To Be Assured

On the south side of BBD Bag stands one of Calcutta’s premiere examples of Late Victorian virtuosity. Despite its size, as a virtual hostage of the neighbouring Telephone Bhawan’s bulky domination, it can be overlooked. But in 1896, when the Standard Life Assurance Company’s offices – generally called Standard Buildings – were completed, the low-profile Dalhousie Institute across the street was the only competition.

In the roster of significant heritage sites in the city, the Standard is an original. Its lines are neither Gothic Revival nor Calcuttan (Neo) Classical. In fact, they have much more in common with the great Italianate mass of the Writers’ Building, way across the Lal Dighi tank. This relationship is significant, because Standard Assurance’s architect was none other than the great Frederick W. Stevens (1848-1900). He is a man deserving of high praise, especially for his work in Bombay, where he was responsible for three of the most spectacular buildings in the subcontinent: Victoria Terminus, the Municipal Corporation, and the Western Railway Headquarters at Churchgate. In this, his only known Calcutta building, he plays it safe, yet delivers the goods in a competent way. No Indo-Gothic fantasies here, he was willing to conform to the mood of decorum which emanated from the general make-up of what was then Dalhousie Square.

Every effort, it seems, was made by the important, private and conservative insurance company in question to willingly comply with the preferred conventions of so prestigious a location. It would have been a civic responsibility to fit in, and it is doubtful the building caused any controversy. By its presence, the company was able to exert itself and to make a statement of importance, aided by a well-proportioned tower topped by a cupola (reminiscent of Stevens’ Municipal Corp’s dome in Bombay). Though not intended to eclipse the GPO to the west or the Central Telegraph Office tower to the east, it was the loftiest structure on the huge square that was neither governmental nor religious in its purpose.

Architecture is one profession where the designer is not necessarily obliged to be on-site, so it’s mere speculation as to whether or not Stevens himself showed up in town to oversee the project. He was up to his moustache with big projects on the Bombay side. A fair guess is that his son Charles, an architect in his own right, might have been his man in Calcutta.

To be sure, the Standard is a fine achievement. The framework of the superstructure is sensible, solid and predictable. Yet, it’s as if Stevens was sensing the Edwardian Baroque to come, as the add-on decor is adventurous, and dare I say, fun. With four full storeys plus the two-storey tower, it more than measures up to the other members of the lucky Dalhousie group.

Stevens’ artistry is impeccable. The supreme moment comes not with the admirable corner tower, but in an impressive stack of arches, which connect the two parts of the buildings. The assemblage is crowned by a pediment worthy of ancient Rome, peopled by allegorical figures. The main arch is branded with the Company’s name in block letters, and just below is decoration as moodily descriptive as any Park Street cemetery epitaph, sculpted by an unknown but capable hand. To the left is a torch-bearing lady of power and vitality, symbolizing the gift of life. On the right, to balance such a proposition, a Grim Reaper, bearing scythe and skull, retracts the gift, so to speak. Thus, the finite concept of life insurance is so illustrated. I dub it the Arch of Destiny, and according to my calculations, passing under its span allows access to the cul-de-sac known as Vansittart Row, one of the city’s oldest lanes. And it is a solemn moment indeed.

There are also keystones in the form of medieval, English-appearing kings, which pretty much certifies that all of the Standard’s sculptures were probably executed in some gas-lit British garret. Also to be treasured, albeit in a cheerier sense, is the troupe of puckish kids, carved in sandstone, who populate the festooned windows on the upper storeys, most of whom are having a jam-session in their naubat khana or music gallery. The only thing remotely ‘Indian’ to be detected hereabouts is the surprising appearance of finger-cymbals, tablas, chikaras, and mukavinas, as played by this whimsical ‘Third Storey Band’.

Not long ago, the building’s exterior was spruced-up and painted, though the condition of the fabric has long been hale and hearty. If anyone passionate about heritage needs a bit of inspiration, I say: look to the Standard, marvel at it, and go forward from there.

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

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