Modernisation, though a late entrant, has done a remarkable invasion of Calcutta. The city’s reputation of being the cultural capital of India has been visually tarnished by the rapidly mounting skyline. The contours of Howrah Bridge, Shahid Minar and Victoria Memorial that once dominated Calcutta’s horizons, have been increasingly eclipsed by aesthetically challenged concrete high rises. While South Kolkata has almost surrendered itself, North Kolkata still retains some pre-independence heritage and bears traces of the grandeur that once won Calcutta the accolade of ‘City of Palaces’.
My friend’s house, positioned on the northern fringe of the city poses an open challenge to the city’s dying imperial grandeur. The splendid edifice of Mullick Bari looks like a beautiful sculpture carved out of stone, stories, marble and memories. The 300 year old almost demanded a panoramic mode on my camera.
I had never come across a residential building with a clock tower before (Such clock towers remind me of the General Post Office, Howrah Station and Armenian Church in Kolkata). Not, only their house had one and it was a working clock too! It looked like a crown on the building’s head.
The magnificent entrance ushered me into palatial premises. The mighty fluted columns, the huge shuttered windows (that would remind you of Satyajit Ray’s Charulata), the intricately patterned grills of the balconies, the marble statues (of ‘fountain-heads’, lions and three blind sisters of faith) guarding the entrance weave Gothic fantasies.
The portico led me into a courtyard dotted with plants. The down-to-earth patio looks up directly to the sky. ‘Uthhon’, or centrally placed courtyards like this had always been a matter of delight for me. Once common in almost every Bengali household, they are now disappearing in oblivion.
Architectural splendour surrounds the open space from all sides. White, serene and beautiful, the building will make you believe that time has stood still here since
the colonial era.
The staircase leads to the andar mahal (where the family resides). The long corridors flaunt chessboard patterned floors, marble figurines, exquisite hanging lanterns crafted in glass and porcelain, oil portraits of the ancestors, a huge grandfather clock, ornate garden chairs and innumerable works of art collected by my friend’s great grandfather and grandfather over many years, dating back to pre-independence days. Their collection of marble, stone, glass and iron is to die for. The mansion is also the delight of many film makers, but the residents have been politely refusing such offers for many years. (It is a pleasure that not only did they welcome me for the home tour but also ALL the family members, in turns, showed me around and chatted in a manner that did not make me feel like it was my first ever visit).
Kakima’s (my friend’s mother’s) bedroom is a feast for the soul. The wooden structure once used for hanging mosquito net over the bed has been beautifully restored and made a part of her room’s décor. I also couldn’t resist taking a photo of the dark wooden cabinet. The door with the mirror (in the picture) is an eye-wash. It opens into a bathroom!
The warmth and friendliness of the residents also reflected in their inter-personal relationships. In an age where joint families are facing the fate of Dodos and Dinosaurs, this family boasts of more than five families living under the same roof. The sisters-in-law in the black and white photographs taken ages back, excitedly posed for my camera and giggled like teenagers before the shot.
We South Kolkatans suffer from a pre-conceived notion that North Kolkata still lives in the pages of history. Modernity has refused to touch them. And then there was this conversation with Kakima (the one in the purple cardigan). I asked her, “What do you do the entire day?” Her prompt reply was, ” Facebook, chatting with my brother in NASA on Skype, cook, browse through pictures of Lady Dianna, Scarlett Johansson and travel destinations” She added however, that her favourite hobby is to take pictures. She has owned 7 cameras till date and when no one is looking, she strolls through every nook and cranny of her house and clicks photographs. Her love for her home beamedhrough her hazelnut eyes. It made my day.
She shared with me photographs from her own collection. The sunlight touches the face of one particular statue only once during the day and stays for about 3 minutes. She said it took her days to catch that one glimpse of sunlight on the statue. She beamed again as she spoke of her achievement!
Old mansions give me goose bumps. So do beautiful words. Like these: “If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” Gaston Bachelard has said it for me.