April 03, 2020
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A Surface Encounter

A casual journalistic exercise collated into a book. At best, it's a perfunctory reminder to Bengalis that they've done themselves grave disservice by forgetting what they and their city are really all about.

A Surface Encounter
The Forgotten Palaces Of Calcutta
By Joanne Taylor
Niyogi Books 96 pages Rs 1,250

There is a view, forcefully articulated by a shrinking band of ex-colonials in London’s gentleman’s clubs, that Calcutta was created and lovingly nurtured by the British and systematically destroyed by Indians after Independence. It’s a perception I share, but with a small caveat: the city’s decline began in the mid-’60s, a period coinciding with Red ascendancy, the closure of Firpo’s and the demolition of the grand facade of the Bengal Club. By 1969, the towering Ochterlony Monument had been renamed Shahid Minar and the grand bronze statues of the men who made Calcutta uprooted from their pedestals and dumped in a god-forsaken corner of Barrackpore.

Till the 1950s, Calcutta straddled two vibrant cultures: the mercantile capitalism of Scots-dominated boxwallahs working out of Clive Street and the indolent paternalism of the bhadralok elite. This happy amalgam left its mark on the city. On the surface there was a "white town" and a "black town" but the reality was more intertwined. The West and the East fed on each other.

Taylor’s account of the crumbling architecture of Old Calcutta skims the surface of this encounter. The whiff of nostalgia surrounding what V.S. Naipaul once described as "Calcutta Corinthian" and others decried as "Rotten Rococo" is rooted in the city’s history. Raja Nabakrishna Deb, for example, unveiled his palace with a grand Durga Puja which also celebrated Robert Clive’s victory at Plassey. The guest of honour? Clive himself. This expression of loyalty may seem quirky but Bengalis with a stake looked on the advent of Company rule as an unqualified blessing and a respite from the tyranny of the later Moghuls. That they were the principal beneficiaries of the zamindari system introduced by Lord Cornwallis is undeniable. The bonding, however, was more than economic; it was tinged with emotion.

British rule provided bhadralok notables the space to practise their religion openly, ostentatiously. As Taylor indicates, for two centuries the Calcutta palaces came into their own during Durga Puja. There were public rooms modelled on the cultivated clutter of the great Victorian houses in Britain—Venetian chandeliers lighting up a bewildering array of carved Chinese furniture, Belgian mirrors, tiger skins and assorted bric-a-brac. Yet, the heart of the palace was rooted in the robust Hinduism of the Bengali upper class.

This tradition persisted even after the more successful branches of the great families shifted from their ancestral North Calcutta homes to localities where the European-native distinction was less marked. The palaces may have shrunk and the love of the sahib given way to a compromise with the comrades, but established families haven’t disavowed their commitment to the Thakur dalan.

Taylor captures some of the duality of the bhadralok inheritance. But there are serious production deficiencies: an unreadable italicised font and the absence of photo captions, for one. It seems a casual journalistic exercise collated into a book. At best, it’s a perfunctory reminder to Bengalis that they’ve done themselves grave disservice by forgetting what they and their city are really all about.


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