Over the past three decades, Sudder Street, a narrow lane adjacent to the Indian Museum in central Kolkata, has struggled to shed its seedy reputation. Today, the street is known for its touts, and even shadier elements, who work in tandem to lure foreigner backpackers seeking out the neighbourhood’s cheap hotels. Though it became a backpacker heaven in the 1960s when the hippies descended upon Kolkata, the neighbourhood was not always like that.
Long before the lane acquired its present name, it was called Ford Street and then Speke Street. Historical documentation doesn’t seem to be available explaining why it was ever called Ford Street, but the street is found with this name in the Wood’s map of 1784. Sometime after 1789, it was named Speke Street after a house in the center of the compound of the Indian Museum that was occupied by Peter Speke, who began his appointment at the Supreme Council at Calcutta in 1789 at a handsome annual salary of £10,000, according to ancestry records of the Speke family in the UK. Speke held this position for a little more than a decade, till 1801, writes H.E.A Cotton, a chronicler of British India, in his book ‘Calcutta, Old and New’.
The house that Speke lived in was “built-in 1790, and the grounds extended to Kyd Street, including the “Sieve Tank”, which we have just begun noticing,” writes Cotton. The area mentioned by Cotton in his book covers the width of the Indian Museum today, an expanse of land so large that most of Sudder Street and Kyd Street that ran parallelly on opposite sides of the museum served almost as an extension of the museum grounds. This large water tank on the grounds of Speke’s residence was enclosed by a brick screen and he allowed people to draw water from it for washing and bathing. The tank remained in existence for many years after Speke’s departure from the residence.
Speke’s sprawling residence was also the scene of a dramatic killing, “an exciting occurrence” in 1798, writes Cotton. A young Sikh, whose petition had been refused by Speke, killed a servant in the compound and hid on the roof of the building till he was shot dead by sepoys. It isn’t clear from Cotton’s writings what the rejected petition entailed or the circumstances surrounding the killing. Towards the end of his tenure at the Supreme Council at Calcutta, Speke rented out his residence to the Bengal Government for use as the Sadr Diwani Adalat, also known as Sudder Dewany Adawlut in English; the Sudder Dewany Court. This was the court of appeals for Indians who lived outside the jurisdiction of Calcutta but within the Bengal Presidency. The court held proceedings according to Hindu and Muslim codes of law. It is from this courthouse that the street gets its modern-day appellation.
The Sadr Diwani Adalat, established by Warren Hastings in 1772, changed addresses over the decades but for some years, it was held at the grounds of the Indian Museum, till it was moved to where the Military Hospital stood in Bhowanipore in the late 1820s. But the name of the street stuck and hasn’t changed despite the radical transformations of the neighbourhood’s environs. For a few years after the Sudder Dewany Adawlut was moved, and a few years prior to the start of the construction of the Indian Museum, the Sudder Board of Revenue also held its offices in the complex.
The Indian Museum was constructed in 1814, incorporating Speke’s house into its complex. It was designed by Walter B. Granville, the government architect responsible for many other architectural icons in Calcutta, including the Calcutta High Court and the museum slowly grew in size over the years that followed.
During the 1870s, the Indian Museum had a collection titled the ‘Economic and Art Section’, that was a compilation of “specimens of the ordinary products of Bengal, of its agriculture, its minerals, its manufactures, and its forests and its wastes” and owed its existence to George Campbell, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal between 1871 and 1874, writes Cotton. After languishing in the museum’s storage for years, in 1883, the collection was displayed at the Calcutta International Exhibition of 1883-1884, held at the rear of the museum that spilled onto Sudder Street, to generate public interest for future display in the museum premises under this newly curated section. After the end of the Exhibition, the collection was further expanded and put under the control of the trustees of the Imperial Museum, and was maintained by the Bengal Government.
Some glimpses of Sudder Street’s history as a residential neighbourhood can be found in dilapidating structures, exteriors of which haven’t yet entirely been swallowed by plastic billboards, hanging electrical wires and sign-boards advertising everything back-packing tourists on a budget could possibly want. On one side of the pavement, for those who are looking for it, a gaudy, faded gold-painted bust of Rabindranath Tagore, that bears little resemblance to the poet, stands quietly observing the daily occurrences on the street, when its view is not blocked by parked cars and taxis. The statue was not erected there by coincidence.
In 1882, a 21-year-old Tagore, after having returned from England two years ago, briefly stayed in a residential property at 10, Sudder Street with his elder brother Jyotindranath Tagore and his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi. Tagore was scheduled to return to England in 1882, when he made a change in plans and travelled to Mussoorie instead, to meet his parents. Upon his return to Bengal, Tagore spent some more time with his brother and sister-in-law in their house on Sudder Street, after which, the trio travelled to Darjeeling for a holiday. While Tagore stayed in his brother’s Sudder Street home during this same visit, he wrote several poems, the most famous being ‘Nirjharer Swapna Bhanga’ (The Awakening of a Fountain from a Dream’).
The residence has been turned into one ‘Hotel Plaza’ and only a plaque inside the building remains, serving as a reminder of the address where Tagore once lived. The building is now privately-owned with spaces within it’s complex converted to let. The slaked lime exteriors that would have been present in the original structure of the building have been scraped off and replaced with modern, artificial veneers that do nothing to improve the run-down look of the hotel. Outside Hotel Plaza, the pavement is crammed with a tour operator’s office, a foreign exchange shop, a convenience store and sign-boards for a doctor’s chamber hang near the entrance of the hotel, the building having been reduced to a shadow of its former self, like most things of historical and architectural importance in the city.
Would the Sudder Street of the past five decades have served to inspire Tagore’s poetry? It seems rather unlikely.