There goes the neighbourhood: Author Amit Chaudhuri talks about Kolkata and its decaying heritage
Whenever people lavish praise on Kolkata’s buildings they usually mean the grand old palaces in the north (the ‘black town’) or the massive colonial edifices dominating the city’s business district – giving Kolkata the nomenclature of “city of palaces” in the hoary past.
I live in the house my father-in-law built. A college professor, he poured his life savings into what was then, in the early fifties, an ordinary two-storied building in a very middle-class para (locality) of south Kolkata. It has the regulation red cement floors, high ceilings, slatted windows, ornate wrought iron grills, semi-circular verandahs, square ventilators with floral cast iron meshes but that hardly made the house appear very special.
Not to us anyway. Until, that is, Amit Chaudhuri, novelist, singer, critic, told us otherwise.
Novel indeed. Whenever people lavish praise on Kolkata’s buildings they usually mean the grand old palaces in the north (the ‘black town’) or the massive colonial edifices dominating the city’s business district – giving Kolkata the nomenclature of “city of palaces” in the hoary past. But Chaudhuri has trained his eyes on standard residential buildings built by the Bengali middle class in different parts of south Kolkata and launched a movement to save these houses from the fell hand of philistine developers (promoters in local parlance).
He began by doing what comes to him naturally – writing.
Writing articles in the media, writing petitions to be co-signed by concerned citizens, writing letters to the authorities. All these impassioned pleas have now coalesced into the Calcutta Architectural Legacies, or CAL, set up this February with help from his friends to create awareness of the value of such buildings, build up a groundswell of opinion that will put pressure on the government to rise to the occasion. February ended with three fascinating events organised by CAL involving house owners, developers, artists and architects.
The time seemed right to find out from Chaudhuri, the moving spirit of this movement, what exactly is going on.
Here are some excerpts from an interview:
So what’s so special about these houses? Are they really architectural landmarks?
Look, these houses were created by builders, anonymous builders, they were not created by architects. Yet, their proportions, both inside and outside, are extremely refined. Somehow you never feel when you look at them that that is kitsch or that didn’t work or it is sterile or this street is sterile. There is no sterility to these houses.
I, in fact, find them more interesting than the famous north Kolkata houses where you do have kitschy elements. Where you also have hubristic elements. I am not saying those houses ought not to be valued. Of course they should be, they also have an amazing sense of space. But they have neo-classical elements, which point to the kind of illusions or delusions landowners had about themselves and are reminders of their aspirational values as they were building these houses.
In a city like Kolkata, what we embrace, what we celebrate it for, is its modernity. It is kind of a crucible of modernity in India. This is where I experienced modernity first as a child. Not in Mumbai where I lived, I didn’t feel that about Mumbai when I was growing up. Now I do. When I was a child, Kolkata was so compellingly modern in its contradictions, the petrol fumes, the smell of urine, the astonishing buildings, the arts – the mix of the industrial and the organic, the ugly and the beautiful in an urban space is what characterises modernity.
You become addicted to modernity, I became addicted to modernity in Kolkata. It’s a form of existence that teaches us to look and experience life in a certain way. We look out of that slatted window onto the street, that is modernity. We go to a derelict house and are strangely moved by it. This odd realignment of values, this is modernity. You are not looking for a rose garden, you are looking for the excitement of the street. That’s modernity.
In Kolkata this modernity emerged in the 19th century and into the 20th, the latter being a kind of efflorescence and a continuation of what was created in the 19th. As exemplified by these non-heritage residential buildings which form these astonishing residential neighbourhoods that have art deco features as well as traditional features and European provenances.
These houses of south Kolkata, with their mix of elements, part European, part Bengali, rock or the cemented ledge in the front of a house, red oxide stone floors, long verandahs, open terraces, stoneworks, iron works, round knockers, slatted windows, ventilators on the sides of buildings, each building with a different kind of pattern to the ventilator, some art deco elements which you don’t see in the north, semi-circular balconies, porthole shaped windows, sunrise motifed grills, narrow glass windows on the stairwell, these are art deco motifs, they arrive at a form of building and architecture that is are exceptionally sophisticated and playful and have no hubris, have no sense of nostalgia. I think this is an exceptional inheritance.
