Calcutta is a City Not Being Able to Find Its Feet
Chaudhuri, who grew up in Mumbai and Kolkata, runs a campaign to preserve the eclectic neighbourhoods of his home town. Dinesh Narayanan talks to the writer. Excerpts:
How have you seen Kolkata changing physically? The kind of urban experience that came from the late 19th century in industrialised cities also became in some ways organic and surprising. In the 19th century in Paris or Berlin or Calcutta, you suddenly saw neighbourhood streets that might have born into decay. They never seemed new. Their attraction was not that they were gleaming. The feature of an industrialised city is it is always atavistic and old and decaying and, therefore, in a strange sense organic. It is almost as if it is a form of nature. And also as surprising as nature. There are corners and niches that take you to different worlds. And that’s what I mean by modernity. And more than Bombay it is Calcutta where I encountered it and experienced it. was not going anywhere. And the very chaos that once seemed energising, now seemed as if it was like a symptom of the city not being able to find its feet. People were leaving. The middle class exodus which had begun with industry leaving in the sixties had turned into every middle class family having somebody going elsewhere and priming themselves to go elsewhere. It led to the Bengali middle class’s disengagement with the city and led to the waning of this language. It led to a vacuum. It led to an absence. Something that was there was no longer there. And once that something was gone all that was left was the chaos and the shells of habitations.
What occupied the vacuum? In the houses there were ageing people. And there were these local gangs which were appropriated by politics which were growing. And there was a particular kind of patronage that was peculiar to the left; like keeping sick companies alive. That kind of patronage has now been extended and entrenched in an extreme way by the Trinamool Congress which is spelling doom for the city.
What is your architecture initiative about? It is about (preserving) these neighbourhoods in Calcutta, both in the South and the North; I’ve been focusing more on the South for two reasons. One is that the South gets less talked about in architectural terms. The north is the place with the rajbadis, the mansions, Bengal renaissance etc. And then the other that get talked about is the colonial heritage buildings. The South is interesting precisely because it is not heritage within those kind of parameters.