The Avenue of Palaces

Pradeep Gooptu

Stores crowded out by plastic sheets and bamboo stalls. The cries of hawkers competing with the incessant honking of taxis blocking the road. Pedestrians rushing through traffic at grave risk to both themselves and cars. And in the background, the outpouring of political anger over loudspeakers. On an average day, this is the hellish experience that greets us when we visit Chowringhee (now J L Nehru) Road from the north where it begins.

The history of the road is quite special. Legend has it that this very old road led to the temple at Kalighat (dated back to 600AD) and was graced by a great saint called Chourangi Giri. His name was given to the road though some experts dispute this. In the 1750s, the villages in the area were removed to make way for the Maidan with Chowringhee Road at its eastern border.

The rich and the famous immediately started setting up grand buildings along the stretch – a fact which contributed to the naming of Calcutta as the ‘City of Palaces’. Chowringhee’s palaces contributed hugely to this title. So let’s take a journey down time to see how it evolved in the motoring era.

The overhead picture of the area from Octerlony Monument (now Shahid Minar) shows how well it deserved this honour. From the Bristol Hotel at No. 1 (extreme left of picture) to the domes of the corner departmental store Whiteway Laidlaw (now the LIC Building), and the big billboards to the right, Chowringhee was one of the finest avenues anywhere.

The photograph showing the view from the north down Chowringhee with Bristol Hotel extreme left and the domes of Whiteway Laidlaw is a mirror image from another point. With the green leafy Maidan to its west running down all the way to Raj Bhavan, the football grounds and the river, the grand road was a breathtaking sight.

One of the oldest pictures here shows a rare large Renault Tourer and hackney carriages in front of the Grand Hotel (today the Oberoi Grand). This must have been taken around 1920 or so as it shows a store called Dinshaw. This was a wine store of repute and its Parsi owners were prominent in the city.

The lead picture from around the same time shows how quickly business used to move in the city. In this picture we see two new stores, one being a seller of rifles and similar hand weapons called Lyons, and the other a tailoring outfit called Mitchell. One must remember that the 1920s and 1930s were times of great turmoil in the business world with a global economic crisis in play. This explains in part the difference in store fronts and the vacant street.

Another picture shows better times on a busy day with double parking on both sides of the street owing to a big programme happening in the area. This was in the early 1930s and by this time, the ownership and usage of cars had shot up. This was on account of the introduction of excellent smaller cars like the ‘Baby’ Austin Seven and rival Morris and other brands. Besides, cheaper versions of modern American cars were also flooding the market. This explains the traffic.

Great avenues like Chowringhee made Calcutta a city to visit in yesteryears. Planned development like Chowringhee with large plots to house palatial buildings, underground drainage and piped water supply, adequate parking, and above all, freedom from encroachments and hawkers, translated into a beautiful experience comparable to any other great city in the world like London or New York. It’s a slice of history which we should remember and try to recreate.

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