Re-visiting Kolkata in its coldest winter in twenty-five years and seeing, once again, the British Raj’s most important building in India, has been a snuggle in quilted memory.
Kolkata’s Raj Bhavan will, this year, be 210 years old.
Spender’s lines come to mind:
The furniture carries great cargoes of memory.
The staircase has corners which remember.
Two exquisite books have been written in the recent past on its story, Anirban Mitra’s photographic work Raj Bhavan of Kolkata (2008) and Ranabir Raychaudhuri’s epic account of viceregal abodes, The Lord-Sahib’s House (2010).
Little is known and less written about the Viceroy’s and then the Bengal Governor’s riverside retreat in Barrackpore. The Library at Raj Bhavan brought out a monograph on the Barrackpore side of the story in 2007. Since work on that house was begun by Lord Hastings (1813 to 1823), this year may be taken as the Barrackpore Government House’s 200th year. Wellesley’s sense of grandeur and imperviousness to expense had conceived of it as an echo of the Calcutta house, with a single straight road cutting through the city’s busiest areas to connect the two buildings. Fortunately the plan did not go very far on that or any road.
The first Governor of West Bengal, Rajagopalachari relinquished the house as being in excess of his requirements and it now houses a police hospital. Not all austerities are wise. Some buildings are meant to be maintained and used in a manner that befits their personality. The Barrackpore Government House is one such.
A giant banyan tree at its front is regarded by popular legend to be the tree where the extraordinary Mangal Pande of the 34th Native Bengal Infantry was hanged by the Raj for his electrifying start to what became the Sepoy Mutiny. The braveheart was, in reality, executed on a different site. Time snatches and changes beyond recognition but here and there, it also leaves buildings behind absent-mindedly. One such is the exquisite Flagstaff House, Barrackpore, which used to be the residence of the Private Secretary to the Viceroy, and is now the Barrackpore home of the Governor of West Bengal. Lutyens’ type but even more delicately graceful.
It now houses, interspersed among trees 12 statues of the Raj which were moved in 1969 from their pedestals in Kolkata on ‘popular demand’ but installed by the then Governor Dharma Vira in Flagstaff House, an imaginative decision.
There is among them one of Curzon by Thornycroft. An upturned collar befits the upturned head with a broad forehead and eyes that look into the future with ambition. Another, by T Woolner, of the rugged and resolute John Lawrence is captivating. A great coat slung casually over his left hand makes him appear what he was: a man who knew his mind and could not care less about what others thought of him. Hilton Young’s statue of Montagu immersed in gloomy thought is the only ‘modern’ one in the set.
All but one are in brilliant bronze. That sole exception, in marble, is of the pathetically beautiful William Peel, brave soldier and Captain of the Royal Navy who died, shortly after the 1857 uprising. If he were to have died then at all he should have done so fighting an Indian mutineer in equal man-to-man combat. But history which creates heroism also authors bathos. William Peel, courageous soldier and exemplary seaman, died in Kanpur of the pox. The miserably anti-climactic circumstances of that death are rescued and raised to an unacknowledged height by that marble masterpiece of sculptor W Theed. The statue stands demurely, self-consciously, peeking from behind a frangipani, on the veranda of the Cenotaph in Flagstaff House. It has to be among the most alluring statues of the Raj period anywhere. But before I describe the sculpture, a few words about the subject of the statue.
William Peel was the third son of Robert Peel, whose prime ministership coincided with the governor generalship of the remarkable William Bentinck and the visit to England of the herald of India’s great social reformer and political savant, Raja Rammohun Roy.
I find it remarkable that being a prime minister’s son neither privileged William nor protected him from professional hazards. Rising to the position of Captain in the Navy, he served famously in the Crimean War, 1854-5, at Sebastopol. His midshipman Edward St John Daniel writes that whenever a shot passed over Peel, he just threw up his head and squared his shoulders. Peel was, predictably, shot through his left arm and fell back, half-fainting. His midshipman’s reflexes saved Peel’s life.
In 1857, Peel was drafted to service in India and was wounded in the Relief of Lucknow. He was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, and thus became Sir William Peel. He was 34. But Fate is severe. It also has no sense of history. The mother of all illnesses, or ‘mata’ as smallpox is called in Hindi and ‘ammai’ in Tamil, got this heroic soldier in Kanpur.
Just as Peel was taken by the absurd, heritage buildings get overtaken by absurd misuses, misapplications, mistakes. These are very often in the shape of building new extensions, annexes, auditoria. And putting in false ceilings for air-conditioning or lighting.
It is time something was done concertedly to map all buildings and installations including statues in the age-group 300 to 100 years such as Raj Bhavans, and restore them delicately, prudently and with the advice of historians, before restoration becomes either uneconomic or is rendered physically impractical by the action of the absurd.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal