Never a city for colonial nostalgia, the former Calcutta has a poor record when it comes to protecting its architectural heritage. Yet even as the West Bengal capital moves determinedly into the future, conservation-minded thinking is quietly gaining ground.
Photographs by Pankaj Anand.
A few minutes before we were to meet in the affluent Kolkata neighborhood of New Alipore, conservation architect Nilina Deb Lal called me from her car to say she was just around the corner, but stuck in traffic. Suggesting that I start our tour without her, she said, “Are you in front of that huge monstrosity? Then walk to the corner and down the lane, and you’ll see an old, old bungalow.”
The “huge monstrosity” was a new government building called the Soujanya State Banquet Hall. At first glance, it didn’t seem all that monstrous to me. But after I wound my way around to what Indians call “the backside,” I saw what Deb Lal was getting at. Crouched in the building’s shadow at the edge of a bus parking lot was a dilapidated 18th-century mansion whose stately proportions suggested it had once been an important colonial landmark. Now, its paint was peeling and its facade was crumbling. A signboard above the pillared porte-cochere identified the faded beauty as the Institute of Education for Women, though a smaller plaque informed me it was originally known as Hastings House—the onetime summer residence of the first British governor-general of India, Warren Hastings.
I understood why Deb Lal, who holds a PhD in architectural history from the University of Edinburgh, wanted to meet me here. I’d come to West Bengal’s state capital to take stock of its rich trove of colonial architecture, and this forlorn former mansion—hidden and ignored rather than restored and celebrated—was emblematic of the city’s ongoing struggle to digest and capitalize on that very heritage.
Developed from three riverside villages granted to the East India Company by the nawab of Bengal in 1690, Kolkata—known until recently as Calcutta—became the first capital of the British-held territories in India a century later and remained the capital of British India until the seat of government was moved to New Delhi in 1911. And yet, as Deb Lal explained when she arrived a few minutes later and spread out a map of the city’s heritage sites, the original headquarters of the Raj today sees only a fraction of the foreign tourists who explore Lutyens’ Delhi or the Gateway of India area of Mumbai.
In part, that’s down to an undeservedly grim reputation. Often conflated with the Black Hole of Calcutta (a dungeon where 143 British prisoners of war suffocated to death in 1756), Kolkata is also widely associated with Mother Teresa’s work with lepers as well as unflattering descriptions by foreign authors such as Günter Grass, who, in his 1975 novel The Flounder, described the city as “a pile of shit that God dropped.” Nor has its colonial history been a point of local pride. Steeped in the intellectual patriotism that made Calcutta the center of the Indian independence movement in the early 20th century and later gave rise to Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army, Bengalis have been reluctant to embrace the city’s legacy of imperial rule, even though the Victoria Memorial—a white-marbled pile built a century ago in the so-called Indo-Saracenic style—is perhaps the most remarkable homage to empire in all of India. (For my money, it also houses the country’s best museum.) In one exercise in revisionism, Job Charnock, the enterprising British East India Company agent hitherto credited with founding Kolkata, was erased from all official histories of the city in 2003.
As I discovered over the next few days, however, India’s economic rise has helped to dispel the Bengalis’ postcolonial hangover. Far from a cesspool of filth and poverty, Kolkata is one of the most vibrant and engaging metropolises in the country. And there’s a newfound enthusiasm for restoring and celebrating its architectural heritage even in the face of formidable obstacles.
A slim, practical woman dressed in a green tweed vest and khaki pants, her hair parted in the middle and tied back with a rubber band, Deb Lal briefed me on those hurdles with the aid of a map of landmarks she’d helped develop on behalf of the nonprofit Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) some years ago. Sprawled along the banks of the Hooghly River, Kolkata was never a planned city like New Delhi, she explained. In modern times, sporadic attempts to decentralize and decongest the urban core have never come together into a coherent strategy for simultaneously developing the city and preserving its unique character. “There has always been a hesitance to take hard measures,” Deb Lal said. “As a consequence, it’s sort of a free-for-all. Anything goes anywhere.”
