Look East, Visit East, Enjoy East!

After introducing a series of books on cities, I took a break to introduce to you, my dear book loving readers, a magnificent architect’s wonderful book in the May issue of this magazine.

Name of the book
A City In The Making
Harper Collins
Rs 995/-
Borrow from friend and return

I am back to introducing yet another well-researched book on India’s very important (coastal) city about which we in the North or Central India do not talk much or even know much, of course barring exceptions. Yes, it is Calcutta which had facilitated the entry of the British into India. The author Mr Ray Choudhury is a veteran Calcutta author and a former journalist with the Hindu and The Statesman. He has written five books related to different aspects of this quaint city which he is in love with. Unlike in the book on Hyderabad, which also touched upon some recent history, this book talks mainly about the aspects of Calcutta’s early growth. It does not delve into post-independence era of the West Bengal State’s unique capital that is situated on the banks of Hooghly (Hughli) river and the Bay of Bengal.

Have you heard of Sutanati? Some of you may have but since Calcutta has been pushed to history’s dustbin by its new Bengali name Kolkata, I am sure Sutanati is little too difficult to recall. Well, it was like any ordinary Bengal village until Job Charnock set foot on this village (24th August 1690) on the banks of a not too well known river. Yet, by the middle of 19th century, it was being described as the second city of the British Empire. Credit is given to Charnock for his prudent decision to make Calcutta the base of East India Company’s operations in the Bay Area.

Evolution of ‘City of Joy’

The detailed story running into some 550 pages of this book deals with the early evolution in the section ‘Around the old Fort’. It was the time when the village had just no planning and later in 1756, when the town fell to forces led by Nawab Shiraj-ud-Daula this unplanned growth continued. Whatever we may say of the ‘ novel’ Swachh Bharat campaign being tom-tomed now under Modi Government, even in those days, as the book narrates, during the period mentioned above, the main effort on the part of authorities was directed at cleaning up the place and setting up essential facilities such as hospital, a jail, a mayor’s court and strengthening the banks of river. All these issues are still talked about and planned in modern Indian cities. So our British ancestors had already showed the way to urban dwellers and managers about three centuries ago!

Then the book takes up in second section ‘The town spreads itself’ wherein details of town’s planned but gradual growth which saw Calcutta expanding southward till the end of 18th century is explained. This period witnessed land acquisition and compensation given to land owners, formation of today’s Maidan, the building of arterial Circular Road and setting up of bazars and improving drainage system. While reading such books on developing cities, I am always amazed at the foresight and concern of the rulers and city managers (a word which had not been coined then, though) about problems such as unplanned growth, drainage system improvement and river bank strengthening etc. Now in the third section the author deals with a marked advent of town-planning era set in motion under Lord Wellesley and then the story grows to the point where the famous Lottery Committee was formed in 1817.

What was the Lottery Committee and what was its significance in Calcutta’s overall growth under the British? Since the British officials felt the pinch of paucity of funds for city development, Governor General (GG) Lord Wellesley (1798-1805) had thought of the Lottery Committee but set up a Committee for the Improvement of the Town of Calcutta in 1803. Later, the Lottery committee was set up by Lord Hastings in October 1817. The Lottery Committee itself was the successor to the town development effort initiated by the GG. The author gives credit to Wellesley for sowing the seed of modern Calcutta as early as in 1798 when he took over as the GG. “Considering the growth of Calcutta from earliest days till it became the centre point of British Empire in the East, the point can be made that it was Wellesley who first introduced the tool of planning in the efforts to develop the city which, within the next one hundred years, enabled the city to attain its coveted position in the subcontinent”.

Wellesley was the first Governor General to take a holistic view of the state of the town on his arrival and to engage in a many-faceted exercise to transform the town’s future into a better one. The work began by Wellesley was continued by his successors Lord Minto (1807-1813), and the Earl of Moira, later Lord Hastings (1813-1823), both retaining the overall administrative framework of the development effort in the shape of a general committee for improving the town and, more importantly, extending all the support they could muster to assist it in its work. Funds raised by annual public lotteries were set aside for city development work. There is a mention of Rs 60000/- were garnered through lottery, in the book. Elsewhere in the book, the author has taken lots of pains to put before the readers the major stages of city’s development and have spoken about mighty Hooghly river in greater details besides about dense forested areas in south of Calcutta and paddy fields having covered esplanade of the new fort in 1770. Reverend Long has written that Charnock had extensive physical surveys done for Sutananti, Gobindapur, Town Calcutta and Bazar Calcutta.

There is an interesting mention about river: “The river was the lifeline of the English in the early days providing them with among other things, the comforting thought that if there was ever a siege of the settlement they could always use the waterway to get away or receive help. Yet, it was the river that was proving to be difficult for the English because of its waywardness especially with regard to the eastern bank which was being eroded by the strong current. In 1766, the Bengal Council was under pressure to protect the spot where the new Fort William was coming up because of ‘encroachment of the River’, a threat which was averted by spending around six lakhs Arcot rupees on a scheme to protect the fortifications.

The river chapter is interesting because today in India we see river rejuvenation as a new fashion and massive amount of expenses to restore rivers for the posterity.

Although Wellesley had left India with an image of Calcutta’s original city planner as Governor General, all his plans and schemes did not continue to remain and had to be suspended for various reasons. Such hurdles however, did not obstruct Minto’s path and it is safe to suggest that real work of improving Calcutta’s basic infrastructure was begun during his time.

Almost all of the British officials contributed significantly to the city’s civic issues and urban facade. One of them worked on storm water problem and planned canal for giving way to excess water during rains and storms. In the chapter ‘Birth of a Canal’ there are absorbing details of how the officials used to think of their city and the convenience of the people, among other things. It was not that only Britishers were the citizens of Calcutta but also many Indians were staying there, known as the natives.

“…. The magistrate wrote that “on any slight excess of rain” Chitpur Road would be under two to three feet water. The third objective was the forming of a ‘direct and easy communication’ with the salt water lake and that part of town.” .the magistrate wrote with satisfaction: “I purposely went down that road (Chitpore Road) at 5 o’ clock on the very evening of the storm to observe the effect of the several water courses I had recently formed, and I had the gratification to observe there was not a drop of water lying on any part of the road of Chitpore….”. Incidentally, the author has used at many places two different spellings for proper noun like in case of Chitpur.

This is just a glimpse of the approach of the officials of those days about city building. The entire book is full of such instances, thinking processes of the Governor Generals, financing patterns in vogue for the city development exercises, cleaning up the town and so on. There were several committees that were formed from time to time to help govern a newly built town in India. The author writes at one place “These aspects highlight the point that the facets of town development which had emerged over the previous four decades focussing on the regulation of space were entirely disaggregated and were devoid of any centralised approach to improving conditions within the rapidly growing town”.

While I don’t say today’s planning practices are all junk and that the city planners are absolutely out of sync of the people’s needs while planning comforts and safety in Indian cities but with the chaos in Indian cities that is witnessed ( and suffered) by anyone, not much is required to be said, actually.

This book uses beautiful black and white pictures of architect’s plans, of old buildings and the Governor Generals to help a reader relate instantly to what the author is describing.

So from the Mughal period till the Britishers’ rule, this interestingly unfolding story of Calcutta which clearly had more influence of the English than perhaps any other town in India is quite engrossing for anyone who has even limited interest in history or city planning or how Calcutta became what it is today.

Of course, a lot has changed in the West Bengal capital in the last more than one century, the British imprint is adequately visible all over, be it cricket or architecture!