Kolkata – the city that lives with its past

Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta is the capital of the Indian State of West Bengal, and is largely  ignored by  foreign travelers, who mostly visit Mumbai or Delhi when they come to India. But rarely do they realize the true magnificence of this city, which is rightly known as the Paris of the East. Established as a trading port, by the English East India Company in the early 18th century, Calcutta ( as the British named it ) quickly rose to the size of a bustling metropolis within a few decades.

By the early 19th century, the city had already grown to become comparable with any well known European city at the time, with wide streets, lavishly decorated gardens, huge buildings and a well designed sewer network, no less elaborate than that of London itself.The British, like their Mughal predecessors, used architecture to spread the message of their power and might, and no city witnessed this better than the city of Calcutta. Being a greenfield settlement, the British had all the land they needed to build the foundations of their empire. The first building to be built at the site was the Fort William, a medium sized star shaped fort of typical English design, that housed a small population of British soldiers, traders and engineers.

St. Peters Church, Fort William, Calcutta Photo Courtesy: Francis Frith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Once the region was freed of the influence of the native Indian rulers, the British moved out of their fort, and started to build the city, expanding farther and farther each year. Within a short period of time, Calcutta became the crown jewel of the British Indian Empire, with the majority of their exports and imports passing through the city docks, along the mighty Hooghly river. Calcutta soon became the richest city in India, both financially as well as culturally, as thousands of Europeans flocked to the city bringing with them their art, their food, their sense of fashion and their pioneering ideas that were alien to the native Indian folk. As the British extended the boundaries of their Empire, Calcutta became the nerve center of all the action.

The British spared no expenses in developing the city to be worthy of their people who came all the way from England to build their fortunes in this newly discovered land. They heavily used Neoclassical architectural forms , which were very different from the traditional Mughal style that was prevalent in the country at the time. While richly decorated Corinthian capitals topped tall columns, massive arches spanned large public spaces, cast iron railings gave a fairy tale like appearance to the facades of buildings and  beautifully paved sidewalks gave the British a feeling of home, the way of life of the people also reflected the world they had left behind, to settle in this new city.

The General Post Office Photo Courtesy : Supriyo Dutta

A long time has passed since then. Empires have fallen and democracy has broken the chains of imperialism. Calcutta has become Kolkata and it is no longer the European metropolis it used to be. However, Kolkata is a city that lives with its past, never letting it go, no matter what. Unlike other Indian cities , that have ushered in the wave of modern architecture, Kolkata has  continued to keep the colonial built heritage alive. Most of the great Neoclassical palaces were converted to government offices soon after independence, thus preserving them. Churches, Synagogues, movie theaters , and even old British cemeteries that fell into disuse after independence, have been kept as good as new, by the nostalgic citizens of  this eternal city.

The Victoria Memorial  Photo Courtesy : Supriyo Dutta

Kolkata is a city of wonders, and what makes it different from other Indian cities is its ability to keep its heritage alive , side by side with the fast pace of modern life. Thus, even today the most famous of the colonial buildings, such as the Writer’s building , the Governor’s house, numerous churches, the great museums , the Howrah railway station and so much more, still give visitors a glimpse of the past, which is far from dead.

The Calcutta Telegraph Office ( Currently the office of India Post ) Photo Courtesy : Supriyo Dutta

4 Replies to “Kolkata – the city that lives with its past

  1. I recently visited Kolkata for the first time and was very impressed by the legacy not just of British colonial architecture dating back to the East India Company, but also those of all the many diverse peoples who traded and settled here, including Parsis, Armenians, Jews (from the Ottoman empire), Chinese, as well as those from Bengal and other regions of India. The city is also rich in sites to visit, educational and cultural institutions, and above all in its architecture, public spaces and streets. The people whom I met from Kolkata and West Bengal were very welcoming and proud of their city and want it to be great once more. Although the city’s many wonderful buildings and public realm are often in need of rehabilitation, what is good is that very little is demolished, and many of the old buildings are very robust. Some excellent conservation work has been undertaken. Lets hope Kolkata and its civic and business communities continues on this path which can both revitalize itself and provide work to many such that once more it can take its place as one of South Asia’s and the world’s great trading cities and metropolises.

    1. Recently there have been some improvements in the conservation efforts by the Government of West Bengal. For the first time since Independence, the magnificent Writer’s Building, which had been the seat of the Government, has been vacated to allow proper restoration efforts.Many more conservation projects have been initiated and the progress is satisfactory. I hope you will find these priceless architectural marvels in a very different state in your next visit. Being a Kolkata citizen myself, I have seen the decline of these buildings through the years, and it fills my heart with joy to see the Government finally doing something to save them for the future generations.

  2. Such an emotional n evocative piece on the City of Joy. Feels heartwarming to see the youth, like you, cherishing its rich history,celebrating its present and being genuinely concerned about its future legacy. Your shots strikingly capture the city’s inimitable aura. Excellent piece Supriyo and hoping to experience more of Kolkata through your words and lens in future.

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