From Calcutta to Kolkata and Back

By Ninian, Alex | Contemporary Review, March 2012 | Go to article overview

From Calcutta to Kolkata and Back


Ninian, Alex, Contemporary Review


IN India nearly all the other places which the British took over, from the earliest days to the height of the Raj, were already established Indian entities. Calcutta was an exception. It was little more than one tiny village in an estate of three tiny villages called Kalikata, Sutanati and Govindabur, and the development of the area was completely down to the British. The name Kalikata gives some credence to the argument that Calcutta was how the British mispronounced it for 250 years.

The British arrived in Kalikata in 1690, in the form of the East India Company, and the company took possession of the village in 1698. In its early days the development was mainly military, as a fort was built, then reinforced, which was used as a regional base.

Beyond this, as economic and industrial development took place, Calcutta was completely built by, or built under the influence of, British expatriates. The growth of the textile and jute industries led to an increase in population and the public buildings to deal with both were built in a variety of British, European and indigenous styles by the colonists. The Town Hall has Doric pillars and a majestic stairway; The Law Courts, in red brick and stucco, were inspired by the Hamburg Rathaus and the Cloth Hall of Ypres in Belgium; the Mint has echoes of a Greek temple; and the Ochterlony Column in the Maidan is decorated with 14 metres of Turkish, Egyptian, and Syrian carving. It was built in 1828 in honour of Sir David Ochterlony who led the British forces to victory in Nepal.

Calcutta was named as the capital of British India in 1772 and in the early nineteenth century the marshes surrounding the city were drained and the government area was laid out along the banks of the Hooghly River. Richard Wellesley--the imperious elder brother of the Duke of Wellington--Governor General between 1797 and 1805, was largely responsible for the growth of the city and its public architecture which led to a description of Calcutta as 'the city of palaces'.

Today, looking across the Maidan, the city's main park, to Chowringhee and Dalhousie Square (now known as BBD Bagh) there is rubbish to be cleared and something of a faded or jaded element to the view, but it is, in fact one of the world's greatest panoramas of classical, neo-classical and Victorian buildings.

A visitor to the place in 1809, Maria Graham, summed it up: 'I was struck with the general appearance of grandeur in all the buildings; not that any of them are according to the strict rules of art, but groups of columns, porticos, domes and fine gateways and the broad river, crowded with shipping, made the whole picture magnificent'.

Going back to the period before this, Calcutta featured in a less savoury way in British history. When protests against the militarisation of Kalikata by the then Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah, went unheeded, he attacked and captured the fort (Fort William) in 1756, leading to the famous 'Black Hole of Calcutta' incident. A force of East India Company British soldiers and local sepoys led by Robert Clive recaptured the city the following year.

The development of Calcutta continued apace during the second half of the nineteenth century and it became the most grand and splendid Victorian city in the whole world. The essence of it is still there, although some of it is in need of maintenance and cleaning up. The event the British call The Indian Mutiny and Indians call The War of Independence took place in 1857 and as a result of this the rule of the East India Company was terminated and India was turned over to the British state.

The Victorian era in India was formalised by the Queen's assumption of the title Empress of India in 1876. The Victorianness of Calcutta was epitomised by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, towards the end of the Queen's reign, who said that 'A glance at the buildings in the town, at the river, and the roar and the smoke is sufficient to show that Calcutta is a European city set down upon Asiatic soil. …

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