You know, I am an outsider, I grew up in Mumbai. But I do have a deep belief in the uniqueness of Kolkata’s buildings, heritage and non-heritage, and its streets. By non-heritage I mean buildings that form a part of our architectural inheritance but have not been listed. That also remind us that to value architecture you cannot have recourse to crutches like did a famous person live there, does it look like a heritage building, is it a grand colonial institution? An ordinary residential building built by a professor in 1930 might be an exemplar of the playfulness which I think makes Kolkata’s ethos architecturally speaking so unique.
But I also believe, as deeply, that in 10 years nothing of this will remain, architecturally speaking, unless we actually take the trouble to do something. Take Pune. I was in Pune in 1998, for the launch of my third book, Freedom Song. I saw the city was changing but I also saw some wonderful buildings and realised why I used to love visiting it as a child. Then I went back in 2007, and it was all gone. In nine years. Maybe five per cent of the amazing buildings and streets that had made Pune one of the most visitable, charming, interesting small towns of India was still there. It looked like an obscure suburb of Mumbai, an upmarket slum.
We are headed that way unless we do something now.
But people are selling these houses for economic reasons, aren’t they? And if developers are pulling them down, that too must be because it makes economic sense.
That’s the default argument; that people are pulling them down for economic distress. Not everyone selling off their houses to developers are poor. There are quite a few who just don’t see any value in these houses. There are others who don’t want to sell but who are badgered and intimidated to do so by developers, thugs, and the local politician. You came to the panel discussion the other day and heard the story of house owners who desperately wish to hold on to their houses, who, as one of the owners, Prof Tapati Mukerjee, said, felt she had no right destroy something of great distinctiveness when she wouldn’t be able to rebuild something like it today. And yet, as we know from her, such owners are being badgered to sell. Others – like the owners of the great art deco mansion, Ram Dulari Park - are extremely wealth but may have razed those structures to the ground because they didn’t have a sense of their unique architectural value.
They were certainly not in need of money. Yes, there is litigation, many of these houses are trapped in legal tangles, there is economic distress too, these reasons are there, but there is also no value being given to these houses. There is no mindset that says these buildings ought to be kept and can be reused. The market in which such buildings could be sold to people who wouldn’t pull them down was never created, it was never given a chance. When these buildings began to be sold in the Nineties, they were always sold to the developers for the price of the land. So they were sold and brought down immediately.
There are no real guidelines to and hardly any accountability regarding demolition. The character of a neighbourhood or para can be destroyed with impunity. That is why we want the government to take the stand that neither buyer nor seller should have the right to demolish existing buildings, since these add up to a city’s collective inheritance and history.
But what could the alternative ways of saving these buildings be?
Well, the city fathers could arrange for Transfer of Development Rights for one, whereby owners of buildings are allowed to sell the equivalent of land value to ‘developers’, who can then use those rights to extend new properties being built elsewhere. Then there are many ways these spaces can be reused, we just have to think imaginatively. Already some people have begun to do so, holding art exhibitions and so on.
If the government is serious it could invest in them for the arts. Kolkata has this astonishing history for experimentation in the arts, in culture. If the government really wants to do something with that history it should invest in these spaces. For instance, writers from different parts of the world could come and spend time here if the facilities existed. This may sound like wishful thinking, but it’s happened in other cities. If Kolkata wishes to do more than pay lip-service to its culture by constantly invoking Tagore, it should look to reusing its spaces.
In our letter to the government we quoted Esther Duflo, professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has said Kolkata’s neighbourhoods should be showcased to the world in the same way that Prague and other great cities showcase their architecture. Not only do these buildings and precincts represent, vividly, the history of a unique Bengali modernity from the last century to the 1950s, they are the very things that will attract international visitors to the city.
But what we are actually getting are boutiques. Many of these houses have been refurbished as fancy shops, restaurants, hotels. How many boutiques can a city have?
I call in boutiquification. It’s not the ideal solution, I don’t really hold with what it does, but I prefer it to houses being pulled down. There are problems, with gentrification, with touristification too, but if we are serious then Kolkata can surely come up with creative ways to deal with these problems – as for instance Berlin, another city that was financially bankrupt for historical reasons, had.
Finally, it is up to us to decide – whether we want to tear them down or use them to live in, or use them for boutiques, or in ways that are more creative. Nobody is going to give it to us on a platter. That’s how it’s been elsewhere. It was during my travels abroad in the last 20 years that I realised the neighbourhoods we confront there not only represent the history that produced them, but a history involving communities resisting their disappearance.
