The Preservation of the Para

Amit Chaudhuri On His Mission to Save the Old Houses of the City

“I understood the disappearance of neighborhoods in order to create prosperity is not an inevitability .So when they are not destroyed often those cities thrive. And often cultural innovation takes place in these neighborhoods. Cultural innovation doesn’t take place in designated neighborhoods.”

Taking forward a movement started by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, few have done more to open the eyes of Calcuttans to the unique character of their city than author, academic and musician, Amit Chaudhuri.

Chaudhuri has been advocating for preserving the character of Calcutta’s old houses rather than let them succumb to the economic forces of ‘development,’ which would raze the old houses and put up multistory boxes in their place.

Across oceans, Chaudhuri has been writing about this issue not only with characteristic eloquence but also with added zeal. He has talked emotionally about the impression his days at his maternal uncle’s house (or Mama’r Bari) in Bhowanipore had on him during his formative years. Perhaps this is the source of his passion – that and a desire to let Calcutta be nothing other than what made is special.

From his apartment in Sunny Park, he sat down with our Ankan Dhar and chatted about his mission, revealing a side of the cerebral academic and critic that we rarely glimpse:

Ankan Dhar – Why do you think restoration is important ? Why do you think it’s important to deal with half dilapidated heritage places which hold no structural value anymore ?

Amit Chaudhuri – First of all l have consciously tried to take out this discussion from terms like heritage, so it’s not just to do with heritage it has to do with the city’s most distinctive architecture , environment and character and it has to do with the historical importance, a florescence of its architectural style. Only certain cities in the world are fortunate to have had periods when something has happened interesting culturally and architecturally .

Architecture is connected to period and culture that is also eclectic, experimental and interesting. Something like that happened here in Calcutta. So once something like that happens it becomes not only a great asset for the city just as great works of writing, great works of music are not dead things in the past , they are catalyst that is why we continue to engage with them. We not only engage with the writing which came out yesterday. The reason we engage with them because there is a process which is kind of a give and take catalyst for the new ways of development.

Now this is not to say I am against corporatization and development being used in India but you develop places where nothing exists, you don’t develop a place where there is distinctive quality. If you look at cities which grew out of development , Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Dallas, Atlanta, Milton Kings in Britain. These are all built on the deserts. But you don’t develop something which is already an architectural unique. So you don’t go to Berlin or to the neighborhoods of Paris , London or Istanbul for development. You don’t exchange Istanbul for Dubai. This is what should be happening here? Some of the newest buildings came up in the no man’s land in Berlin on the border of East Berlin like in the areas Potsdamer Platz.

Now you cannot demolish the buildings there to erect another Dubai. So now here in Calcutta not all of it is dilapidated a lot of it is in a perfect condition .Not all those people who sell these houses are in economic distress , some of them are. A lot of them sell it because it’s a liability, lot of them sell because there is a pressure by the promoters and these are stories I am getting to hear every day through this campaign because people write me and tell me about the houses they want to save and the reasons why they cannot, but they want to do but in anyways there is a great urge to hang on to these houses. Part of that urge can be explained by some sort of reverence from our past. I think there is genuine understanding that these thoughts also includes whether we have some emotional family connect with them. They are interesting structures. I have not seen structures of these varieties built by anonymous builders anywhere. A time may come as in China when people will realize that what they have destroyed. So in China they have destroyed a lot of their old architectural structures without even thinking of it. Here our architecture is more idiosyncratic phenomenal. But those older structures they have destroyed and now they are building fake versions. That is nostalgia. What we are talking here is essential to the ongoing life of people not nostalgia. So what we are working on is alive and it’s a part of our city. So we are trying to find a collaborative voice to push through the bureaucrats and West Bengal heritage commission and when it didn’t worked I went public about it. Once I went public about it I could realize a lot of people are concerned about it. The kind of response I got was overwhelming.

AD – Are you personally inspired by the incidents at your Uncle’s place in your childhood? As in one article you have vividly mentioned about the nostalgia of that old house and its classic architecture??

AC– Actually I was lucky to encounter such a house, it’s not because in my childhood I feel affectionate towards it. I knew right from my childhood there is something different about these houses from the ones I saw I Bombay and this feeling didn’t go away, I thought a lot more about it. What were these houses about and childhood is a time when you do get educated not in school but outside, so this is where I was getting educated ,my trips to Calcutta. These were spaces I haven’t encountered. It reminded me of some buildings in Europe and certainly I have not seen them in UK. Actually the Varity here is like no two houses are identical .

AD – What has inspired you to take up this project? Where you got the adrenalin?

