The palaces and mansions of Calcutta’s old, ‘native’ quarter, or ‘Black Town’, were built from the second half of the 18th century through to the 19th, along the same time the British erected the mighty edifices of the seat of empire to the south. Zamindars built their townhouses there; others were constructed by traders who got enormously rich through trading with the East India Company. The facades of the grandest buildings were often built in the Doric, Ionic and Palladian styles, with more traditional interiors centred around a courtyard, complete with a place for worship (thakurdalan). Such houses were crammed with priceless treasures imported from Europe, their gardens studded with neo-classical statuary; the owners led opulent, ‘decadent’ lives—money was thrown away on pigeon fights, pets’ ‘weddings’ and nautch-girls—‘Baboo culture’, too, is a byword for old Calcutta.
A century—or two—on, many of these mansions have aged gracelessly, but wear their decrepitude with a defiant insouciance characteristic of Calcutta: time has stained them with moss and soot, trees have clasped them in mighty embraces, sending roots through the crumbling stones. And the warren of narrow streets that bind them in a serpentine grid, trodden by generations, have heaved to the tumult that is Bengal’s history in the 20th century—armed revolutionary assaults at the heart of the Raj, the misery of famine in 1943, the bloody convulsion of Partition and the abortive Naxalite revolt against the State that flared up in romantic idealism and burnt out through misguided factionalism. Old Calcutta is also the seat of Bengali theatre, the cauldron in which much of the city’s unique cuisine was perfected and the stomping ground of the luminaries of Bengal’s remarkable socio-cultural efflorescence in the 19th century. Life courses around all this in its quotidian drudgery, or indolent loftiness, barely mindful of the air thick with mystique.
Time hangs heavy on its streets, not in careful, exacting conservation expectant of tourism, but in living, breathing, careworn sentience. The ‘city of palaces’ has long seen off its ‘dreadful nights’; it now makes a last, urbane stand against the homogenising fingers laid by globalisation on the rest of the city.
Photographs by Goutam Roy