What is at stake here is a discussion on urban regeneration that is connected to, but distinct from, economic revival. For the urban revival of any city, it’s a prerequisite that citizens engage with the spaces, buildings and histories that characterise it, rather than deny those features; that they understand and reuse them. Kolkata, in the last two decades, has largely failed to do this.
We know Amartya Sen and other luminaries are on board. But for the larger public, won’t it appear an elitist concern to many?
That is why this campaign is so vital. We want to make the public aware of something they have thought of only insufficiently, clarify the terms in which they think about the issue and also tell them they needn’t be crippled by embarrassment to be engaged with it. In a country where a superficial Left-oriented agenda among some of the intelligentsia will see this agenda as irrelevant, there is bound to be embarrassment in taking up such an issue. It’s true that it’s the Indian Left that feels particularly paralysed by these issues. All other Left traditions have proved to be more diverse about cultural inheritance. Only we have this knee-jerk reaction of disavowal in India, as if to prove how Left we are when it comes to these things. Having said that, there are many on the Left to whom this issue is significant. One thinks of the late Barun De. I hear that Nilotpal Basu was much energised by this campaign. There is, of course, Amartya Sen. And many of the younger members of the campaign are left-orientated in a way that's not incompatible with thinking about reusing urban spaces. On the other, the Right prefers a Disneyfied version of Hinduism, with kitsch Ganeshas and Hanuman chalisas, and is deeply hostile to modernity and its imaginative ethos, from which, after all, these buildings emerge as much as the literature and the arts of the last century do.
Then there is also the cynicism in India, especially with what government will do. This is not only to do with heritage, it is to do with everything. You hand over the responsibility of everything to the government and then you are appalled when they behave as they do. Besides protesting and making outraged noises, you don’t actually try to actively pressure government. Because that’ll be demeaning to ourselves to dirty our hands that way.
If people in other parts of the world had felt such superiority to and distance from their governments then all those governments would have been equally corrupt. No government is on the ball, efficient, effective, transparent because they are all naturally idealists and wonderful people. They are that way because people and constantly evolving institutions create enough pressure for them to be have to be so.
Hence, the need for awareness, sustained awareness. People need to be aware that this is not an embarrassingly irrelevant agenda, that it is an agenda that involves all of us, and a belief that the agenda can be brought to some kind of fruition, that it can have a particular result. That kind of belief among people is the foundation for particular forms of action to be taken. Such as direct challenges to the government, petitions, going to court. A direct challenge to the government is ten times more likely to be heard if there is a groundswell of awareness than if there isn’t.
Do you really see any hope in a city that has, just this month, downgraded a heritage building so that it can be pulled down? I mean the Kolkata Municipal Corporation’s decision about Roxy cinema.
If you look at New York, if you look at places which have waged struggles to save their buildings, these struggles began not with cathedrals and churches being under threat but railway stations and cinema halls. It is exactly the destruction of those things that that made people in New York wake up to what was happening.
Roxy cinema is a wonderful, handsome art deco building, a listed building that adds a great deal to a city, to any city. The building was already partially defaced with a plastic or glass front which was added to it later which also shows something went wrong in the last 30 years for people to do something like that, that they could believe they were improving upon the building by making such an addition. Something must have gone wrong with the city, a city that could host such a building and then add something like that shows a disconnect with the past that hosted such buildings.
Now they’ve gone and downgraded a listed structure. In somebody’s wisdom it was a heritage building, maybe not a Grade I, which it should have been, but listed nevertheless. Kolkata must be one of the few cities now that is seeing a downgrading and delisting of heritage structures. What is astonishing is that the building is owned by KMC and the single functioning, or single extant body that deals with heritage from the government side is the KMC Heritage Committee. It’s very disturbing that heritage in this city is being guarded by a body that is not only non-functioning but is actively against heritage, against a city’s built ethos. This is the paradox we see in this weird paradoxical city.
Therefore, this is the right moment. Nothing proves the need for our movement better. What we are seeing here is a dreadful kind of reminder of the vacuum in official circles to do with thinking about the urban, thinking about aspects of the urban, such as buildings, such as our architectural inheritance. There is no time to waste. As Amartya Sen put it, “We do owe to the future generations a preserved and unmutilated heritage of Kolkata's eccentric but exciting old buildings.”
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