Wednesday, 12 January 2023
Most times I’ve been in Kolkata, I’ve explored an area of the city looking at buildings, this time Bhowanipore, between the Victoria Memorial and Kalighat. It’s calmer in these parts than in North Kolkata, the traffic is less intensive on the residential roads and it’s not a major operation to cross the road. We have a very interesting book published by Intach (the Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage), which lists the more architecturally interesting buildings in each area of the city with photographs and makes an assessment of their condition. Some fine restorations have been carried out but unfortunately many architecturally valuable buildings are in poor condition and not a few in our book have been demolished or, in one case, (presumably because of split ownership) half demolished, where the symmetry of the building lauded in the book is no more.
As I understand it, this area was countryside until the nineteenth century. Many of the houses there are first generation urban houses. The Europeans lived in the so-called “White Town” in the centre and surrounding southern fringes, while Bhowanipore was a bit further south and popular with the expanding Bengali middle classes (and perhaps upwards). Some of the houses were substantial buildings, where ownership was later divided. There is apparently a listed building system in Kolkata and permission must be obtained to demolish valuable buildings, although many may be deemed beyond salvation if deterioration has advanced too far. Presumably from the point of view of housing development, it is in many cases more financially attractive to clear sites and make more intensive use of them with a modern building. The problem from a heritage point of view is the atmosphere of the district. While valuable individual buildings may be saved, the quantity of demolitions and new stock can change the character of a neighbourhood with the loss of the “ensemble” of old buildings, leaving a gentrified district, which is perhaps pleasant but which has lost the special quality that these old buildings could have conferred on it (see my Facebook page for some pictures of the buildings).