Printer Friendly

Of echoes and silent raptures: the zamindari mansions of north Calcutta.

This essay delves into the historical and architectural character of the zamindari mansions of the traditional quarter of the British-established city of Calcutta (Kolkata). Being contemporaneous with the colonial quarter that grew around Fort William, north Calcutta provides an alternative voice and grammar to the city's history, socially and architecturally, thereby perpetuating a distinct identity of its own. Mansions here positioned themselves in competition with the city's colonial public buildings, in scale and design language, choosing to disregard any idea of subservience to the ruling authority. Herein lies perhaps their biggest paradox--their having being born out of wealth generated through subservience to the very same authority.

Commonly known as the thakurbari, bonedibar (1) (house or badi of the aristocratic), or the rajbari (house of a raja) and belonging to families from the upper echelons of urban Bengali society, they were part of a complex and diverse neighbourhood structure or para (pada, figure 2). Rajbaris could conceptually be divided into three major constituents: the facade, the public domain or bairermahal, and the private domain or andarmahal. Domains were further defined by a courtyard with surrounding functional zones. Through constant accretion over the 18th and 19th centuries, in a dense neighbourhood fabric, these courtyard houses fulfilled several roles in society, beyond dwelling. Set within narrow streets, they provided in terrorized, controlled environments, used flexibly for public and private activities.


Genesis of North Calcutta: Neighbourhoods along the Chitpur Corridor

Consisting of temporary mud-thatch houses amidst narrow, unpaved streets in the early 18th century this area was developed entirely by the Bengali merchant class who invested in land, set up bazaars, brought in artisan communities, and built opulent residences. It saw rapid development and activity in the next centuries "with the search for an architecture or a set of architectural design principles to characterise the ambitions of a society" (2) newly taking shape. The riverine location of north Calcutta, the "black town" of the colonial era, corresponds to the village of Sutanuti. In spite of this and the eastern marshlands marking its limits, there remained an absence of any constructed physical definition between this part and the British quarter. Connections and arterial roads spanned both, creating intermediary and interpenetrative zones that led to vibrant cultural exchange.

Chitpur Road marked the foremost linkage between the city's north and its south. The arrival of the Bengali comprador transformed this track into an important thoroughfare. It came to represent the traditional aspect of life in Calcutta and was the original seat of the "babu-culture" that gripped the city's elite in the 19th century. By guaranteeing the right to private property to their collaborators, the British triggered a new urge to flaunt wealth, where "perhaps for the first time in Bengal, domestic architecture became a status symbol". (3) Early Chitpur was often described as "narrow, dirty and unpaved, some houses of two-storeys are of brick with flat terraced roofs; but the great majority are mud cottages, covered with small tiles, with side walls of mats, bamboo and other combustible materials, the whole within and without swarming with people". (4)

In time, the Chitpur Road corridor with its traditional residential neighbourhoods developed as the older axis with an accretive and organic growth, virtually becoming a historical relic of the city. With a bazaar economy, supported by professional hierarchies which determined neighbourhood or para formation, the growth to a distinctive urban settlement was charted here. Typical paras were constituted of the dwellings of the magnate (figure 3), his owned bazaars, the houses of the priest of his temple, of middle-class professionals and white-collar workers who constructed their kothabaris on his rented land, and of the artisans and labourers who fulfilled the needs of the others--forming a heterogeneous community. The late 19th-century artery of Cornwallis--College Street was associated with institution-building and intellectualism, culminating in the Bengal Renaissance. These institutions expressed the value systems and socio-cultural milieu of the community, rarely being political or sovereign in activity.


