The former Calcutta is determined to shake its reputation as India's Black Hole. But as the city looks to the future, it must reckon—semantically, symbolically, architecturally— with its colonial history.

February 18, 2011

Manish Chakraborti lives in the city of Kolkata—known until recently as Calcutta—where he is an architect and a historical preservationist. Chakraborti, who is 35 years old, is a man of great enthusiasm and energy; he is also a master of understatement. Early one misty Monday morning not long ago, he was standing in the run-down, weed-filled grounds of St. John's Church, which was built by the British in 1787, gazing at a large stone monument inscribed with British names that had been stuck, unceremoniously, in an overgrown corner of the cathedral's plot. "This monument was a very nice piece of branding," Chakraborti said. "It pervaded the whole city and was detrimental for the whole city. This is officially called the Holwell Monument, but it was always known as the Black Hole monument."

The monument was built to commemorate the 146 British settlers who in 1756 were rounded up by the forces of the nawab of Bengal and forced overnight into a tiny, stifling guardroom, in which all but 23 of them suffocated to death. Chakraborti, who works for a nonprofit organization named Action Research in Conservation Heritage, or ARCH, dedicated to the historical preservation of Kolkata and West Bengal, also conducts heritage tours of the city. He explained that the monument was once located at a major intersection, and in the 1940's was removed to this inconspicuous corner by the post-independence government of Calcutta. By then, though, the public-relations damage was done, and Calcutta was perceived by the world not just as a place that once had a Black Hole, but as one that was itself a black hole—a gaping maw of poverty, sickness, and misery, whose every inhabitant was a leper or a beggar or both. "Calcutta has been marketed very badly," Chakraborti said.

Calcutta's Black Hole reputation—exacerbated by the endeavors of Mother Teresa, whose work on behalf of the poor had the secondary effect of establishing the name Calcutta as a global byword for unspeakable poverty—is a great frustration to Chakraborti and others who would like different dimensions of their city's heritage to be recognized. Just what those dimensions should be, though, is a politically sensitive matter, since Kolkata's history consists largely of its role as the most important component of the British Empire—a relationship of subjugation that is hardly seen as a cause for celebration in post-independence India, especially in Kolkata, where the Communist Party has controlled the government since the late 1970's. The legislation that three years ago substituted Kolkata (the name of the original Indian settlement) for Calcutta (the pronunciation and spelling bestowed upon it by the British) was part of an effort to reclaim the city as categorically Indian, and there have been other attempts to diminish the legacy of imperial rule. Kolkata's official birthday, August 24, the date in 1690 on which Job Charnock, of the East India Company, is said to have landed in what was then an undeveloped port, was celebrated annually until very recently. In 2002 a lawyer named Smarajit Roychoudhury filed a suit claiming that his ancestor Lakshmikanta Roychoudhury, who was the local landowner at the time of Charnock's arrival, should be heralded as the city's real founder. Last May the authorities agreed that Kolkata's alleged birthday was a contrivance and should no longer be celebrated.

Calcutta is where British dreams of global dominion were given their most extravagant expression. British architects—and their Indian workforces—filled the city with Neoclassical buildings, riverside promenades, and manicured parks, as well as office buildings and apartment houses, all constructed along the lines of European models. Many of the public buildings are outright copies: the governor's mansion is a duplicate of Kedleston Hall, a stately home in England, and Kolkata's law courts are in a replica of the statehouse in Ypres—though with an oddly truncated tower, since the marshy foundations couldn't bear sufficient weight to build it as high as the original. Within 200 years, Calcutta had been turned into a bustling metropolis, as much a Victorian city as Manchester, Leeds, or Birmingham, and grander by far than any of them. The architects of colonial Calcutta were operating on principles not so different from those that later motivated the architects of Disneyland: they were creating a fantasy space intended to evoke other places and times—one that, like Disneyland, was meant to be a massive economic engine. There was even a Magic Castle: the Victoria Memorial, a white marble palace with domes and towers and gardens. The Victoria Memorial mirrors the structure of the Taj Mahal, though it is a Taj refracted through the lens of British imperialism, with a statue of Queen Victoria on her throne rising in front of one entrance and, at the building's other flank, a statue of Lord Curzon, for seven years the governor of India and the queen's representative in the country over which she ruled but never visited.

For a long time after India won independence, the question of what to do with all this heritage stuff did not particularly preoccupy Calcutta's government or its inhabitants: there were more pressing issues, such as how to shelter and provide work for a largely impoverished population now swollen with refugees from neighboring Bangladesh. The city government had no nostalgia for British rule, and attempts to eradicate traces of the British from the city are sometimes surreal in their symbolic economy. In 1969 the Ochterlony Monument, a 160-foot marble tower that was built in 1828 to commemorate the achievements of David Ochterlony, a general in the British Army who led a successful campaign against forces in Nepal, was renamed Shahid Minar, or the Martyrs' Monument, to honor those Indians who had given their lives in the struggle against the British. Thus a monument celebrating imperial rule became a monument celebrating resistance to it. Similarly, no effort was made to preserve the architectural legacy the British had left behind. Dalhousie Square, the central district that is home to most of the Victorian governmental buildings, was blighted with ugly new development. In the 1960's a boxy, concrete office tower was erected, slap-bang, between the governor's mansion and a large man-made pond, obscuring what had been designed as an elegant vista from the mansion over the water. It looks like an insult to the intended visual harmony, and perhaps it was.

