I can’t tell you if 5, Radha Kanta Jeu Street has a ‘calling bell’ or not. The metal rings against the dark wooden door looked so tempting that I rattled them until a face, with surprise writ large on it peered out to see who it was. The door opened and I stepped in.
Tucked inside a quiet, north Kolkata neighbourhood, the Calcutta Bungalow is the newest addition to the city’s heritage lodgings. The nearly century-old building—sporting a mix of colonial and local architecture, reminiscent of 20th-century Calcutta—would have given way to a modern high-rise, if it wasn’t for two friends, Iftekhar Ahsan and Chris Chen. With their own funds, the duo bought the decrepit house in 2015, its insides piled with rubble and furniture scraps, and decided to convert it into a bed-and-breakfast facility while keeping its inherent character intact.
“Restoring old buildings is not easy,” said Iftekhar, as he showed me around. They had to ensure that the building was structurally strong, and sought help from conservation architect Akhil Ranjan Sarkar. The hunt for original building materials and people who could work with them was a challenge. They found a master artisan from Murshidabad who could work with chun-surki (lime plaster and powdered brick). The iron-work, as well as furniture and bric-a-brac were either sourced from old homes or made to order.
Like a typical north Kolkata home, the building has a small open courtyard. Its three storeys include bedrooms done up in light colours, a reception, a recreation room, and a dining hall.
Each room has a character synonymous with Kolkata’s distinct neighbourhoods, enlivened through framed pictures, posters and bric-a-brac—Potuapara (artists’ colony), Boipara (about books and publishing), Dorjipara (tailors’ hub), Jatrapara (famous for traditional theatre), etc.
Guests will be encouraged to have breakfast together in the dining hall. The lighting arrangement is innovative, the bulbs are placed inside old loudspeakers. There is an old weighing scale in the corner, once common in marketplaces.
While the ground floor adda-khana serves as the audio-visual and recreational room, the terrace is a café with a corner for cultural activities. “We also plan to have a souvenir shop, stocked with Calcutta memorabilia,” said Iftekhar.
At a time when heritage lovers are ruing about the loss of Kolkata’s built inheritance, the Calcutta Bungalow shows how private entrepreneurship can help preserve Kolkata’s urban heritage. It is slated for an early May opening