Grace isn’t something one would associate with decay, but Calcutta has that quality. Its grandeur may have rusted, but a certain grace lingers in its neglected columns and statues.
Calcutta, under the “Raj” (when India was colonised by the British), was a melting pot of various cultures.
The nouveau riche of the city borrowed elements of Europe’s Greco-Roman heritage when they built their sprawling mansions.
These houses were studded with Corinthian pillars, lined with balustrades of delicate grill-work, and strewn with copies of Greek and Roman marble statues.
Hermes statues were widely available during the colonial period, to be bought by the rich. Hermes, who is a Greek and Roman messenger of the gods, also is a deity of wealth, trade and travelers. As time progressed, most of the statues disappeared, and a few are left broken.
Bengalis are known to be very proud of the city of Calcutta (Kolkata), and some even called it a 'City of Palaces' at one point. They regarded it as one of the best cities in the world. 'It is the city of famous intellectuals,' 'It is the city of vibrant culture, a heritage city,' are the common answers they would give to justify this claim. I was introduced to the term 'heritage city' when I was a child. In the mid-80s when I was about eight or nine, my father often took me out for walks through the northern part of the city.
A few houses are marked as “heritage”, but no proper maintenance initiative has been undertaken by the state governments.
As we walked, I used to spot the large homes that stood at almost every corner of those streets. I always felt fearful upon looking at them as a child, because from the outside, they looked like haunted houses.
The house of the Dawn family has balconies structured like the galleries of the Royal Albert Hall, London.
Even though my father tried to explain the history behind them, I never felt interested. Then, as I grew up and moved away from Kolkata to live in modern metropolises like Singapore, I almost forgot about these older aspects of the city.
This house is often referred to as Belgachia Palace, but its actual name is Dhurjati Dham. Martin Burn Company built this Victorian mansion under the ownership of Narayan Kisson Sen at the beginning of the 20th century.
When I returned in 2009, my childhood memories of those houses came rushing back. I decided to revisit the homes, and this time I took my camera along. My journeys were primarily through the old and crumbling neighbourhoods of Shovabazar, Bagbazar, and old Chitpur.
A few old mansions in Kolkata have verandas with beautiful designs, made out of wrought iron which are still maintained well.
Since these photographs are about the old part of the city as well as its history, I decided to present them as a monochrome series.
I started contacting the royal families of Calcutta who own these houses.
The conversations with the present-day owners transported me to the glorious past of the city, where the 'babu-culture' was prevalent.
The babus were neo-urban, high-class, flamboyant Bengali gentlemen — a class that came into being as a result of close interactions with the British in the late 18th and 19th century. They were the affluent class and challenged the conservative style of living in colonial Calcutta.
Having a lavish drawing room was very common in the old colonial houses of Kolkata.
They showed off their wealth during different festivals and by keeping strange hobbies, such as buying zebras to pull carriages through the streets of city.
Octagonal houses were a unique architectural style which was popular in the US and Canada. A few families of that time adopted this style, and now only two houses built in this style remain.
They also had built these palaces that followed the architectural design of the most famous houses in London, like the Windsor Castle and Royal Albert Hall. Their beds were decorated with ivory tusks, with minas on it.
Greek and Roman marble statues are a recurring aspect in many old houses of Calcutta.
The babus loved to dress up, and had a keen interest in art and music; they retained excellent musicians as well as other artists. It is said that Babu Bhuban Mohan Niyogi used to light up his cigars by burning notes. He was a trader and among the last league of babus in Calcutta. This was done mainly to impress him. However, just like everything else, the glorious “era of the babus” came to an end too.
The babus imported Italian marble to tile the floors of rooms and balconies.
As time progressed, the glory of these houses began to diminish, leading to what they look like today.
Initially, I thought that most of these houses are not maintained properly because of a shortage of finances, but it turns out that this is not the sole reason. There were several other factors that went against them, which include the split in the Hindu joint family system, illegal occupants, and legal conflicts between house owners and tenants who lived for there generations.
Durga worship was essential to the culture of these wealthy families.
I haven't heard of any financial support from the state government to restore and maintain these historic houses either. Eminent author Amit Chaudhuri had spoken about his campaign to save the old homes of Kolkata; he fears that in 10 years, nothing will remain, unless some steps are actively taken.
The rooms of these royal families would be adorned with oil paintings, flower vases made out of cut glass, and expensive furniture made out of Barmatic wood.
Now being dethroned by skyscrapers and shopping malls, these houses once defined and expressed the unique character of Kolkata for years.
—All photographs by Ritayan Mukherjee