A Very High Standard

Bank buildings are always built to impress – if not intimidate – we who are all too often held in their thrall. Banks are also rich enough to not only have good taste, but to buy it up whole. For me, an appreciator of architecture for its aesthetic and intriguing aspects first, and its reason for being second, this is a happy thing, for bank buildings are often spectacular showpieces.

Calcutta is no exception, of course. Several fine examples exist, but for me, the top of the line is the Chartered Bank Building in Clive Street (updated names: Standard Chartered Bank, in Netaji Subhas Road, if you please).

It was built by that eminent firm Martin & Co., so familiar about town (and later to merge with Burn & Co.). The architect was one Edward Thornton, an under-known but most talented fellow, who also designed the Mysore Memorial at Kalighat, the Ujjayanta Palace in distant Agartala, and two charming, still-standing buildings, a few steps away from where I stand right now.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more proudly or prominently displayed year of construction than the one on this massive masterpiece: 1908! In the height of Edwardian summer, with Calcutta bathing in a post-Curzon glow. Soon to fade though, with the capital decamping to Delhi, and a long decline ahead.

Historicity aside, sheer mind-boggling reality remains. Look at this thing! Funded by imperial pursuits, but built by Calcuttan labour, in attention-getting ‘Neo-Moorish-Romanesque’ glory, Chartered extravagance rules amidst the gravitas of the Street’s more sober members. The Allahabad Bank next door is infinitely respectable, though low-key. The Reserve Bank of India might as well be in Chicago, and the Hongkong Bank is a model of muted stateliness.

But right here, the Standard Chartered still makes the biggest splash, and thank your lucky stars, Calcutta, that you have such a singular pile built upon your silt!

The romance of this building is intense. An up-thrust of banded flamboyance, capped with domes mixing Mediaeval Greek, Romanesque, Armenian, Turkish and Moorish vocabularies, bundled together with festive Edwardian chumminess – how could anyone not be as enchanted as they are awestruck?

For a bank, it’s a pretty flashy package, albeit on an epic scale. But while Chartered claimed the optimum space along the frontage, the majority of the building behind was available for tenants who were successful enough to attain perches at such a prestigious address.

Ever since the bank ditched their wondrous palace for mediocre modernism just across the street, the noble edifice has slid into a neglected stasis, as if the corporation is hoping it will degrade past the point of no return, so they can demolish it and raise a forgettable steel-and-glass box that will yield rental riches beyond their wildest dreams.

But as I enter the attractively gloomy lobby and bend my steps upward, in search of miracles, I’m reminded of when I ascended the built-in stairs of the Metropolitan Building, twenty years earlier. Everything about me looked like photos of Berlin in 1945 – soot-blackened remains, headed for oblivion. Yet, the Metropolitan’s miraculous rebirth has been a genuine triumph for Chowringhee, and the city at large. Reinventing the Chartered Bank Buildings could do the same for Netaji Subhas Road.

Are those fugitive banyan tendrils dangling from far above in the stairwell, or merely cabling, bringing the online universe into these Poe-like confines? A haunted palace? Not that I’ve heard, but surely its walls could speak of Raj dialogues, Independence relief, and Marxian critiques of capitalism.

When exploring, I love seeking out moody atmospheres of the pictorial and dramatic kind, but that doesn’t mean things should remain that way. I enthusiastically support modern adaptation and utilisation of heritage structures, provided the integrity of the original fabric can be maintained, if not enhanced. Such a resolve has to be the imperative of any preservationist in this day and age. This is why I, and many others, who love Calcutta and its features, expound so continuously on this matter. Not for the last time will I declare that, Calcutta’s treasures – so extant, so immediate, so vital, so unique – must and shall be preserved!

To be sure, a very high standard to follow, but the rewards of such efforts ensure the survival of Calcutta’s soul. And a very great soul it is.
Stay curious, have fun, and be sure to come when Calcutta calls!

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