It was not until the late 1980s, in the lead-up to the 300th anniversary of Kolkata’s since-repudiated founding, that the municipal government attempted to create a list of historical landmarks. But according to Deb Lal, it was a back-of-an-envelope undertaking without a basic theoretical framework; subsequent efforts have expanded and then pared down the list without remedying its flaws. The result is a barebones catalog that only outlines the city’s significant architectural heritage, ranging from undeniable icons like the Writers’ Building (a Greco-Roman landmark originally built for the British East India Company in the 1770s) to effectively anonymous structures such as an “old residential house” on Abhoy Guha Road. The entries are so vague that travesties like the encroachment on the grounds of Hastings House have been inevitable. Meanwhile, the guidelines for owners of heritage buildings include a clause stating that any portion of the structure that is not considered significant can be demolished, with no mention of how that significance will be evaluated.
“Because it doesn’t have any theoretical foundation, the list is dangerously prone to manipulation,” said Deb Lal, bemoaning the destruction of several post-independence structures associated with Writers’ Building.
At the same time, as in Delhi and other cities throughout India, owners bear the brunt of restrictions on what they can do with their property without any state funding for maintenance or upkeep, apart from exemption from property taxes. That means there is often no way to turn the most notable (and therefore most heavily restricted) buildings into commercial ventures and every incentive simply to let them fall into ruin, after which they can be declared derelict and be demolished. Case in point: the Old Kenilworth Hotel, an iconic if tumbledown establishment that fell victim to the wrecking ball last year after the Kolkata Municipal Corporation downgraded its heritage status. A 35-story residential tower is now going up in its place.
The looming threat to its landmarks notwithstanding, for the tourist, Kolkata remains breathtaking. The city’s main colonial-era edifices—from the grand General Post Office and Writers’ Building to the hushed confines of St. John’s Church, whose grounds house Job Charnock’s mausoleum and the Black Hole Monument—are undeniably evocative. But beyond these, there’s a romance to the decaying mansions, temples, and civic buildings that is lacking in the perfectly conserved monuments and palaces of France or Germany; the sense of history that comes with scars. The past lives on everywhere, clashing and combining with the future in a colorful tapestry: flower vendors hand-stripping stems of their thorns by the bushel with their smartphones laid on the pavement beside them; hawkers rolling and folding samosas for suited office workers and young rockers festooned with piercings; dhoti-clad laborers taking their morning bath in the frigid Hooghly, just as they have done for hundreds of years.
Later that afternoon I settled in for a beer on the sunny restaurant terrace at The Astor, the modest boutique hotel where I was staying. Looking up at the bougainvillea-festooned window boxes on the building’s pretty red-brick exterior, I recalled Deb Lal’s complaint about the “facade-ism” that has become a stand-in for more substantial conservation efforts in the absence of a comprehensive heritage plan. To make the Victorian building a profitable venture, owner Vikram Puri, a former Wall Street investment banker whose father purchased The Astor in a distressed sale in 1999, opted to retain its colonial flavor in the reception and common areas, which boast patterned marble flooring, wrought-iron railings, and a beautiful staircase made of Burmese teak. But my room was outfitted for the modern business traveler, with practical rather than evocative furnishings and only the slightest nod to the building’s age. And while the plush Phoenix nightclub downstairs harkens back to the 1960s, when The Astor was one of the few jazz clubs in town, it has the aspect of a disco that swallowed a sports bar rather than someplace Duke Ellington might have played.
Despite those compromises, given the fate of the Old Kenil-worth, The Astor represents an important victory for conservation, and along with a few other pioneers, it could mark a turning point for the city. According to the Kolkata Municipal Corporation’s Graded List of Heritage Buildings, The Astor, originally built in 1905 as a boarding house for British soldiers, is a Grade I structure. That puts it in the same category as the General Post Office and St. John’s Church. The designation meant all renovations had to be cleared through the city’s Heritage Conservation Committee and changes to the exterior were not permitted, despite the fact that the building was virtually falling apart when restoration work began in 2012.
With business thriving, The Astor is now a testament to how heritage can be revived with a little ingenuity and a lot of perseverance. And several other ventures scattered around town are starting to show that heritage has marketable value, not only for individual property owners but also for entire neighborhoods. The storied Fairlawn Hotel, an eclectic colonial throwback that has hosted hip and famous guests ranging from Günter Grass to Sting, was recently acquired by Brij Raj “Diamond” Oberoi, a nephew of the founder of Oberoi Hotels & Resorts. Ambuja Neotia Hospitality, which operates various clubs and resorts as well as the Swissôtel Kolkata, last year completed a modern replica of an old Bengali rajbari (mansion) to launch an opulent boutique hotel—the Raajkutir—that offers carriage rides, Victorian high tea, and an extensive menu of single malts. Iftekhar Ahsan, the young entrepreneur behind tour company Calcutta Walks, not long ago converted a 1926 townhouse into Calcutta Bungalow, a pioneering heritage hotel in an area of North Kolkata dotted with the decaying mansions of Bengali traders who grew rich off the Raj. And that’s not all.
