Perhaps the most iconic and definitely the most eye-catching of them all, Victoria Memorial, is a resplendent fusion of brilliant architecture, history and culture. Built in the Indo-Saracenic revival style with pristine white Makrana marbles, Victoria Memorial embodies the British heritage of Kolkata like none other. Each day, thousands of people pass by this splendour gawking at its majesty through windows of crammed city buses or maybe while taking a romantic ride on a horse and carriage – Victoria Memorial belongs to everyone and each one of them has a unique story to share. Similarly, Victoria Memorial too has a plethora of stories to share which it does so magnificently well through its many galleries. The Calcutta Gallery, India’s first city gallery is the newest of them all, done under the guidance of Tridibesh Sanyal and Siddhartha Ghosh of Tangarm Design Pvt Ltd and was opened in the year 1992
The Calcutta Gallery displays the history and development of Calcutta from Job Charnock and the British Rule upto 1911, when the capital was shifted to Delhi. After entering Victoria Memorial through the front gate, cross the first passageway to reach the back and then turn right to find the entrance of the Calcutta Gallery. The gallery is dimly lit with pictures and descriptions of each era hung up on the walls. Upon entering the gallery, the first thing that catches your attention is the detailed story of the European invasion of Calcutta. In the fifteenth century, India was considered to be a land of fables by the Europeans and they were drawn towards Calcutta for its silk, muslin and spices. The gradual settlement of the Europeans in Bengal is well documented with pictures of the Europeans arriving at the ports of the then village of Sutanuti and how gradually Job Charnock and his troops envisaged English settlement over there. Fort and Zemindari section for the British follows the European settlement section. Detailed narratives along with many pictures on how the construction of Fort William was started and subsequently how acquisition of the right to rent the villages of Sutanuti, Kalikata and Govindapur propelled the growth of the English empire, are on display at the gallery.
The gradual rise of Calcutta to business and international importance is a story of strengthening of the British Empire in India. From 1700s onwards, the British acquired the right to trade in Bengal without having to pay any custom duties, in return for an annual fee of only Rs 3000. In addition to this, the British were granted the right to purchase 38 new villages around their settlement which meant new found freedom and security for the empire to thrive on. The early 1700s saw the East India Company’s investment in Bengal rise from £278,593 in 1717 to £363,979 in 1729. It is around this time that Chowringhee and Esplanade Row were developed into wide thoroughfares with broad streets lined with grand buildings. The ‘White Town’ consisted of offices and houses owned by the company and their staff and was all centred around the Old Fort and Tank square, present day B.B.D. Bagh. It is indeed fascinating to read about the history of Bengal in such an eloquent and elaborate manner.
Along with pictures and writings, there are many rare and interesting artefacts on display in the Calcutta Gallery too. The centre of the gallery is where majority of the artefacts are exhibited and it has the original copy of the oath sworn by Robert Clive on 1 October 1766 as the Governor of Bengal. Apart from that, there’s the seal of the East India Company and the medal presented by Queen Victoria to Dwarkanath Tagore at Buckingham palace on 7 July 1845. You can also find a couple of bottles of perfume used by Dwarkanath Tagore and an ink pot said to have been used by Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar. A gold pocket-watch of Warren Hastings with his monograms and initials engraved, beckons your attention while the ivory chair said to have been presented to Mrs Warren Hastings by Munny Begum, the second wife of Nawab Mir Jafar, gives you an elaborate idea on how the royal families treated each other. You can also find the Peerage dress of Lord Satyendra Prasanna Sinha, a golden brocaded chaddar used by Maharaja Nanda Kumar of Murshidabad and a kantha woven by Bama Sundari Dasya of Magura in Jessore in 1891.
The Calcutta gallery gives a detailed account on how Calcutta developed under the British rule. Broader roads to development in the port with the formation of the Port Trust in 1870 to the introduction of trams, first horse-drawn and later electric – Calcutta began shaping up nice and fine. The latter half of the 19th century saw the General Post Office, the High Court building, New Market, Indian Museum, Alipur Zoological Gardens, Central Municipality building being built which are major tourist attractions in the city even today. The description on the walls go hand in hand with the pictures – an ode to Calcutta, one can certainly say.
From civic development to socio-cultural upliftment, the Calcutta Gallery is replete with very many anecdotes that have helped shape up the Kolkata of today. Reading through the Calcutta’s Babus section will definitely help one understand the deep rooted history behind the word and just how contact with the Britishers brought in a cultural change amongst the men who started absorbing the British way of life. When crossing from the civic amenities section to the British Initiatives section, one can see the replica of a 19th century house from Bengal with high arched windows and day labourers working for the zemindar. From there comes the period of Bengal renaissance led by Raja Ram Mohun Roy then Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. The Young Bengal section showcases the literary works of Debendranath Tagore and Keshab Chandra Sen. This section is followed by the National consciousness, Hindu revival, political consciousness and the Nationalist expression section.
Finally, at the end of the gallery, on a green wall reads the story of Calcutta, post 1911 and how it enjoyed three decades of prosperity till 1941. The triumphant story of the ‘barefoot boys’ of Mohunbagan defeating East York 2-1 to win the IFA shield indeed catches attention as does every nook and corner of the Calcutta Gallery – a gallery dedicated to the story of this great city.
Address: Victoria Memorial Hall, 1 Queens Way, Kolkata 700071
Open: 10 am to 5 pm (Tuesday – Sunday)
Photography: Permission required
Entry Fee: Rs 20