Monday, July 26, 2010

Nothing beyond remains

Science tells us that our perceptions of beauty are not hard-wired into the psyche. That we accept as beautiful those faces and forms that most closely resemble the faces we grew up with. This is a disturbing thought, since neither Catherine Deneuve nor Penelope Cruz bears the slightest resemblance to my grandmothers, my great-aunt, my mother or any of the 157 aunts and cousins in my extended family (nor, indeed - more’s the pity - to any of the women I know). Conclusion – my perception of feminine beauty is not shaped by my memories

Ah, but show me a floor of red cement and I’m lost. Growing up in Calcutta (well before flight attendants tried their hot-potato pronunciation of “Kawl-cat-tah”), the long afternoons of summer vacations were spent sprawled on the cool smooth shiny red cement floor of my great-aunts room. That floor was my antediluvian air-conditioner; somehow it never heated up, even when the tar melted on the roads under the sun of June. Red cement floors. How I mourn their passing.

And louvred windows. Doric columns. Corbelled arches. Curlicued railings. Courtyards. Balustrades. Lime and mortar walls, thick as a grown man’s arm-span. Unkempt little lawns with patchy grass, in the shade of old fruit trees. Part of the fabric of my childhood, the setting for lyrical pieces of nostalgia like Amit Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address. And all fading, crumbling. Torn down to build apartment blocks, where little plants in little pots wither on window-ledges hemmed in with ugly iron grilles. Or glass and concrete malls, like bad dreams out of Philip K. Dick.

Of course the problem is not Calcutta’s alone, nor even India’s. Travel to business districts around the world, and on first sight you will be hard pressed to decide whether you’re in Sao Paulo or Sydney. Even the iconic Manhattan skyline has been reproduced in Frankfurt and in Singapore. But most of these cities have made conscious efforts to preserve a heritage district, a piece of the past that not only preserves an emotional continuity but also makes good business sense through tourism. Where is Calcutta’s heritage district? Where, indeed, are Calcutta’s heritage buildings? What are the parameters whereby a building is classified as part of our heritage?

I turned to TGGG (The Great God Google) for enlightenment and found this - Five pages of earnest effort that do not answer basic questions. Where is the list of declared heritage buildings? The tab redirects to the same page. Are there any objective criteria for identification? None that I could find. Buildings are expensive to maintain. Is there any model for funding this? None on this web-site, though there is a laudable initiative to waive municipal taxes on buildings where the owners have made preservation efforts.

First, what is a heritage building? One which “requires preservation and conservation for historical, architectural, environmental or ecological purpose”, such purpose not elaborated. Is age alone sufficient ground? Historical association? Jorasanko and 38/2 Elgin Road are shrines for Bengalis, but can any of us say offhand where Michael Madhusudan Dutt or Raja RamMohan lived and worked? How about a building’s iconic status? I can imagine a universal gasp of horror at the suggestion that the Victoria Memorial is not a heritage building, but I find it ugly beyond tolerance, a clumsy attempt to emulate an original that is beyond compare. Then should we allow its demolition just because it looks like Jabba the Hutt in marble? Probably not, because something infinitely uglier could take its place. I found a number of articles deploring the de-listing of heritage buildings or criticizing the reconstruction plans approved by the Corporation. Criticism is expected. The authorities cannot please everybody. But do we have guidelines for preserving heritage areas or reconstruction on heritage sites? Templates, photographs, models? Again, none that I could find.

How has this issue been handled in other cities? One of the best examples I have encountered is in India – INTACH’s project for preserving heritage districts, both Tamizh and French colonial, in Pondicherry. I was charmed by the recreations in the old French quarter and the teak-columned courtyards in the old Tamizh houses. When I visited their web-site I realized that most of the houses I had admired were in fact almost entirely new, rebuilt through the joint efforts of the Pondicherry Planning Authority (PPA), the Town & Country Planning Department (TCPD) and INTACH. Can this partnership not be replicated in Calcutta?

How does one fund the process? In Mumbai, apartment blocks have been built around old bungalows, preserving the facades. On the London waterfront and in Buenos Aires’ Puerto Madeira, crumbling warehouses have been restored, beautified and transformed into economically viable retail and entertainment districts. The Alfama in Lisbon and the recreation of colonial Williamsburg in Virginia have proved the tourism potential of history recreated or preserved. Palaces in Rajasthan and villas in Goa have been reborn as hotels.

The past can pay for itself. Can we in Calcutta give it the chance? Perhaps more to the point, do we even want to?

Published today in a paper that does not have a Net edition.


Anonymous said...


It is good to know that you are a Columnist and therefore you will now write Regularly.


Anon E Mouse

Sucharita Sarkar said...

But it is in the DNA of Calcuttans to sigh about the past rather than DO anything about it. Glad that you have raised your voice...and your suggestions. Or else, like Ozymandias, soon we'll have a headless statue of some CPM leader lolling on the sands of the vanished past!

km said...

Delightful piece. Want moar.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Ms. Mouse, thankee kindly. I notice you do NOT notice Facebook communications.

SS, I'm trying to show the Bengal govt. the example of Pondicherry.

KM, yo my main homie here, bro.


Sue said...

Trying to preserve an old house in this city is beyond painful. I imagine that is why people are giving up and moving into ugly flats. At 70, you want to not have to run after plumbers or 'raj mistiris' all day.

My parents are still in their '50s but they are close to giving up.

Holden Caulfield said...


very good observation. i think Indians, and Bengalis in particular, have paid little attention to built environments in cities. we need people who have the training. good if they can also get votes.

lime mortar, red oxide floors, window shutters, old style veranda railings, courtyards, natmandirs in temples. last week i was at khardaha. sister nivedita had referred to khardaha town as reminiscent of an old university town in oxford. the new constructions are so ugly, and the old ones so beautiful. one can feel the love and care with which they were built. now we always hide behind the "survival issues" curtain to explain our crass tastes.

i agree with SS that we shoulddn't just sigh but do something. the masons can learn a thing or two from COSTFORD. about lime mortar from scotlime.

Lazyani said...

Japda, you would be shocked to know that the present day architects refuse to draw up anything other than a cuboid faceless structure.

Any suggestion of an arch or a gothic pillar is looked down upon and summarily rejected.

We try our bit but----