AC – ( Smilingly) so the adrenalin came from this kind of experience that I talked about . First one was from understanding. You know these extraordinary neighborhoods we encounter in Europe, people realized that these are important cultural heritance and part of modernity.

So as you walk through these neighborhoods your are not a tourist, you are not walking in the way you would let’s say going to Eiffel Tower. There was some connection with you as a kind of citizen from India with those neighborhoods as you respond to. The fact that the neighborhoods were still there, because laws protecting them. Protecting them from not being destroyed. People had understood that it’s better to work with these structures because they are very interesting architectures. But if you look at the history of these cities none of these happened automatically, often citizens had to fight for laws to be put in place, which would prevent these neighborhoods from disappearing .

I understood the disappearance of neighborhoods in order to create prosperity is not an inevitability .So when they are not destroyed often those cities thrive. And often cultural innovation takes place in these neighborhoods. Cultural innovation doesn’t take place in designated neighborhoods.

Similarly in Calcutta the Pujos are interesting because it take place in neighborhoods, had it been in a designated place they wouldn’t have been more innovative and constructive as they are now. So they need to happen in the midst of those buildings, making the unfamiliar familiar. That’s one thing I have realized that it’s possible to hang on to these houses if anyone brings about a change in the mindset. Another thing is cities like ours loose our architecture very quickly. Pune 1998, was a very beautiful city and I realized the reason it’s beautiful is because of the neo gothic buildings and the Colonial Heights but in 2007 almost all of it was gone only the cantonment area is left to be next . Pune destroyed its inheritance and architecture. Same with Kuala lampur, Hong Kong. I thought Calcutta could go in Ten years. I don’t want happened to Pune happen to Calcutta.

The West Bengal heritage should have done much more than this .They should have identified those buildings and preserved them , at least the houses of famous personalities. They couldn’t because as with any other city the power of the property lobby and their kind of closeness to politicians and I think there are other deeper problems besides this. Of course people will talk of the fact that this city is in economic distress but the cities that have boomed have infact have given away to development faster so you have lots of rich people in Chennai but they don’t want to buy old houses, so people sell in economic distress is one reason but do they sell their houses to promoters not buyers who want to live their? Because the mindset who couldn’t understand the value of these houses doesn’t exist anymore. So people treat this as liability.

AD – What are the major hindrances you are facing in this project?

AC – I get to hear the kind of barging, pestering , intimidation from the promoters. But the bigger problem lies with the fact that we think talking about this houses is an elitist preoccupation , we think these middle class houses are not politically important to talk about or to be saved. There is a turn against a middleclass ( bhadrolok ) history of Calcutta. A turn which is exemplified by the left, who themselves are all Bhadrolok. So you know when buildings get destroyed in whichever culture , it happened mostly because of the turn in previous historical period. It could be a turn against the colonial period , which is why let’s say countries have removed the entire colonial statue. And many more. But why the intelligent are not talking about it ??
Because the bhadrolok culture is seemed to be a discredited culture and therefore they don’t speak.

AD – Does it come from a feudalistic representation?

AC – Yes it does , and a lip service to anti –elitism. If you speak to them in private all of them will agree that something very important is lost but the language of public intellectual discourse doesn’t give legitimacy to a discussion which speaks about the value of the bhadrolok building of the past. People have disowned it especially after 40 years of Left rule. It is important to know that we can be left and talk about culture and equally think of elevation of mankind. As a matter of fact very little has been done in comparison of what should have been done in the name of culture . So we are now in a state in India that have very depleted sense of cultural history and we haven’t really done anything for poverty evaluation. It happens because of the disengagement of the middle class and blaming the government. We spectate upon that then we try to leave and go to some other countries. We have this thought somewhere that we have elected them and they are beneath us. Look the governments in other cultures/countries are equally oppressive and corrupt. Educated middle class haven’t agonized the situation and they have been far more robust in trying to interlink.

AD – Now is it only about restoration? Isn’t this also an opportunity for the mass to cater their creative self?

AC – Yes , See it’s an attempt by which we can rethink our relationship with the city. To engage with the streets the buildings we see every day. We need a change in mindset among educated people too. But I think there are lot of people out there among the Bengali artists who are genuinely interested in an opportunity the city posts and I get people contacting me from Europe as well .The opportunity is kept aside by this idea of Calcutta being a complete negative city. It’s actually a city which can be transformed into a different kind of place, much different than the aspiring Mumbai and Delhi. I think there are lots of people who do understand that .But these are things don’t happen overnight , you have work for it, and you have to take certain risk . So if people do come together and work for it then there will be an excitement and this excitement is coming from the exciting possibilities of Calcutta.

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