Calcutta is a heady concoction. Peopled by the natives, built by the English, tempered by nationalism, cut open by a famine, balmed by a cultural renaissance and marked by the efflorescence of communism, Calcutta catapulted from being a congregation of three villages to Kolkata of the modern times.
But as you travel the broad roads of this city, stroll down the healthy lanes and narrow bye-lanes Calcutta appears in glimpses stuck between the old city and the new one built around the 19th century. For if you want to recognise any city you do it with its landmarks, architecture, buildings, mansions, houses and hovels that lay claim to the generations its housed.
London’s elegant Victorian, Gothic, Georgian and Edwardian buildings stand true of a culture and populace that thrived in that country. In contrast Calcutta’s architecture is a mystery. It is neither Renaissance, with Corinthian pillars, nor neo-Gothic as Bombay’s colonial buildings are nor Indo-Saracenic, which expresses a utopian idea built on a mish-mash of Renaissance, Hindu and Moghul features. Calcutta has its own style– European yet Bengali.
Look at any old mansion in the city in any neighbourhood. It is like a wide assembly of individuals. The building next to the one with a giant facade may be thin, and the third a triangle and the fourth may have a semi circular visage to match the curb on the main road. But they all stand together each with its own space, life and narrative.
Some broad features included the Venetian slattered windows usually painted green, with red brick walls and white border, elaborate cornices, porch on the ground floor, red oxidised cement floors, round knockers on doors, an open rooftop terrace sometimes partially covered with undulated asbestos or tin shades, a long first-floor veranda with patterned cast-iron railings and ventilators carved with intricate floral perforations. Some of these houses were built in the 1920s and boasted of busy colonial art-deco elements, semi-circular balconies, vertical strips emblazoned with glass panes for a stairwell, porthole-shaped windows and those famous sunrise, tiger or elephant motifs on grilles and gates.
And these are not heritage houses. They stretch from Shyambazar in the North to Ballygunge in the South of the city. They are houses built by the anonymous middleclass– that freewheeling loitering lot who loved their roaks for adda and high arched ceilings in equal measure. They form the city, its character and are its very definition.
On evenings when I walk down the old tired lanes and bye-lanes they look down like senior citizens, some like friends and juniors sending a quiet hi-five as I stroll past. Revisit an old locality and they behave like old happy friends taking me down memory lane. That is the city. Old beautiful and redolent of a mellow past and future laden with beautiful dreams.