Calcutta University, established in the year 1857, marked the fruition of the deep yearning for Western education that had surged through Bengal in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Raja Rammohan Roy, Vidyasagar, William Carey, Alexander Duff and David Hare had been in the forefront of this resurgence and a number of intellectuals – both British and native – came forward and made a united effort to set up this university.
Initially, Calcutta University functioned only as a committee set up to give recognition to various educational institutions and hold examinations. Since it had no building of its own, the University’s Senate used to meet at the Council room of the Medical College. The Syndicate members met at the residence of the Vice-Chancellor. The faculty members assembled at the residence of the president of each faculty or at the Civil Engineering College and even at Writers’ Buildings. Examinations were held either at Town Hall or after setting up tents at the Maidan.
Soon, the authorities felt the need for setting up their own building and accordingly, a plot was chosen between the Medical College and Presidency College. In 1866 the Governor General-in-Council decided to allot a sum of Rs 81,600 for the purchase of the plot and another Rs 1, 70,516 for construction of the university building.
In 1873, the doors of this beautiful structure, the Senate House were thrown open during the annual Convocation. Located in front of the pool at College Square it was an iconic structure in the ‘City of Palaces’ for many decades. It housed a meeting hall, a room for the vice-chancellor, registrar’s chamber, examination hall, lecture rooms and last but not the least the university’s library.
HEA Cotton, the chronicler of Calcutta, described it to be “a massive structure fronted by a spacious and lofty portico, supported by Ionic columns beneath which a flight of stone steps leads to the main building.”
At the top of these steps stood a fine full length statue in white marble of Prasanna Coomar Tagore (1803-1868), the founder of Tagore Law Professorship and a prominent benefactor of the institution. The ceiling of the central hall rested upon Corinthian pillars. The fine hall was about 60 feet in breadth and in length more than 200 feet. It was flanked by an extensive corridor. One of the two side rooms contained the library with a valuable collection of books. A number of busts and oil paintings of several personalities in the field of education and literature including Cecil Beadon, James Sutcliffe, Rajendralal Mitra and novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay were also on display.
The Senate House was a mute witness to several historical incidents. Tagore was invited to deliver the convocation address at the Senate House in 1937. For the first time in the history of the university the convocation address was delivered in Bengali. Bina Das, about to receive her degree, attempted to assassinate the governor of Bengal, Stanley Jackson, in 1932, during the Convocation. In 1905, amidst agitation against Partition of Bengal, Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, in his convocation address observed that truth was given the highest regard in the West much before the East, leaving the audience which included Sister Nivedita shocked. It was she who persuaded Samuel K Ratcliffe, the editor of The Statesman to carry an editorial on the double standards of Curzon along with the article on his convocation address.
However, right after the university celebrated its centenary in 1957 the state government under the then Chief Minister, BC Roy decided to pull it down to make way for a more utilitarian building. There was hardly a murmur of protest against the move, perhaps overwhelmed by the strong personality of Roy. In fact, just after independence there was a surge of anti-imperial feelings which led to the demolition of structures and statues set up during the Raj. As a result the beautiful heritage structure was lost forever to posterity and its place was taken over by the ugly multi-storeyed Centenary Building, ….the beautiful heritage structure was lost forever to posterity and its place was taken over by the ugly multi-storeyed Centenary Building resembling pigeon holes.