Standing at the corner of Strand Road and Hare Street in Kolkata is Metcalfe Hall, a magnificent mid-19th century edifice, facing the Hooghly River. Standing on a 10-feet high base, the building is marked by 30 Corinthian pillars supporting the entablature. The pillars’ capitals were designed after the simplified style followed in the portico of the Tower of the Winds in Athens.
It was built by Burn & Company and named after Charles Theophilus Metcalfe (acting governor-general of India from 1835-36), who was instrumental in ensuring the freedom of the Indian press. Home to the then Calcutta Public Library, it served as the Imperial Library from 1903 to 1925.
But it is not only its architecture or history that tugs the heart strings. The Metcalfe Hall is also an example of adaptive reuse, part of a global concept that is breathing fresh life into many heritage buildings that would have otherwise crumbled away. Turned into a space for exhibitions, it is currently housing an exposition on the city called Ami Kolkata (I am Kolkata), conceptualised by Kritika Malhotra. Instead of a typical exhibition focusing on the city’s past, Malhotra decided to capture the “living culture” of the city and make it “a microcosm of the city itself.”
“A citizen’s space where the people feel ownership for it,” says Malhotra.
Start with the audio-visual presentation on the spirit of the city, where the visuals consist of hand-shadowgraph by Amar Sen and Sabyasachi Sen. An assembly of posters along the grand staircase highlight the cultural-scape of the city.
The visual culture, music and the literary arts, city scenes that evoke nostalgia or reflect contemporary times, have been expressed on the upper floor through art installations, displays and audio presentations. The narration of the city’s cultural timeline is a brilliant marriage of tradition and new age tech—a specially-crafted dingi or a country boat (the kind that still plies along the Hooghly) with an interactive touch table taking visitors through 12 key moments. An abstract origami sculpture overhead resonates the fluid form of the river. The Durga Puja installation is a reminder that it is not merely a religious pursuit in Kolkata; but also sculptural and artistic expressions. There is an installation highlighting the accessories used during a Bengali wedding, including a giant replica of a topor (headgear) worn by the groom.
You depart with the sounds of the city resonating in your ears with an audio treat that highlights an orchestra of soundscapes recorded right from the city streets.
Interestingly, it is the Imperial Library that ties the Metcalfe Hall with another heritage building, which has also been restored and made relevant through adaptive reuse.
After being shifted around for some time, the Imperial Library (renamed the National Library), found a permanent home in the Belvedere Estate. The library moved into Belvedere House, a magnificent Italian Renaissance-style building located in the heart of a 30-acre parkland.
It is said that Nawab Mir Jafar was its first occupant (after the Battle of Plassey in 1757). He gifted it to governor-general Warren Hastings, who lived there until 1780. The Estate changed hands multiple times and served as the official residence of the lieutenant governors and viceroys of British India. With the heritage building in need of wide-scale repairs, the library was shifted to a new building on the premises. Post renovation, the Belvedere Hall has been opened as a museum with a permanent exhibition.
At the top of the sweeping flight of stairs, you enter the sculpture gallery —Story of India through Images and Symbols—maintained by the Indian Museum, from where you enter the former banquet hall and the gallery running around it, which holds the exhibition titled Icons of Nationalism–from the soil of Bengal. Established by the Union Ministry of Culture, the exhibition has been built around four notable Bengalis—Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Syama Prasad Mookerjee. Key events in their life and achievements have been highlighted through timelines, photographs, copies of newspaper clippings and letters, and audio presentations.
Metcalfe Hall: 12 Strand Road, near the Millennium Park main gate.
Timings: 10am to 5pm, all days
Entry Fee : None
Belvedere Estate: Block A, Alipore, near the Alipore Zoo.
Timings: 10am to 6pm, Tuesdat to Sunday
Entry Fee: None
Note: It is a long walk from the gate to Belvedere House. It is advisable to carry an umbrella and drinking water.