The Rise of the Mercantile Elite: From Bania to Zamindar

The factories of the Portuguese (1575), Dutch (1632), and French (1673) further upstream, prior to the first British trade-post in 1690, ensured that Calcutta--then a conglomeration of three villages--thrived with a small, native trading population. Impending transformation induced further influx from the suburbs of people acting as intermediaries conducting trade, political deals, debt collection, or accounting for the East India Company. Quick fortune-making raised them to the status of "raja" among their community; "babu" among the British. Assistance to the British in the Battle of Plassey in 1757 against Nawabi reign further cemented their loyalty and allegiance. The Permanent Settlement Act of 1793 then catapulted them to great heights of power and wealth, initiating a slow withdrawal from the services they had earlier engaged in, and a shift to investment in urban and rural real estate. Henceforth, "these banians and diwans represented the city's comprador elite, as a relatively homogeneous group as families of fortune makers". (5) Settling along Chitpur Road, the neighbourhoods of Jorashanko, Pathuriaghata, Nimtola, Ahiritola, (6) Shobhabazaar, Bagbazaar, and others bore witness to the material expressions of their galactic rise.

With comprador syncretism at its peak, lifestyles underwent modifications, and there were many Indian counterparts of the "nabobs" like Robert Clive who flaunted their Indian-made wealth back in England. Babus were "the product of Western influence on the fertile mind of Bengal, which was open to making the most out of an imported civilisation, while remaining steeped in tradition". (7) In creating a new social class, their mansions formed a new typology where the "display of abundance was not conducted in the individual anonymity of the private but was grandly performed everyday in the public life of the city as an item of public consumption, participation and curiosity", (8) similar to the palatial homes of the bourgeoisie in Victorian England.

Poor foresight and conspicuous consumption in subsequent generations led to the ebbing of fortunes within a century. The later descendants, who adopted a more realistic and enlightened attitude, became conduits of the new Western education, orienting themselves towards social change leading to the Bengal Renaissance. Within this construct, the character of their mansions changed, becoming insightful, adaptive, and with several layers of meaning, making them at once unique and inseparable from the core of Calcutta. Eighteenth-century examples like the Shobhabazaar rajbari and the Deb thakurbari, near Sutanuti village, were devoid of extensive European influence until their owners' consolidation of position. The mansion of Khelat Chandra Ghosh, as well as several Tagore and Mullick mansions in Pathuriaghata, truly represented the adopted architectural language. Late 19th-century nationalist politics tempered the strict adherence to classical Western form, incorporating a greater regional flavour into its visual character. Mansions of Butto Cristo Paul, Basubati, and several others in the Bagbazaar area are characteristic of this change.

The Elite Lifestyle and Role in the Neighbourhood

On one hand, the zamindar's lifestyle was viewed contemptuously for its decadence and sheer excess. "From day break to the time of ablution he would have edifying conversations with preceptors, priests, Brahmins and baishnab [lit. ascetic]; distributing gifts. After mid-day meals ... look into affairs of the estate in the company of office employees. Late afternoons were the time of visits by friends and relatives. At nightfall he played some game of dice and amused himself with singers, magicians, buffoons, sycophants and other light-hearted companions." (9) Squandering wealth on extravagances such as daily washing of mansions with rose-water, ceremonies for weddings of pets, elaborate firework displays, excessive consumption of alcohol, and distribution of expensive gifts to concubines and prostitutes was another aspect associated with zamindars. Yet the larger social role of the mansion, as a venue for patronage of the folk and high cultures, through art and religion, cannot be ignored. Staging of jatras took place in parallel with conventional theatre, poetry readings, and literary adaptations; folk music with classical soirees; folk dance with elaborate nautches. Holding prayer-meetings, debates, and discussions by scholars and religious heads indicated approval in intellectual circles. Through temple building, hosting feasts and community celebrations of festivals, allowing access to the family pond, and other philanthropic gestures the rajbari acquired a focal position within the cultural life of the para.

