As heritage houses turn to dust in Kolkata, a new Plaster of Paris civic aesthetic takes flight

In Kolkata, as heritage houses turn to dust, a new Plaster of Paris civic aesthetic takes flight.

Written by Premankur Biswas | New Delhi | Published:August 16, 2015 1:00 am
The Bose residence at Hindustan Park The Bose residence at Hindustan Park

Parna Kuthir is almost hidden by an overgrown bel tree at 32, Hindustan Park. To an imaginative passerby, it would seem that the exquisite two-storied structure is coyly peeping out of the trees, but 70-year-old Alok Bose knows better. “If anything, she is an ageing beauty hiding behind the trees to cover up the ravages of time,” says Bose, co-owner of the 500 sq metre property. Today, he is supervising the building of a brick fence around the property. “We had beautiful wrought-iron grills around the house but some miscreants stole them the other day,” says Bose.

As he invites us in to explore the property, we realise that the building is deceptively large. Its slight proportioned facade hides many sprawling halls and rooms. The semi-circular porch has concrete awnings with intricate perforations. “My grandfather, Paresh Chandra Bose, who designed and built this house in 1931, was a military accountant. He worked under the British government and was posted in Peshawar and Burma for a long time. You can see Islamic influences in the semi-circular porch. There was a marble fountain in the courtyard, around which we would play hide and seek,” says Bose. The doors are of Burma teak and the floors are inlaid with Italian marble. In its prime, Parna Kuthir housed 25 residents, played host to the local Durga Puja and had regular adda ashor (open house parties). Now, it is empty of all inhabitants — even Bose lives alone in nearby Triangular Park because he finds it too big to live in.

Yet, Bose recognises the fact that the house his grandfather designed and built, is of “far greater artistic merit than the monstrosities of today”.

“Every age has its own aesthetics, we all tend to romanticise the past. But I feel that an ugly building will always be an ugly building. My grandparents built a house that reflected their worldview, today people don’t build houses with personalities,” says Bose, a retired civil engineer with the Food Corporation of India.

The 30-year-old statue that was recently removed to make space for a green globe The 30-year-old statue that was recently removed to make space for a green globe

Earlier this year, when writer Amit Chaudhuri wrote a piece in The Guardian making a plea for the restoration of Kolkata’s unique architectural heritage, he was talking about houses like Parna Kuthir. Kolkata’s heritage, he insisted, is not only about rajbaris in the north of the city and the grand colonial buildings of central Kolkata, but the houses in which people have lived, and still live, in neighbourhoods across the city — Bakulbagan, Hindustan Park, Kidderpore, Paddapukur Road, Bhowanipore, Sarat Bose Road, and Ganguly Bagan. The buildings reflect the cosmopolitan nature of the city in the early 20th century and are characterised by certain common elements. “Most of these houses have a porch on the ground floor and red stone floors. The windows are in the slatted Venetian or French style and are more often than not painted green,” says Chaudhuri.

Parna Kuthir’s story is not very different from most houses of the time. “Have I been approached by promoters to sell my share of the property? Of course! Today, it would be worth crores. But I am at the fag end of my life, my daughters are well settled in different parts of the world. I don’t need that kind of money,” says Bose. His cousins, however, don’t share his passion for the house and have sold off their portions. “They want to pull it down and build an apartment complex. But the majority of the house is under our ownership. We won’t sell,” says Bose.

If Parna Kuthir and hundreds of other such buildings spread across the city are to be protected by the government, they have to be declared heritage precincts. Last month, Chaudhuri kick-started an online campaign to protect the grand structures, some of which are in a decrepit state. “I have been writing about this for about five years now. I have tried to collaborate with the government to little success. I have been given assurances but nothing concrete has come out yet,” says Chaudhuri.

Artist Shuvaprasanna, who heads the government-run West Bengal Heritage Commission, however, said they “hardly have any powers in this regard”. “There is almost never sole ownership in such cases. If one member wishes to preserve the house, the other wants to sell it off to a promoter. Moreover, most owners don’t realise that the house they inhabit has any heritage value, for them it’s a liability,” he says.

As a result, the houses are being demolished at a rapid pace for the price of the land on which they stand. “We need to introduce measures preventing such destruction. Such measures would not be unique to Kolkata; all major cities worldwide, whether in Europe (Berlin, London, Paris), Latin America or North America, have laws that forbid the destruction of existing buildings. Nor would they necessarily oppose new developments. Moreover, a homeowner has a fundamental right to sell their property; but neither buyer nor seller should, ideally, have the right to demolish existing buildings, since these add up to a city’s collective inheritance and history,” says Chaudhuri.

At his spacious south Kolkata residence, GM Kapur of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) talks about the lack of public aesthetics in India. “We are hell-bent on building Dubai and Manhattan on the graves of our beautiful heritage. Cities like Pune have lost a lot of their character in the name of development, we can still save Kolkata. But not if we insist on recreating London here,” says Kapur.

Indeed, Kolkata as a city seems almost schizophrenic in its contemporary aesthetic. If Hindustan Park and Dover Lanes are quiet enclaves of sunlit porches and elegant art-deco structures, Beleghata, an old locality in eastern Kolkata, has a jungle theme bridge running across it, complete with Plaster of Paris tropical birds perched on Plaster of Paris trees. “It’s not just the current government, in the last few decades the state government has done very little to preserve the city’s architectural heritage. That is mainly because we have very few laws protecting our prized structures. In the last few years, a high-rise has come up in central Kolkata, in front of Victoria Memorial. We tried to do something about it, but to no avail. In cities in Europe, there are protected heritage zones where no new developments are allowed. We need something like this here too,” says Kapur.

A house in Dover Lane A house in Dover Lane

Last year, the government faced a lot of criticism for demolishing renowned artist Shanu Lahiri’s 30-year-old sculpture Parama from an island in the city’s arterial EM Bypass road. It was replaced with a Plaster of Paris globe with the Bengali letter ba, signifying Bengal, superimposed on it. “The truth is that in Kolkata we have so many ugly statues but hardly any public art. Today, they are recreating a Big Ben on VIP road. The very idea is so aspirational. I have no doubt that we will have more ugly statues like the ones of Rabindranath Tagore at Dhakuria lake and Netaji at the airport,” says art historian Tapati Guha Thakurta.

An owl sculpture at a park in Bangur An owl sculpture at a park in Bangur

However, some stories have silver linings. A day after we visited Parna Kuthir, Alok Bose calls us to inform us that he has joined Amit Chaudhuri’s campaign and has been assured by authorities that they will do their best to not let anything happen to the house. “I know the legal process is tedious and long, but I have more like-minded people backing me now,” he says.

The story appeared in print with the headline A House for Mr Bose

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