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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Documenting Kolkata’s architectural heritage, one Instagram post at a time

In Kolkata, every building tells a story. The story of the city's past, of the many communities that call it home. As redevelopment sweeps history aside, these Instagram accounts are preserving bits of it.

Written by Neha Banka | Kolkata |
August 7, 2019 4:50:49 pm
kolkata houses, kolkata architecture Window to a world gone by: Venetian windows, often painted green, are one of the many things that make Kolkata’s architecture unique, and worth preserving. (Photo: Instagram/calcuttahouses)

Kolkata’s unique architectural heritage is a reflection of the communities that settled in the city and made it their home over centuries — a collection of architectural styles not seen elsewhere in India.

However, due to poor city planning, unchecked development, real estate greed and gentrification, the city has been losing its architectural wealth at an accelerated rate, particularly over the past 10 years.

Before they vanish forever, some residents of Kolkata are racing to document the city’s vanishing buildings and unique paras (neighbourhoods) on Instagram.

Although social media pages dedicated to Kolkata’s history have been in existence for a few years now, these Instagram users say the platform’s photo-focused service makes it ideal to document their photographs of the city.

‘Kolkata Bylanes’ is one such Instagram account, which curates images of neighbourhoods, lanes and bylanes of the city. “We started this (account) two years ago and it is gradually growing,” said Tathgatha Neogi, co-founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta, an enterprise that provides walking tours of the city with a focus on research and history. ‘Kolkata Bylanes’ was a result of a workshop organised by Heritage Walk Calcutta, and participants have continued contributing photos to the Instagram account even after the end of the workshop.

 

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39/5 at Hindustan Road opposite Wise Owl Cafe in the sprawling neighborhood of Gariahat. The red walls of the house embellished by the trees captured the attention of the third group led by Anmol. She pointed out how the architecture was a mixture of Indie Deco and Neo Classical styles. On reconnitering our surroundings we decided to interview the Chai-wala opposite the house. We sat in the shade with the “bhar” and listened intently as the frail man very proudly reminisced the stay of Mahatma Gandhi in the house which was home to a military sergeant. Now it was up to us whether to treat it as a fact or rumor. Nevertheless, we were definitely left fascinated. Picture and text by @avantika_binani #heritagewalkcal

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“These photos create awareness beyond big heritage structures and we are trying to expand the definition of heritage through this account,” says Neogi. For many, the term ‘heritage building’ is limited to iconic structures, or specific buildings with visible historical or social importance. But in a city like Kolkata, centuries of history is encapsulated within every building and street that usually goes unrecognised. The stories of these buildings and streets are a reflection of how Kolkata developed over decades, and its place in the history of the nation.

“Each of Kolkata’s neighbourhoods is eclectic and looking at buildings, you can (identify) when it was built. We are trying to create micro-histories of neighbourhoods by talking to people,” Neogi explains.

Most of these projects on Instagram are initiated and undertaken by account owners who are passionate about the city and its history, and involve extensive research and crowd-sourced information about the origins and identities of buildings and structures.

 

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A beautiful neoclassical structure that stands with grace on 12/1, Hindustan Road. There are quite a few features about this beautiful structure, some that stand out, and some that are subtle. For starters, we can see the magnificent Corinthian columns on the façade, which clearly are meant to ornament the building rather than provide structural support. A closer look at the building reveals that the upper floor, right above the columns was perhaps a recent addition. The observation begins with the fact that there are brackets supporting the sunshades(bottom right) on the ground as well as the first floor. The top floor however lacks these brackets, and on observing closely, also happens not to have the same level of detailing as the previous two. Caption by @rohan.s.chowdhury #heritage #hwc #heritagewalkcalcutta #architecture #classicalarchitecture #kolkata #hindustanroad #gariahat #artdeco #indideco

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But this documentation doesn’t come without challenges. According to Neogi, many residents and building owners associate the word “heritage” with the city government that is looking to demolish structures to replace them with modern construction.

Both residents and building owners are initially reluctant to even speak with people who try to take photographs and ask questions about the buildings, says Neogi. Others are unable to recognise or believe that their neighbourhoods or homes have historical or cultural value, especially if they were built after 1947.

Adhiraj Bose, 30, a city-based lawyer who has been photographing the city’s buildings for the past few years, believes there has been growing awareness among residents of the city’s heritage and the threat to it over the past few years.

