As real-estate sharks hungrily eye the glorious old-school architecture of Kolkata houses, Instagram account @calcuttahouses serves us a reminder of an enduring past that, if destroyed, could lead to heart-breaking loss
Manish Golder has a bad throat, but he chooses to ignore the nagging irritation; because the topic under discussion is Kolkata, his favourite city in the world—and it’s one he cannot stop talking about. “Recently, I met a Scottish conservationist who was involved in restoring old houses in Yangon in Burma [Myanmar]. Interestingly, the architecture of houses there and in Kolkata is very similar [the British had a dominating influence on both the places at the same time]. The man told me how he had to bring in masons from Scotland to Burma to work with lime and mortar, which were popular colonial-era construction materials. It is the same in Kolkata—we don’t have masons anymore who know how to work with lime and mortar or on red oxide floors.”
Six years ago, Golder, who runs a digital production agency, got together with his friends, photographer Siddharth Hajra and graphic designer Sayan Dutta, to capture the beauty of old houses and establishments in Kolkata on their mobile phones: “The three of us have been photographing and roaming the streets of Kolkata over the years, not always with an agenda. It’s a city which should be experienced intimately through long strolls that almost always throw up surprises every now and then.”
The trio, all passionate Bengalis, are openly contemptuous of the “hideous” new apartments that are changing the city’s skyline. “How can the current architecture of sterile chrome and glass even attempt to match what we had in the past?” rues Dutta, who ardently feels that these homes are the last flagbearers of the cherished para culture of Kolkata, the shared bonhomie of community that could go conspicuously missing in the hundreds of new gated communities and high-rises now changing the cityscape.
Even though the old houses may seem predominantly European in style, Golder informs us that they display multiple architectural influences—Armenian, Jewish, Rajasthani, Chinese and French. The British shipped in ornate railings, stairs, gates, rainwater pipers, canopies and pillars from as far as Glasgow and Birmingham, in an attempt to replicate familiar structures of their homeland in India. Their choices fed the aspirational fervour of the zamindars and merchants, who too started importing these materials from far-off lands and blending it with their own traditional Bengali aesthetics. As one scrolls through images on @calcuttahouses, the fine detailing and character of these homes emerge in sharp focus: intricate fretwork, latticed windows, louvred shades, awnings and curved round balconies. Dutta finds himself increasingly inspired by these structures—he recently rendered a series of balconies and windows in illustrations.
“We prefer to focus more on old homes that appear to be of a certain vintage than on old monuments with certified heritage status,” says Golder. Their Insta account, a pure visual feast, offers very little in the way of any reference to origins or history. “We rarely ever go in and talk to the homeowners. We stand in a discreet spot on the opposite pavement and take a picture.” Though it is easy to believe that these structures don’t stand a chance of survival against the wave of boxy concrete towers waiting to elbow them out, there are stories of hope and optimism too. For example, a man who owns an old bungalow has converted it into an Airbnb residence. Golder agrees that loud debates on conservation/restoration are necessary, but feels dispirited that amid all that noise, no effort is taken by anyone to help elderly homeowners with repairs.
The pictures on @calcuttahouses are simple wide shots of a past that you would want to hug close. Tucked among the many images is one of an old couple enjoying a cup of evening tea seated in a room with mosaic floors, in their 150-year-old house on Harish Mukherjee Road. It was taken a few days before the house was brought down. It is more than an image captured for posterity; it is emblematic of that proverbial thorn in the rose that can leave you bleeding. And in this case, yearning for a vanishing era.