Signs of Identity Indicators of Heritage

Decades ago, when I lived in Oxford, one of its civic amenities I most admired were the fine cast iron street signs throughout the town. Raised white lettering on black background. Classy clarity, with heritage tossed in.

When I first discovered that Calcutta had its own version of classy street signs, I was delighted. Not as consistent or as clear as Oxford’s though, mainly because of the baroque (if not rococo) cosmetics of the vast city. A bit of hunting is necessary to track them down. With 3000+ streets, I thought there might be a corresponding number of ‘old’ street signs to savour and wonder at. Like other civic fixtures in series (lamp posts, street furniture, waterworks, etc.) street signs are vital, but more susceptible to a city’s fluctuations of development. Consequently, any examples considered heritage-worthy, if not historical, are fairly rare in the Calcuttan core.

One of the reasons for the neglect of many a street sign is because, every place of business, officialdom or function – throughout India – is required to display its proper address somewhere obvious for all to see. Even for we non-Bengali readers (alas!), if a frontage is proclaimed in that elegant script, there’s bound to be another nearby, spelt out in varying mutations of English. Thus, it’s unlikely to ever become completely lost. Therefore, who really needs a street sign? Especially one that may be high up a picturesque wall, hard to read from weathering, complicated with paint splotches, and usually in Roman type.

This is where heritage can, if allowed, enter. Utilitarian items that they are, any sign exhibiting the signs of the venerability and meaning we appreciators know and love is a relic worth preserving and enhancing.

Street namings of the cast iron kind are the most intriguing. In my Calcutta book I wrote, ‘When one spots a cast iron street sign in Calcutta, it can be like discovering an archaeological site.’ Come to think of it, there’s one in Creek Row that looks like a hoary, antediluvian potsherd. The value of like details, no matter how minor, should never be underestimated. I wouldn’t be surprised if there exists a small but dedicated Society for Locating, Restoring and Loving of Calcutta’s Street Signs of Old (SLRLCSSO). If not, then there should be.

The city workshops in Entally included an iron foundry. Surely that’s where these plates were cast. The Handbook for the Calcutta Municipality of 1886 states: ‘The Commissioners may affix on adjoining houses plates with the names of public streets, and prosecute any person defacing or destroying such plates.’ And: ‘The duty of maintaining the name-plates of streets and the number of houses has also been entrusted to the Assessor.’ Plainly, in most examples that remain today, said Assessor is shirking said duties. Time for the SLRLCSSO to intercede!

The iron Clive Ghaut sign, facing Strand Road, is noteworthy. The surrounding neighbourhood has been ‘de-Clived’ for so long, it struck me as an anomaly when I first saw it. Twenty years later, carelessly obscured by internet and phone conduits, it was still clinging there.

The grandest nameplate from this Cast Iron Age is, fittingly, that of Government Place, right across from Raj Bhavan. But as such, it qualifies as a certifiable Calcutta Curiosity, for in the otherwise impeccable lettering, the ‘G’ in ‘Government’ is a duplicate of the ‘C’ in ‘Place’. A casting error, or erosion from elements – or vandalism? The former, I’m sure, but did any Viceroy & Co. ever notice…?

Another curiosity, but one that’s sweet and sincere, is the installation (for lack of a better term) identifying Auckland Square. I think it was a student effort, to encourage much-needed greening of the city. The letters serve as plant beds, and a mural behind shows a world without trees. It needs regular sprucing-up, but what a unique and admirable statement it is!

In summation, the signs that define these streets also lead us to the persons and stories with which they are associated. That’s why they are so significant in charting the thoroughfares, lanes and passages that are routed everywhere within Calcutta’s very soul.

Stay curious, have fun, and be sure to come when Calcutta calls!

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