Kolkata: Author Amit Chaudhuri’s heart sinks every time he sees a sign up on the boundary walls of old Kolkata bungalows, announcing their impending demolition.
He sees the sign as an ‘obit’ notice for another building that has long been a part of the city. “While travelling on Theatre Road, and seeing those signages put up on the boundary walls of bungalows by private builders, announcing their impending demolition, I feel a sense of incredulousness, on how the city is relentlessly doing this (demolishing its heritage),” he rued.
Angered by the loss of architectural legacy, a group of people are out on the streets in Kolkata today to highlight the importance of built heritage in the urban landscape.
To mark World Heritage Day and exert pressure on the West Bengal government, the march — organised by the Calcutta Architectural Legacies (CAL), a citizens’ initiative led by Chaudhuri — will start from the Subodh Mullick Square and wind up in front of the office of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC).
From Kolkata to Bengaluru to Mumbai and Delhi, there is rising concern over the destruction of heritage structures.
In Kolkata, activists including Chaudhuri and INTACH Kolkata Chapter’s convener GM Kapur are worried over the fate of the colonial-era Old Kenilworth Hotel on Little Russel Street.
They claim it has been “downgraded from its Grade IIA status” to make way for its demolition and allege that a branch of the 19th century Metropolitan Institution in Pathuriaghata has met with a similar fate.
“Calcutta was a city of great architecture, arts and space and urban aesthetics. Slowly, we lost so many beautiful buildings of such immense architectural, cultural and historical value. And, the Kenilworth and Metropolitan cases, perhaps, proved the last straw. So, we are protesting,” the author said.
In Bengaluru, the over 100-year-old Krumbiegel Hall in Lalbagh was demolished last November, triggering outrage among heritage lovers.
Now the Asiatic Life Assurance Company building, which houses the Janatha Bazaar, is facing demolition, local activists, who also held a protest recently, alleged.
The building on Kempe Gowda Road was inaugurated in 1935 by then Mysore Yuvaraja Kanteerava Narasimharaja Wadiyar, said Bengaluru-based conservation architect Yashaswini Sharma.
“Tangible heritage such as the Janatha Bazaar are landmarks and serve as links that narrate the story of the development of the city. In the event of disappearance of such landmarks, one feels disconnected with the history of the place,” Sharma said.
Mumbai-based urban conservationist Kamalika Bose said while the city has a law that allowed it to protect not just buildings but also precincts, there was a threat to structures outside the ambit of the legislation. “The Fort area has heritage regulation but outside that zone, old buildings, not listed, continue to face the onslaught of urban expansion and concrete invasion,” she said.
Kapur of the West Bengal Chapter of the Indian Trust of Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) said the KMC has about 900 heritage buildings on its list and alleged the number was going down.
“A part of the building of the Metropolitan Institution’s Bara Bazaar branch on Prasanna Coomar Tagore Street is being demolished. It was a Grade IIB building, which means it cannot be demolished. For demolition, buildings are being downgraded,” Kapur alleged.
The KMC, however, denied the allegation. No heritage building had been delisted in the last one year, said Subrata Sil, director-general, project management unit of the KMC. “Our current laws do not allow delisting of heritage buildings,” he said.
On the status of the Metropolitan Institution Building, Sil said, “We have received complaints that some work is being done without taking requisite permission. We are inquiring into it.”
Kapur believed that the process of grading a building was opaque. “We don’t even know when Kenilworth was downgraded. Maybe a year ago,” he said, adding that the Gholam Rasool Mosque, a Grade-I heritage structure in Park Circus, was demolished in 2015 to make way for a bigger mosque.
Kolkata had served as the capital of the British Empire till 1911 and is endowed with a wealth of architectural beauties.
Chaudhuri said urban conservationists, heritage lovers and “well-meaning people inside the government” had been feeling this “terrible sense of frustration” of just mutely watching one building after another disappear.
If old monochrome images of Chowringhee and the Maidan and postcards bearing pictures of buildings in Dalhousie Square still evoke the grandeur of the city that once rivalled London and New York, Mumbai is known for its Art Deco structures and Victorian-Gothic architecture.
“In 1995, Mumbai established itself as the first Indian city to adopt heritage regulations for the protection of its urban heritage under the Heritage Regulations for Greater Bombay,” Bose said.
In Delhi, a legal battle is being fought for the protection of old havelis in the city. The Shahjehanbad area in the Walled City is a goldmine of history but many of its havelis have either vanished or face the onslaught of modernity.
Author Chaudhuri lamented that heritage was seldom taken up by the intelligentsia which “talks of politics, climate change and even literature”.
“Architecture, sadly, has never been part of the conversation,” he said.