm between the community and groups who are actually genuinely trying to bring about a positive change in the heritage sector. Also, many people lament the lack of government support or incentives to sustain these buildings, which is a big problem," she rues.
The issue of contested ownership impacts the establishments to the extent that one such messbari is missing a railing in its balcony. "The boarders aren't allowed to change anything in such cases, not even fix faulty electrical bearings. But there are some messbaris where the owners live abroad or outside Kolkata, and the boarding is taken care of by the tenants themselves. Those are in better shape," Basu observes.
In some cases, a "positive intent of the community" has come to the rescue of the messbaris. "One of them was an erstwhile dorm for Chinese bachelors, which has now been repurposed into the Sei Vui restaurant in Tiretta Bazar. The funds generated by the restaurant are used for the upkeep of the building and also to fund the local community’s club, housed in the same building. The Khetra Kuthi Messbari, which was home to Shibram Chakraborty for several decades, also has a trust funded by the local community, which helps towards maintenance of the building," Grover says.
The 'Messbari Project' is an initiative noteworthy in its own right, with three women in their twenties breaking into and rediscovering age-old spaces occupied solely by men. The trio claims to have found a new definition for the all-pervasive male gaze. "There were neighbourhoods where we were catcalled in broad daylight. But once we were inside these hostels, barely anyone ever misbehaved with us. These were spaces with little to no concept of privacy, with three-four men, often belonging to different age groups, living in the same room. These are vastly different from the environments people like us have been brought up in. If they are comfortable with such arrangements, who are we to challenge their definitions?" Basu says.
The heritage enthusiasts at HWC hope for relevant government agencies (like the West Bengal Heritage Commission) and conservation authorities to take note of their report, now that the project has reached its culmination.
These messbaris, housing sprawling courtyards and common bathing areas with choubachcha (miniature water reservoirs), were constructed to foster a sense of belonging, community, and bonhomie among immigrant men looking to move on to more permanent addresses. While some left, others stayed back, much like the messbaris themselves — establishments that have refused to be touched by time, witnessing history from the peripheries, and gradually becoming an irreplaceable part of it themselves.
The 'Messbari Project' can also be followed on Instagram @messbariproject.
'Calcutta Collages', at Kolkata's Victoria Memorial Hall, is on display from 8 July to the first week of August, 2019. The exhibition follows regular museum timings.
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