One evening, I made my way to the home of Jael Silliman, an American-trained academic who is among the last remaining members of Kolkata’s once-thriving Baghdadi Jewish community. The driving force behind a collaborative online media archive called Recalling Jewish Calcutta, she has most recently authored Where Gods Reside, a book that explores the city’s diverse places of worship—lesser-known gems include a Greek Orthodox church and a Japanese Buddhist temple.
Silliman had told me on the phone earlier that she wasn’t an expert on conservation, and the crumbling facade of the building in which she lived seemed to bear that out. But inside her elegant, high-ceilinged apartment, Silliman talked for an hour about heritage projects it would have taken me a month to discover. Among them were ongoing efforts to revitalize the erstwhile European trading settlements in Kolkata’s northern suburbs. Sometimes collectively referred to as “Europe on the Hooghly,” these enclaves—similar to the foreign concessions of treaty port–era Shanghai—once housed Danish, Dutch, French, and Portuguese traders, and are now attracting restorers’ attention. In the riverside town of Serampore, which served as a Danish outpost for 90 years until its sale to the British East India Company in 1845, the restoration of the 200-year-old St. Olav’s Church bagged a UNESCO heritage award in 2016 for its “meticulously executed conservation work.” The project was part of an ongoing preservation program led by the National Museum of Denmark, which has also overseen the resurrection of Serampore’s Denmark Tavern, an 18th-century inn that lay in ruins just four years ago. Now, the handsome yellow building operates as a café and a soon-to-open six-room hotel.
Silliman, who grew up in the Calcutta of the 1960s, also told me about the recent refurbishment and rededication of the city’s two surviving synagogues, the oldest of which, Beth El, dates to 1856. Apart from having the largest number of colonial buildings of any city in India, she added, Kolkata was also once a “world city” along the lines of New York. “We’re trying to recast Calcutta as a cosmopolitan city, rather than the city of poverty and Mother Teresa. Now, it’s starting to happen.”
The next morning I stepped out to explore what UNESCO would call Kolkata’s intangible heritage on a guided walking tour with Calcutta Walks. Thinking I could manage colonial landmarks like Dalhousie Square, Eden Gardens, and St. John’s on my own, I opted for a tour of neighborhoods along the Hooghly.
Led by a young “explorer” named Ramanuj Ghosh, we began at Mullick Ghat’s famous flower market, where some 2,000 vendors produce wreaths of marigolds and red hibiscus for celebrations and religious rites. During October’s Durga Puja, the most important Hindu festival for Bengalis, this bazaar is an impassable mass of people and blooms, Ghosh explained. But even on this off-season day for the flower sellers, we had to be on the lookout for the deliverymen who keep the stalls stocked as they plunged down the narrow lanes with Volkswagen-size loads of marigolds balanced on their heads. We threaded through the stalls and down to the riverbank, where some of these workers were bathing in the shadow of the Howrah Bridge. Then we hopped on a ferryboat to Kumartuli, a traditional potters’ quarter where sculptors manufacture icons of the goddess Kali and other Hindu gods out of straw and clay from the Hooghly.
Bordering the North Kolkata area that is home to such lavish Bengali mansions as the 19th-century Marble Palace and the 18th-century Shobhabazar Rajbari, Kumartuli is surrounded by incredible ruins collapsing under their own weight. It was the story of India all over again: “intangible” ingenuity was thriving by dint of jugaad—or “making do”—while the infrastructure crumbled around it.
Later that afternoon, I met up with husband-and-wife scholars Tathagata Neogi and Chelsea McGill to learn more about the fight to stop those buildings from disappearing altogether. We rendezvoused at 6 Ballygunge Place, an upscale restaurant that occupies a large white bungalow in the South Kolkata neighborhood where 18th-century European residents once built their so-called garden houses. It’s apparently been the city’s premier spot for traditional Bengali favorites like prawn malaikari (whole prawns in coconut-milk gravy) and mangshor jhol (a spicy mutton curry) since it opened in 2003. We arrived just in time to avoid the long queue, and my tablemates, who run a tour company called Heritage Walk Calcutta, ordered up a feast worthy of twice our number, including deep-fried flatbreads filled with green peas (koraishutir kochuri) that are a winter staple.