But in recent years, the government and other civic organizations have been starting to think differently about the city's historical legacy. Five years ago the town hall, built in 1813, became the first major public building to be renovated. It now functions as a museum of the history of Kolkata, and includes a high-tech audiovisual panoramic display depicting the city's past—the first installation of its kind anywhere in India. And alongside the Hooghly River, where British officials and their wives used to promenade, the city government has recently built a short strip of waterfront park (there is an entrance fee) where musical concerts are held. "Economic reasons drive any development in a Third World country," Chakraborti says. "If one can establish an economic rationale for restoration, it can and should be done. Otherwise you become a museum."

There's little chance of Kolkata becoming a museum of Victoriana, as Chakraborti was reminded when he was involved, a few years ago, in the restoration of Metcalfe Hall, a grand limestone building that once was the imperial library and now houses various government offices. Chakraborti could barely persuade the city to relocate a Dumpster that had long been positioned right in front of the building's main driveway; it was finally moved a few feet over—just enough to give access to the driveway, but not enough to give the illusion that the government thought aesthetics was more important than garbage.

Kolkata and its inhabitants are urgently engaged in surviving the present moment, and the whole place is perched perilously on the edge of dysfunction. Traffic comes to an absolute standstill at rush hour every day, with cabdrivers actually switching off their engines rather than simply idling at a red light, knowing that the wait to inch forward may be 20 minutes or more. (There is, however, an efficient subway serving a stretch of the city on one side of the river, equipped, surprisingly enough, with television sets on the platforms to entertain commuters.) The city does have an odd, transmogrified, Dickensian air about it, but that's not just because the lowering Victorian brick office buildings, with their winding central staircases and wrought-iron fire escapes, evoke the world of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. It's also because Kolkata buzzes with a street life that technology and prosperity have all but erased from the West: Kolkatans without running water in their homes use the fire hydrants for bathing or for washing saucepans; the proprietors of stalls selling cheap pakoras or clay cups filled with chai jostle each other for space on the sidewalk; men with manual typewriters set up desks on the street outside the law courts, copying and filling in documents that in the United States would be dealt with on home computers or at Kinko's.

And there is so much in Kolkata that belongs to an entirely different universe than the stately governmental buildings. One of the city's most astonishing sights is the neighborhood called Kalighat, a network of narrow streets filled with the storefronts of craftsmen who mass-produce, by hand, the clay models of deities that are used in the many festivals on the Hindu calendar. It's stunning to walk along these streets and see thousands of two-foot-tall, half-finished models of, for example, Saraswati, the goddess of learning, her graceful figure shaped from clay smeared onto limbs that are fashioned from straw and bound to a wooden frame. These models, after being painted with bright colors, will eventually be thrown into the river as part of the goddess's festival—and dissolve back into clay that will one day be transformed into more idols, an endless cycle of indigenous religious industry.

Elsewhere are reminders of the Indian aristocracy that flourished by cooperating with the British imperial rulers. Perhaps the most breathtaking sight in all of Kolkata is the Marble Palace, a wealthy landowner's home built in 1835, the lavishness of its construction matched only by the extent of its moldering neglect. True to its name, the building is filled with fine marble, with intricately inlaid floors and an extravagantly paved courtyard. Its musty rooms are stuffed with decaying treasures, their advancing ruin caused by age and humidity: vast gilt-framed mirrors now too clouded and spotted to re-flect much of anything; oil paintings whose canvases are so warped and darkened that the pictures are almost obscured, but are said to include works by Rubens and Joshua Reynolds. The Marble Palace, in a twist that Dickens would appreciate, is still home to descendants of the family that built it: several elderly brothers live in one wing, and visitors might well bump into an ancient, toothless brother taking the air on the veranda and looking as much like a relic as the spindly, threadbare chairs edging the ballroom whose wooden floor has long since rotted away.

The buildings once occupied by the British need not, however, be haunted by imperial ghosts—at least, so Chakraborti would argue. Rather, they can be put to use in ways that would benefit the city, with their aesthetic contributionas a happy by-product. Recently Dalhousie Square was included in the World Monuments Fund 2004 Watch List, something for which Chakraborti campaigned, and he hopes that this will be a first step toward reclaiming Victorian office buildings, many of which are in a terrible state of decay, as office space for modern Indian companies. This, Chakraborti claims, makes more sense economically than knocking them down and putting up new ones. "If a use can be established for them, why should they be demolished?" Chakraborti asks. Besides, he adds, if Kolkata's imperial edifices were built at the instruction of British overlords, they were built with the labor and skill of Indian craftsmen, and Kolkatans should make this legacy their own.

REBECCA MEAD is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

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