Before it acquired the moniker ‘City of Joy’, Calcutta was the ‘City of Palaces’, also known as the ‘Second City’ of the British Raj, superior to all but London. Calcutta was the centre of the empire in India and home to a large multicultural population. It was here that most of the British landing in India got their first glimpse of this land. It was from here that they ruled India till 1911.
Calcutta was grand, opulent and regal, the showpiece of the grandeur of the empire. It was a place where the colonial and the vernacular were juxtaposed in the most unusual settings.
An exhibition at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangharalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai ‘Kolkata: Through Colonial Eyes’, displayed the prints of an opulent Calcutta as seen through the eyes of the English more than 250 years ago. Comprising a medley of scenes as sketched by noted British landscape artists of the time, this exhibition was made possible thanks to a donation made to the museum by veteran collectors Pheroza and Jamshyd Godrej as well as Pauline and Roy Rohatgi.
The founding of the modern city of Kolkata dates back to 1690 and has been ascribed to Job Charnock, an agent of the British East India Company, who landed in the village of Sutanuti and started a British factory there. Present-day Kolkata stands on what was originally three villages: Sutanuti, Kalikata and Gobindapur.
Early visitors to Calcutta were Company servants, envoys, merchants, missionaries and explorers. They were keen to understand the Indian landscape, history, culture, traditions and social customs. They wanted to capture and share the city as they saw it. Print-making was a new technique then and they used it to document early colonial Calcutta.
Two of the most prominent artists who documented early Calcutta were Thomas Daniell and James Fraser. Thomas Daniell published ‘Views of Calcutta’ in 1788, which were composed of 12 prints and were available for 12 and 18 gold mohurs. A generation later, James Fraser came to Calcutta in 1814, and spent the next six years sketching and drawing this animated city. He published ‘Views of Calcutta and its Environs’ in 1826.
Photographs, drawings and prints are an excellent way to see how cities have changed, and these prints give us a unique insight into the Calcutta of the 19th century. In them, one can see the grand buildings that the British built, the ‘natives’ and festivities as viewed by them, as well as the spaces in the city.
These prints also tell us about the changes that took place during and within the Raj itself. In 1788, Daniell etched the Government House but it was demolished in 1792, to be replaced by a grander Government House built in 1803, which is the Raj Bhavan even today. This was documented by Fraser as the ‘New Government House’.
In this aquatint by James Fraser, we can see the botanical garden across the river in Howrah and palatial houses of Garden Reach. The garden is today home to the largest banyan tree in the country. Roxburgh House on the left is still standing but is in a very dilapidated state today.
The Town Hall was built to fill the need for a public space, for public entertainment, and was completed in 1813. It fell to ruin but timely intervention by the Archaeological Survey of India and the Calcutta High Court saved the building and opened it for public use. Today, it houses a museum dedicated to the city, called Kolkata Panorama, and a library housing rare books and manuscripts.
The British established the Supreme Court of Calcutta in 1782. This was abolished with the Indian High Courts Act in 1861. The present High Court stands on the same site.
Writers’ Building was the West Bengal Secretariat till 2013, when it was closed for restoration. It had played many roles before that, starting as the office of the writers or clerks of the East India Company. In the foreground, you can see the Holwell monument to the Black Hole.
The square around Lal Dighi has been called many names – Tank Square, Dalhousie Square and BBD (Benoy Badal Dinesh) Bagh. It was the heart of the White Town of Calcutta, the administrative centre of the empire, with Writers Building, Government House, Court House and various offices and establishments connected with the empire built around it. It maintains its importance to date, with most major government offices as well as the headquarters of banks and insurance companies located here. In this Coloured Lithograph from 1847, we can see the square from the steps of the Scotch Kirk.
This print shows the bazaar leading to Chitpore, which was the border between the Indian and European parts of Calcutta. One can see a bustling bazaar with a bewildering mix of vernacular and European architecture.
Chowringhee is one of Kolkata’s oldest and most well-known streets. In the 18th century, it became the main European residential area and was characterised by Grand Palladian Houses set in spacious gardens. Here we can see the street it in its early days.
Local customs and traditions were very popular with the British, particularly Charak Pooja, which is a local folk festival associated with Shiva. Held in April on the eve of the Bengali New Year, the festival is still popular and can be seen on the outskirts of the city. This coloured aquatint was created by James Moffat, a Scotsman based in Calcutta.
Calcutta’s proximity to the sea and the river was one of the factors that attracted the British to the city in the first place. The fact that it was an important port is very clearly reflected in this coloured aquatint, with etching by Daniell, which shows a view of Calcutta from the Hoogly river. This crowded scene has passenger boats, pleasure boats and trading vessels along with the houses and warehouses of wealthy merchants on the bank.
With the expansion of the empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, the need was felt for a capital befitting the power of the British, and soon Calcutta transformed from a sleepy village into the ‘second city’ of the empire. This exhibition helps us visualise Calcutta as it underwent this massive transformation. But cities are constantly in flux. While some of the sites we see in the exhibition have either been lost or changed, many new ones have come up, defining a modern Kolkata.
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