“On the 7th of August, 1905, the leaders of Bengal, in public meeting assembled…under the presidency of Maharaja Mannidra Chandra Nundy of Cossimbazar, an eminent landlord of Bengal had already declared “ a general boycott of British goods as a practical protest against the proposed partition.” – Excerpts from Chapter 4, Young India by Lala Lajpat Rai
Perhaps the biggest blunder the British made while trying to colonize India was to create the educated class to serve as their employees and help them govern the country. What education and exposure to the world did was to create a new class, educated and strong willed enough to fight for their rights, following every rule in the book – even ones that the Rulers themselves couldn’t refute. During the time that the British rule in India had entered its second phase – that of sucking out every bit of wealth and crushing all possibilities of the revival of the colonized nation, a new movement was gaining ground that sowed the seeds of eliminating them from the land once and for all. And a huge proportion of this movement was being spearheaded from Bengal, the very place where it all started.
The British, in a bid to remodel Calcutta after London, had created a whole city, suburbs, facilities and more to suit their purpose. This included multiple majestic buildings for commercial or administrative purposes. As Calcutta began to grow, the rulers grew in number and the need to have a central place for gatherings, social, political as well as administrative became incumbent. While I have covered a lot of them in my previous posts, this one will cover, among other things, one such heritage structure that turned out to be the very place from where probably the second phase of the active freedom movement, Swadeshi Movement started. The above-mentioned assembly happened at the Calcutta Town Hall – the place they had built to provide the Europeans with a place for social gatherings, public space, for public entertainment and official meetings.
The area around what is now the tip of the Old Court House Street had a number of taverns frequented by the European gentry. The Old Court House, which had later been replaced by the tall and imposing St. Andrews Church, the Old Harmonic Tavern (which gave way to Lalbazar) or the Le Gallais’ Tavern close by were then the prime locations for gatherings, but with limited space and capacity. Interestingly, La Galais’s Tavern was most preferred and frequented by Richard Barwell, a close friend of Warren Hastings and a member of the Governor’s Council. The Tavern was also where the second Masonic Lodge of Bengal “Lodge Industry and Perseverance” was installed on the second Friday of every month.
It was one evening at the Le Galais’ Tavern in May 1792 that the Town Hall was conceptualized. A public property, the building was to contain a ballroom, a concert room, a dining room, a card room, dressing room, and offices – In short, what a typical club would have and a bit more, and needed to be built by money raised through a public lottery. There was no way the government could pay from their pockets, and so the unanimous decision was to launch a lottery to gather the essential fund. It took 14 successive annual lotteries to accumulate the necessary funds – a whopping 700,000 Rupees, and in those times!!! The charge of designing and delivering this gala structure was given to one Colonel John Garstin (Of the same haunted Garstin Place fame), an engineer of medium repute. As luck would have it, Garstin was not a particularly popular figure and the Town Hall ended up causing him considerable discomfort for a while after it was opened to public!
The Town Hall completed in 1814 was a Roman Doric style hall in a combination of neoclassical and Palladian style that resembled the Roman Senate – a design, not approved by eminent diarist of the time, Richard Blechynden and a few others. Adding to Garstin’s worries, a portion of the front portico collapsed soon after inauguration, followed by the springing of the ballroom floor. In fact, the whole structure had to be redone in 1818-19 and contractually, Garstin had to pay for the overhaul from his own pocket.
Although built largely to cater to the Europeans, the premises were also open to Eurasians of repute and considerable social standing. Unlike many clubs built for the purpose of European relaxation and social life, Town Hall had no bar on the colour of the people attending as well as the issues that bought them together. The list of eminent people convening meetings or events at the Town Hall included:
- Prince Dwarakanath Tagore (Robindranath Tagore’s illustrious, affluent and flamboyant grandfather who was pretty popular among the British)
- Raja Rammohun Roy (he was then one of the main supporters of the cause of European Planters in Bengal and also launched the Sadharon Brahmo Samaj formally from here)
- Surendra Nath Banerjee (Who is one of the founders of the Indian National Congress and was also popular with the Europeans)
- Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose (the great scientist had demonstrated radio waves right in this hall)
- Shazadah Mahomed Furrock Shah (a descendant of Tipu Sultan who was the Sheriff of Kolkata and had called a meeting to condole the death of Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in August 1891)
- Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (Although a mixed European by blood had attacked the Europeans for having ignored the plight of the Eurasians)
- Radhakanta Deb (A scholar and leader of the Calcutta conservative Hindu society, he was the son of Gopimohon Deb, the heir to Maharaja Nabakrishna Deb of Sozabazar)
- Ramanath Tagore (A younger cousin of Dwarakanath Tagore and a true-blue British sympathiser made a Raja and subsequently a Maharaja by Lord Lytton)
- Motilal Seal (Popular among the British as Mutty Lall Seal, who carved a fortune out of his own business and went on to be one of the greatest philanthropists of his time)
- Rajendralal Mitra (A leading figure during the Bengal Renaissance and a member of the Asiatic Society, he was the first Indian cultural researcher and historian writing in English)
- Rabindra Nath Tagore (He delivered his much renowned “Kantha Rodh” right here in the Town Hall in 1898 and his 50th and 70th birthdays were celebrated right here)
Around the second half of the nineteenth century, the access to the Town Hall premises became more and more restricted for the Indians. The upcoming educated and politically conscious Indians seemed to be disturbing the harmony of the rulers’ true intentions. With Dyarchy being introduced by an act on 1919, the Town Hall came to be used as the Council Chamber of the Bengal Legislative Council. With time the importance of the Town Hall reduced, and it remained only as a felicitation venue. Stalwarts like Sir C.V. Raman, Dr. Sarvepally Radhakrishnan, Sir Prafulla Chandra Roy, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Sir Nilratan Sarkar, Ramananda Chatterjee have all graced the hallowed corridors of this grand two-storeyed building covering about 12,000 square meters. True to its purpose, the Town Hall has served various purposes over the time from being a make-shift High Court to a makeshift exam hall for the University of Calcutta.