At the personal and domestic level, new habits and adopted ideas were incorporated in the planning and design of the bairermahal. This space exhibited the owner's progressive spirit and was the site of three predominant types of activities--business, ceremonial, and religious. Business areas comprised offices, kacheris or caste-courts, staffrooms, and guestrooms on the ground floor. Ceremonial spaces with entertainment at their core occupied the upper level, for sabhas, sammelans, banquets and nautches, the invitees including European guests. In the outer courtyard were held public functions, festivals, receptions, social ceremonies, plays, and music concerts (figure 4). The library, study space, salon, billiard room (figure 5), and drawing and dining spaces coexisted with the traditional baithak-khana while the thakurdalan and thakurghar comprised the religious areas. In comparison, the andarmahal was austere and meagre, upholding the purdah system imbibed from earlier Nawabi traditions, allowing even male family members only at specific hours. Service areas like the common kitchen and stores surrounded the courtyard--the heart of large joint-family households where servants dominated the functioning under the matriarch's supervision. She also presided over the ritual space, involving all female members in elaborate customs and daily prayers. Living spaces on the first floor included bedrooms and dining areas, embellished only by furniture and artefacts (figure 1). The daily activities extended into the continuous balconies overlooking the courtyard creating relief zones for the ladies in the otherwise confined patriarchal setup.

Architecture of the Iconic Mansions
 ... on entering the courtyard, one sees the traditional Hindu
 thakurdalan (hall of worship) and the natmandir (temple of
 dramatics). Then ... the baithakkhana (formal reception room) and the
 jalsaghar (the music and dance hall). Looking upwards from the
 courtyard there are arabesque grills on the verandah leading to the
 zenana or women's wing. ... Some of the rooms have Dutch tiles set
 halfway up the wall or oak paneling; many of the windows are of
 coloured glass for decorative effect and reduce the glare of the
 tropical sun. The floor is either of marble or of a mosaic. In the
 larger houses there maybe an Italianate fountain or a Victorian nude
 statue decorating the terrace. (10)

Assimilation and layering of cultural influences has been one of the key aspects determining mansion or rajbari architecture. Reference to it as a "hybrid" typology has been common, owing to stylistic variations and period influences incorporated at multiple scales within a traditional Bengali family residence. Translation of principles and symbols from the region's vernacular landscape also found representation and the nature of these integrations formed the essence of its architecture (figures 6a and b).



With approximately 3,000 square metres on each floor, these sprawling properties occupied the street front with a driveway for horse-drawn carriages or a fleet of cars, ornate fountains, ponds, and twin music towers or nahabat-khanas, flanking the entrance. These spacious proportions contrasted with the tightly packed neighbourhood with its dense building activity and mixed vehicular and pedestrian movement. Spatial organization adhered to the premise of rooms set around a courtyard--or multiple courtyards, interconnected by deep verandahs--for movement and for considerations of climate. While there was only one public courtyard (bairermahal), there could be several smaller inner courtyards (andarmahals), depending on family size and affluence. The sequence of movement led from ceremonial entry through the singha duar (lit. lion gate) through public, to semi-private, and private spaces, exiting at the khirki duar (lit. rear gate) to the family pond, with another private entry directly into the andarmahal. The kitchen, service quarters, rooms for subsidiary activities, and storage areas were at the rear end.

These arrangements find correlation with vernacular domestic planning methods, albeit now translated into a new context and scale. In spite of an imposing building facade, entry was through a narrow passage directly into the public courtyard, along a north-south axis. Business and leisure zones, as discussed earlier, were spread over the ground and first floors, while basement cellars were primarily used for storage. Social norms dictated domain distinctions, creating discreet, screened vantage points from which women could witness the activities of the public zone. The thakurdalan, which was the space for worship during festivals and large-scale celebrations, was always oriented southward, irrespective of entry and property siting, with service rooms on its shorter sides. The architectural vocabulary borrowed heavily from European precedent, adjusted and modified to suit building sizes and the narrow plot conditions. The artist Thomas Daniell commented on this: "on Chitpore Road ... appears the house of a native Bengal merchant, the style of architecture in its ornamental parts is Mahomedan, except in the turret, which is an unsuccessful attempt at the Grecian, as introduced by the Portuguese." (11)

The key spaces and areas can be grouped into the four categories below, through which an overall picture can be constructed to understand the design paradigms of this typology. Its correlation to the other sociocultural developments and factors prevalent at the time aid to establish the mansion as a compelling symbol of 19th-century Calcutta.

Facade: The Indian focus on inferiority through thresholds and courtyards, while de-emphasizing the envelope, marked precolonial residential architecture--a trait shared by the 18th-century mansions of north Calcutta. This emphasis shifted in the 19th century, with the European notion of a facade gaining popularity (figure 3). The interest in generating a "front" became symptomatic of a new urge to outwardly display residences as symbols of wealth and status. The great talent of the masons and architects who designed these facades was "their ability to treat the building as an assemblage of semi-independent fragments, as a way of responding to complex, often incompatible demands of the building program". (12) Within a structure defined by strict symmetry, colonnaded balconies, and entrance porches, the variations seen in motifs, patterns, and ornamentation depended on the period of the building. Social undercurrents also influenced architectural details. The elite, preferring greater "physical containment", often enclosed upper verandahs by partially operable screens to retain visual opacity as a "permeable interface" with the street. As Rabindranath Tagore wrote in his memoirs, "To leave the house was forbidden to us; we had to get the glimpses of nature from beyond barriers. Like a prisoner in a cell, I would spend the day peering through the closed Venetian shutters, gazing out at this scene as on a picture in a book." (13)

Courtyards: Courtyard articulation (figure 4) attempted to achieve visible monumentality, upon entry, through the use of the Ionic or Doric orders. Inter-columnation in the surrounding colonnade created a heavy formality while the use of wooden louvred screens and cast-iron railings on the upper level provided the more delicate touch. In mid-19th-century houses, the outer courtyard with average dimensions of 20 x 15 metres, surrounded by 3-metre-deep, continuous verandahs, maintained a greater purity in the orders or motifs they adopted. The inner courtyards, interestingly, witnessed a greater set of variables, where privacy allowed experimentation but also led to some incoherent articulation. Here cast-iron columns worked with filigree were often coupled with stained-glass windows, stucco pillars, and wooden fretwork, but on a modest scale. Service courts were bare and functional, sometimes in complete disjunction with the demeanour of the remaining areas.

Thakurdalan: Positioned on a high plinth, accessed by a flight of broad steps, this space maintained a ratio of 3:1:2 with overlooking louvred or glass windows. Twin bays of composite columns formed multi-lobed arched portals, richly ornamented in stucco work. These Corinthian or Ionic columns were in clusters of six to twelve each, sometimes in cast-iron or monolithic. Neoclassical details and mouldings and Georgian floral motifs were often coupled with regional temple panel designs in stucco to lavishly embellish this ceremonial ritual space. Marble floors and white painted walls created a static shell whose permanence was constantly contrasted by the ephemeral quality of the various festivals that were celebrated there (figure 7). Candles, gas-lit chandeliers, colourful fabrics, flowers, and other temporary festoon material, combined to infuse life into the thakurdalan, otherwise a grand but unoccupied space.



Living spaces: Room decor gained significance as a transient and ephemeral layer, permitted to he garish and upstart, if not outrageous at times. Styles prevalent between the Georgian and Victorian eras in England (1714-1901) were the common preference, with large imports of expensive, custom-made objects to lend exclusivity (figure 8), reflected in surface articulation, furniture, art and artefacts.

The basic shell, in the ceremonial zones, was typically embellished with:

* wall paper, non-structural columns in plaster, marble and tile cladding, wooden panelling;

* Italian marble flooring, encaustic tiles, stucco false ceilings;

* intricate cast-iron railings and lamp holders, plaster brackets, staircase balustrades;

* stained-glass, coloured-glass, and etched-glass windows and fanlights;

* plaster cornices and ceiling mouldings, relief work on screens and parapets;

* a diverse set of carved Burma teak furniture arranged whimsically in the large rooms, including marble-top tables, four-poster beds, armchairs and recliners, elaborate chamber furniture, dining tables, and cupboards, to name a few;

* imported light fixtures in glass and cast-iron, Belgian glass mirrors, cutwork chandeliers, heavy upholstery;

* an impressive collection of art, framed oil paintings and family portraits, coupled with various curios and artefacts, statuettes and figurines in marble and cast-iron.

