They Who Really Built Calcutta

As an erstwhile construction worker, perpetual dogsbody, and carpenter-when-needed, I  naturally speculate, usually with wonder, how a given structure was built, when it was built, and most intriguingly, who built it.

Because Calcutta is our subject, and its buildings are the setting for the populace, its Raj Era sites frequently command my intrigue, so they’re the ones I’m specifically addressing here.

Further, I’m not referring to whomever paid for them, designed or supervised them, or in whose name they were built. I’m more interested in those who hauled the first load of bricks for the foundation of the Collectorate, or laid-in the roof joists on the Indian Museum. Or countless other tasks. The real hands-on stuff. Shifting, lifting, fitting, finishing – and the sweat and strain therein.

Resoundingly, I’m no apologist for the effects of Empire, but when it comes to the heritage sites raised in its time, I’m a defender. And the reasons are elementary: 1. They exist in the present; 2. Their historic and heritage status; 3. Their æsthetics and uniqueness; 4. What they represent today. While the first three are pretty universal in their application, No.4 is the controversial one.

Critiquing the symbolism of Calcutta’s Raj Era buildings is valid, but having already done that, they now represent a deeper reality to me, instead of just a notion. They were built – physically built – by Indians. Therefore, their Indian-ness is undeniable. It’s a pleasure to acknowledge the rank and file, and salute them en masse.

A basic assumption is that British personnel involved in these official Raj Era buildings were always vastly outnumbered by any and all Indians assigned to a given project. I can’t offer a breakdown as to who did what, but by sheer necessity, Indians of all skills and talents, from sweepers to engineers, constituted the workforce that got these projects built. Others at the top took the credit, as a matter of course.

These days, it seems that on various occasions of convenience, people in high offices have been known to express their contempt for buildings of ‘colonial’ pedigree. Personally, I avoid this handy term, as India was not a British colony per se. The prime directive was economic colonization, and thus, imperialism. So, I use the term ‘Raj Era’, or just ‘Raj’ (shorter spelling, too).

At any rate, disgruntlement seems to percolate over the fact that Calcutta has all these old buildings from Company and Raj times, and because this rankles persons seeking opportunities that might bloom from this issue, they write them off as basically erroneous, if not evil. Most of all, they are branded as patently non-Indian.

Well, coming from a country where a mere cinema hall might be modelled after an Ellora temple or a Bijapur mosque or a Gothic cathedral, I tend to celebrate the enjoyable diversity that results. Part of the thesis in my ‘Calcutta’s Edifice’ book was to demonstrate that what stands in Calcutta, whatever its origins, becomes, sooner or later, ‘Calcuttafied’, a term I coined meant to imply distinction.

To my mind, if one disparages Raj Era buildings in Calcutta, then one disparages those (Indians) who physically built them. And as they stand, they are as Calcuttan – as Indian – as Sanchi, as Khajuraho, as Sher Shah Suri’s tomb in Sasaram.

In fact, about the only Raj Era relic that still exudes some sort of symbolism is the Victoria Memorial. And as she sits, Queen Vicky says, ‘Hey, c’mon in! How do you like my house? It’s your house now. Enjoy it. See you next time!’

In its progress as a city of destiny, Calcutta proper didn’t come to be through overt slave labour. Granted, low-level wages were basically subsistence-grade, but those of stone masons, iron fitters, and like artisans were certainly commensurate with the rates of the day. Others can take the investigation from there, but I think it’s safe to make such a claim.

As they remain, human-built entities become part of the landscape, the fibre, the very soul of the location in which they stand. And to those whose labour made them a reality, those whose existence depended on such employment, I think it’s fully appropriate to honour their identity and their efforts, and therefore, to respect the entities they raised.

Call me superficial, but when I gaze at the enormous Writers’ Building frontage, it’s the bricklayers I’m thinking of, not the Permanent Undersecretary for India sitting in a London office. And there must’ve been hundreds of them, way up there.

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

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