“I live in east Kolkata in Lake Town and it was originally built as a township for government officials,” says Bose, indicating that the architecture of the buildings is reflective of the purpose for which it was built. “If you go from East to West and move towards the (Hooghly) river, the houses are different from those in the northern and southern part of the city.”

Kolkata’s neighbourhoods, known as ‘para’ in Bangla, reflect the culture of the communities who originally lived in those areas. According to Bose, it is difficult to give a generalised definition of a Kolkata “para”. “The archetype of ‘para’ is in the north Kolkata style, but in my opinion, there is no single kind of para.”

Bose is interested in modern architectural styles and runs an Instagram account called ‘Calcutta Art Deco’, which he started in 2017. Inspired by the UNESCO heritage tag awarded to Mumbai for its Victorian and Art Deco buildings, Bose started documenting the last remaining Art Deco structures in Kolkata.

“Nothing was done to document Art Deco in Calcutta, and so I started marking their addresses and their history in this account,” says Bose. He travels around the city identifying and photographing structures in Art Deco styles, and runs a second Instagram account, ‘Yogi Bose’ to document other architectural components in buildings that he finds interesting.

 

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Close up shot of the balcony stucco work. Durjoti dham

A post shared by Adhiraj Bose (@yogibose) on

 

‘Calcutta Houses’ is another Instagram account that features a collection of photographs and illustrations of Kolkata buildings, neighbourhoods and architectural features like balconies, windows and doors. It was co-founded in 2011 by three friends, Siddhartha Hajra, Sayan Dutta and Manish Golder, who spent varying amounts of time in the city. Speaking about the Instagram account, ‘Calcutta Houses’ Hajra, a Delhi-based photographer, says: “Instagram seems to be most accessible and we gravitated to it because our work is based on visuals.”

 

“We discussed changing neighbourhoods and we saw that they were being tarnished and the architecture was changing,” says Hajra, speaking about the trio’s motivation for starting the online initiative. The trio’s decision to photograph the buildings stemmed from what they were witnessing around them and they believed that documenting the structures in photos was the only thing they could do.

 

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Illustration from a balcony in Park Circus area. #calcuttahouses #illustration #india #retro #classic #design #contemporaryart #urban

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“We were feeling helpless because we couldn’t stop the destruction. We couldn’t remember what house stood at a place after it was replaced. But we could (photograph it), make it accessible and share it,” explains Hajra.

Feedback on their Instagram accounts made the co-founders realise there were other fans of the city’s architecture who “felt the same way”. “That helped us feel in sync with what we were doing,” says Hajra.

A blog called ‘Hooghly Heritage’ has been documenting the architectural heritage of Hooghly, a Kolkata suburb, for approximately 1.5 years. Last month, the co-owners of the blog, Sankha Subhra Ganguly, Projjwal Das and Suchintya Mallick, decided to open an Instagram account with the name ‘Hooghly Houses’.

The blog’s content is in Bengali and the co-founders felt they needed to put out content in English on Instagram, because most users on the platform were English speakers. “Instagram isn’t very popular in Hooghly but we’ve connected with many like-minded people whom we wouldn’t have found otherwise. We can explain things in a few words, which has a charm of its own,” adds Ganguly.

 

While architecture is threatened all over the city, Ganguly believes that the architectural heritage is being destroyed at an alarming rate in the suburbs. That motivated the group to document whatever was left of the heritage as quickly as possible.

The Instagram account, says Ganguly, inspired their account followers to travel to Hooghly to see the architecture for themselves, and some have also joined the heritage walks the ‘Hooghly Heritage’ team organises. “This response motivates us to document (the heritage),” says Ganguly.

Several factors may have resulted in this increase in number of Instagram accounts dedicated to Kolkata’s heritage. Mobile phones come with in-built cameras, eliminating the need for a high-end camera while on the go.

According to Instagram account owners and blog owners that The Indian Express interviewed, Instagram is the preferred platform for photographers and heritage lovers documenting buildings and architecture in Kolkata.

“The silence of images have made us flock to Instagram. If you like it, just comment or bookmark it,” says Hajra. “It is a silent way of interacting and it is a conducive platform. It is instantaneously participatory and not everyone uploads everything. It is an easier platform to communicate visuals.”

The Instagram accounts are extremely popular with people who love the city’s history and architecture. For many they serve as a repository of the last remaining images of a ‘para’⁠— a neighbourhood they knew or a building they loved⁠; an archive of images of a city that is rapidly changing before their eyes.

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