Preferred motifs and patterns were repeated in these mediums and surfaces, bearing roots in the European culture, but easily appropriated here. These primarily were--the anthemion and palmette motif, acanthus leaves, the Greek key pattern, rosette motifs, egg-and-dart moulding, running garlands, foliage, and finial forms of the Georgian period. Comparatively, decoration of spaces within the residential quarters was rather sparse, with the heavy furniture taking centre-stage.


The end of the zamindari era that ushered in changes for a democratic and enlightened 20th century shook the foundations of the mansion culture. With meanings lost, spaces redundant, and people reduced, these buildings became sprawling burdens of a short-lived lifestyle. Change, dilapidation, and decadence crept in, but the spirit remained intact, echoing the life, culture, social values, and aspirations of the people who had built them. These walls had witnessed historic developments, a meeting of Eastern values and Western thought, and the emergence of many renowned figures. Thus these zamindari mansions still project a strong sense of belonging and association, and hold relevance even today. The significance of the typology as a suitable residential built-form addressing the geographical, climatic, social, and cultural parameters of its time is noteworthy. Also, in the context of Calcutta, these and their modified variations built later by the middle-class represent the only traditional dwelling form witnessed in the history of the city's development. If one considers that nothing is permanent but change, then these mansions form a very crucial part of that change. In today's context, it is essential to acknowledge their silence, identify their significance, filter out the years of gathered neglect, and instil a new lease of life that allows them to claim a position of significance for the future.


(1) Kamalika Bose, Seeking the Lost Layers: an Inquiry into the Traditional Dwellings of the Urban Elite in North Calcutta, School of Interior Design, Ahmedabad, 2006.

(2) Jon, Lang, Madhavi Desai, and Miki Desai, Architecture and Independence: the Search for Identity--India 1880-1980, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1997, p. 1.

(3) Martin Beattie, "Hybrid Architectures: 'Public' and 'Private' Life in the Courtyard Houses of Barabazaar", in Sarah Menin, ed., Constructing Place: Mind arid Matter, Routledge, London, 2003.

(4) P. Thankappan Nair, Calcutta in the 19th Century, Firma KLM, Calcutta, 1989, p. 224.

(5) Sumanta Banerjee, The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 1989, p. 28.

(6) Tolas, being next in hierarchy to paras, are settlements occupied by professional groups like the ahirs (cowherds or milkmen), byaparis (merchants), kalus (oilpressers), etc. Tuli is the diminutive of tola, a still smaller quarter occupied by artisans and craftspeople--as in Kumartuli (potters' neighbourhood).

(7) Banerjee, The Parlour and the Streets, p. 38.

(8) Tithi Bhattacharya, "In the Name of Culture: Rethinking the Political Economy of the Bhadralok in Bengal",

(9) Krishna Dutta, Calcutta: A Literary and Cultural History, Roll Books, Calcutta, 1996, p. 36.

(10) Ibid., p. 34.

(11) Beattie, "Hybrid Architectures. ..."

(12) Swati Chattopadhyay, Representing Calcutta: Modernity, Nationalism and the Colonial Uncanny, Routledge and Kegan Paul, New York, 2005, p. 198.

(13) "My Reminiscences", in Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, eds., Rabindranath Tagore--an Anthology, Picador, Calcutta, 1989, p. 58.
COPYRIGHT 2009 The Marg Foundation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Perspectives
Author:Bose, Kamalika
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Dec 1, 2009
Previous Article:Editorial note.
Next Article:Three hunting pictures from 19th-century Nepal.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |