architecture

City secrets: Art Deco architecture spread across Kolkata, thanks to a state law – and jugaad

Preserving Art Deco architecture in the city is uniquely challenging because it is so commonplace, residents take it for granted.

In 2015, author Amit Chaudhuri started a movement to preserve ordinary Bengali homes in South Kolkata. The architecture of these homes, Chaudhuri said, was unique and its destruction would be a disaster. His movement and the pressure group that he created, Calcutta Architectural Legacies, has helped to shine a light on the kind of buildings that ordinary Kolkatans do not think of as constituting heritage.

“When we speak of Calcutta’s architecture, we usually mean the colonial institutions that the British erected,” wrote Chaudhuri. “Or the aristocratic mansions of North Calcutta built by Bengali landowners. But the houses I’m speaking of were built by anonymous builders for middle-class Bengali professionals: lawyers, doctors, civil servants and professors.” Chaudhuri also notes that a lot of these houses have in common, the presence of Art Deco elements such as “semi-circular balconies; a long, vertical strip comprising glass panes for the stairwell; porthole-shaped windows; and the famous sunrise motif on grilles and gates”.

Art Deco is so common in South Kolkata that most people are intimately familiar with it without even realising it. These neighbourhoods were the focus of a walk on December 5, led by Jawhar Sircar, the former CEO of Prasar Bharati. The walk was organised by the International Council on Monuments and Sites, an interdisciplinary, global network of architectural and archaeological heritage experts. “Jawhar Sircar has had a deep engagement with South Kolkata’s Art Deco style and advocated for it on various public forums,” said Kamalika Bose, urban conservationist and co-ordinator of the ICOMOS programme. But the focus on these architectural curiosities also raises a question – why did a 1920s European architectural style find so many takers in 1950s and 1960s Kolkata?

Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.
Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.

A modern style

Styles rarely evolve in a day, but the definitive moment for Art Deco that experts point to is the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, held in Paris in 1925. Fifteen thousand exhibitors from 20 countries presented to 16 million people a highly decorative “style modern”, using fine craftsmanship and expensive materials. Even the name “Art Deco” is an abbreviation of the title of the exposition. This style would spread rapidly around the world, from skyscrapers in New York to ocean liners that crossed the Atlantic. It can still be seen today, in structures such as the Chrysler Building, the General Electric Building and the American Radiator Building of New York. But while American skyscrapers were the largest and most visible examples of the style, Art Deco encompassed almost all forms of the visual arts, architecture and design, including painting, sculpture and even typography.

In Kolkata, the sole example of the Art Nouveau style, which preceded Art Deco, is the Esplanade Mansions opposite the Raj Bhavan, built in 1910. But there is little evidence to suggest that the Art Deco buildings seen in the city today evolved from here. In an age without internet, trends caught on through magazines, which meant that Asia lagged a decade behind Europe. Art Deco’s dominance in the West ended with the beginning of World War II, but here in India, the earliest Art Deco structures were built in the 1930s and the style would continue well into the 1960s in Kolkata. Mumbai is known to have the world’s second-largest collection of Art Deco buildings but what makes South Kolkata’s Art Deco homes unique is the fact that they are more a result of jugaad than formal architectural decisions.

Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.
Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.

Metro-style ‘baadi’

Among the earliest examples of Art Deco in Kolkata are Victoria House, now the headquarters of the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation, built in the 1930s and Reid House on Red Cross Place, built in 1941. But the icon of the city was the Metro Cinema Hall. Designed by Thomas White Lamb and built by Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Metro Cinema stood on Dharmatalla crossing, one of the city’s nodal points. With its waterfall-style columns and grand staircase, Metro became the building that a new class of up-and-coming Bengalis wanted to ape.

The building boom in South Kolkata began around the same time with large numbers of people moving out of the North, or later moving to West Bengal post-Partition. While these people were affluent, they had nowhere near the astronomical sums of money needed to construct the lavish mansions of North Kolkata. Buildings in the north followed the pattern of rooms arranged around a central courtyard. This placed an emphasis on communal space. But with changing sensibilities putting a greater stress on personal space, this style was thought of as both wasteful and outdated.

Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.
Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.

Scenographer and artist Swarup Dutta has taught design for a decade and closely studied the evolution of Kolkata’s architecture. He points to a peculiarity in the law in Bengal, which allows civil engineers and draftsmen to file the plans for a building, as opposed to architects, who would be required in other states. This was good news for homeowners, since architects would charge between 2% and 5% of construction cost, says former civil servant Jawhar Sircar. The demand that Bengalis made from their civil engineers, aka “contractors”, Sircar says, was, “amake Metro style baadi baniye dao” – build me a house in the Metro style. Because civil engineers were concerned with the technical side of construction, instead of the aesthetic, their response was to present their clients with a collection of templates. These would then be tweaked according to each client’s needs. Since the buildings in areas like Hindustan Park and Lake Temple Road all came up around the same time, and used the same technique, entire neighbourhoods ended up looking like variations on a theme.

Why is it important to save these buildings? Chaudhuri says in an interview, “In a city like Kolkata, what we embrace, what we celebrate it for, is its modernity. It’s a form of existence that teaches us to look and experience life in a certain way…as exemplified by these non-heritage residential buildings which form these astonishing residential neighbourhoods that have art deco features as well as traditional features and European provenances.”

But saving them is proving to be a challenge for a number of reasons. With economic stagnation in the east, the younger generation have had to move out in search of work and many homeowners now no longer have the means to maintain the houses they are living in. With the buildings being worth much less than the land they stand on, a developer’s offer is difficult to refuse.

Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.
Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.

But the greatest challenge is to get ordinary Kolkatans to think of these buildings as special. “You don’t notice them,” said restoration architect James Simpson who was also a part of the ICOMOS walk, “because for you, they are commonplace. But once you know what to look for, these buildings keep popping out at you.” If anything, Chaudhuri’s initiative has at least managed to put these buildings in the spotlight. Three friends, Manish Golder, Sidhartha Hajra and Sayan Dutta have begun a project to document these buildings on Instagram. Their handle, @calcuttahouses, now has more than 2,000 followers. Chaudhuri hopes his campaign will make people “look at these buildings again - something we’ve stopped doing for a number of reasons”. Whether that will be enough, remains to be seen.

Jawhar Sircar. Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.
Jawhar Sircar. Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.