Sitting in the bustling, colonial-style dining room, it was hard to believe that elsewhere the city was struggling to conserve its architectural heritage. But as Neogi (who earned a doctorate in archeology from England’s University of Exeter) and McGill (who has a master’s degree in South Asian studies) explained, there is so much to preserve that a constant battle is inevitable, especially without a coherent vision for delineating historical districts and landmarks. Where citizen groups are active, such as in the old Chinatown area of Tiretta Bazaar, revival efforts are starting to gather steam; McGill was particularly effusive about the 2017 transformation of a 110-year-old Chinese dormitory into Sei Vui, a restaurant run by one of the neighborhood’s surviving social clubs. Considerably more ambitious is Singapore-based journalist turned entrepreneur Rinkoo Bhowmik’s CHA Project; the social enterprise has partnered with INTACH to convert a 100-hectare swath of Tiretta Bazaar into a historical center featuring food streets, heritage trails, and a night market.
But without a master plan, such efforts remain isolated examples of what might be possible even as the public outcry over Kolkata’s disappearing architectural heritage grows louder—last April, a group of prominent citizens including novelist Amit Chaudhuri and filmmaker Aparna Sen marched on the mayor’s office to protest the demolition of historic buildings. “A lot of new nonprofits have come up,” Neogi said. “But in terms of actual restoration work, there hasn’t been much.”
After lunch, I took a taxi to a nearby gallery-cum-store to see another example of adaptive reuse. Built during the expansion of South Kolkata after the first partition of Bengal in the early 20th century, the 89-year-old art deco building that now houses The Zs’ Precinct had been lying vacant for a couple years before retired Indian Tobacco Company executive Rajesh Sen acquired it in 2015. A genial man with a neatly trimmed gray beard, Sen took justifiable pride in showing me the work he had done to preserve the property’s original features (red oxide floors, decorative window grilles) while modifying it for use as an art gallery and museum shop–style boutique that sells eclectic apparel and home decor.
After detailing the restoration process and the creative ways he’s making the building pay for itself (an artist-in-residence room upstairs and pop-up restaurant events, for instance), Sen took me on a lightning tour of the surrounding neighborhood to illustrate its potential value as a historic district. Once I started looking, I realized that dozens of the neighboring homes boasted similar rounded balconies, glassed stairwells, and circular windows that are hallmarks of the art deco style. Then I recalled something Deb Lal had told me when I first arrived in town: city officials and residents alike are quick to discount the heritage value of “modern” architecture.
“The main thing is to raise awareness,” Sen told me. “This isn’t a spectacularly different house from what people know of from their lifetime. But,” he added with a frown, “most of those houses have already been demolished.”
Between them, Singapore Airlines and subsidiary SilkAir offer daily flights from Singapore to Kolkata. For travelers from Hong Kong, Cathay Dragon has the only direct service to the West Bengal capital, flying every day except Monday.
Where to stay
The grande dame of Kolkata hotels occupies a landmark neoclassical building that dates to the mid-1800s. 15 Jawaharlal Nehru Rd.; 91-33/2249-2323; doubles from US$130.
15 Shakespeare Sarani; 91-33/2282-9950; doubles from US$70.
5 Radha Kanta Jeu St.; 91/98-3018-4030; doubles from US$72.
This nine-suite bolt-hole overlooking the Victoria Memorial is not a heritage property per se, but it’s done up to look like one, with an exquisite collection of antique Bengal-colonial furniture and art. Kanak Bldg., 41 Chowringhee Rd.; 91/98-3007-0213; doubles from US$345.
Where to Eat
Chef Joy Banerjee’s contemporary take on Bengali food. 32/4 Old Ballygunge, 1st Lane; 91-33/6460-1002.
A Park Street institution celebrated for its Iranian-style chelo kebabs. 18 Park St.; 91-33/2229-8841.
An elegant heritage bungalow sets the stage for refined Bengali cuisine. 91-33/2460-3922.
For a taste of Kolkata-style Chinese food in a converted Tiretta Bazaar dormitory. 17 Black Burn Ln.; 91/98-7471-8756.
What to do and see
18/76A Dover Lane; 91-33/2461-9353.
27 Jawaharlal Nehru Rd.; 91-33/2286-1699.
Victoria Memorial Hall
1 Queen’s Way; 91-33/ 2223-1890.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Conserving Kolkata”).