With an entrance for the carriages and palanquins through the rear with a lofty portico, this masterpiece had fallen prey to time. In fact, the decline had begun since after Independence. The ball rooms, card rooms, and dining rooms fell eerily silent following the departure of the British and public addresses too had become more inclined towards open spaces with a bigger audience than colonial buildings. Neglect and lack of care and maintenance continued till 1980 when the Corporation planned to demolish the structure and replace it with a modern office block. But citizens of Calcutta once more showed their true character and protested riotously forcing the Corporation to change their plans. This continued till about 1987 when it was decided that the structure will be given its true regard and be restored.
In a historic, never before incident, 24 paintings by eminent Bengali painter Bikash Bhattacharya were auctioned that raised nearly a crore. With additional funds from the Corporation, restoration began in 1996 and after a couple of years the hallowed structure was opened to the public, this time as a museum, library and seminar and concert hall. The process of restoration revealed a secret that was perhaps the key to the maintenance of not just this one but numerous heritage buildings of Calcutta, in spite of the weather conditions and the proximity to the sea. According to Dipankar Sinha, Director General of Town Planning, Kolkata Corporation … “back then, there was little by way of water proofing. The bricks in the tunnels are exposed to let the walls breathe. The moisture that rises from the ground evaporates through the walls, thus the upper structure is spared the damp. This delays the decay of a building”. Colonel Garstin definitely deserved more than what landed on his plate for this one brilliant plan while designing the building.
As you walk down the front steps, do not forget to check out the Krupp Gun on the steps. Now it definitely looks familiar, doesn’t it? Well, it should – to every Calcuttan. Remember the time you would go to the New Market and navigate your through the different wings with the help of the old dusty cannon standing rather nondescriptly in the middle of the central rotunda of the old complex? It was not just another spare, non-functional war cannon that was placed there for ease of navigation. The 75-mm cannon manufactured by Krupp, a German armaments company in 1897 was used in the Boer war in South Africa 1899-1902 and gifted to Calcutta Municipal Corporation by the British Crown in 1905. It was first placed opposite the KMC Headquarters and then shifted to the entrance of the grand staircase of the civic headquarters. It remained there till 1940, following which it was shifted to Hogg’s Market from where it was shifted in 2006. Unknown to all those who have considered it to be just another war cannon, it is one of only 4 Krupp guns from the 19th Century still in existence. The other three are exhibited as war memorials in Australia, Canada and South Africa.
The same steps of the Town Hall were also witness to a rather brutal murder in 1871. This incident was also believed to have led to a very significant development in the politico-history of the country. This is how the story goes…
Honorable John Paxton Norman, the officiating Chief Justice of the High Court was stabbed with a tapering Gurkha knife on the morning of 21st September 1871 as he was ascending the steps of the Town Hall, then doubling up as the High Court, on his way to work. The assassin, one Abdulla from the Punjab province, delivered one wound in the abdomen, and the other on the left shoulder, between the spine and the bladebone. According to the ‘Telegraphic Intelligence’ in The Times (22 September 1871), “When struck he fell, but recovered, and ran, then stopped and flung a brick at the murderer, who was promptly captured.”
In a bizarre fashion, the captured murdered when crossed, uttered a strange line “The earth is much below the water and the men have gone to the skies; the dog is eating the wall.” Some believe he was feigning madness, and some believe he was inebriated, but much as they tried, the connection to the Wahabi sect was found only to be a speculation without any solid proof. Abdulla was tried and hanged within a month and a half on the 4th November of the same year.
The Wahabi sect would have been forgotten had it not been for the assassination of the Viceroy Lord Mayo the very next year. Lord Mayo in response to Justice Norman’s assassination had openly declared his intentions of destroying Abdulla’s sect just ahead of his visit to Andamans. It was here on the 8th February 1872 that Mayo was stabbed by a life-term convict Sher Ali Afridi, who had no business being anywhere near the highest colonial official. Mayo succumbed to his injuries soon after and Afridi in a final act of defiance claimed to have been Abdulla’s brother. These two acts of breaching security norms by people who had no business coming in close proximity to the assassinated victims, laid the first stones for the creation of a civilian intelligence agency in India.
The Town Hall, if you have not visited it yet, is definitely a must-visit place for anybody who loves history and old architecture… though I had planned to talk a bit about the other grand structure covering a huge section of the very heart of the city – the Governor’s House in this very post, the stories around Town Hall took more time and space than expected… So, that will be shared in the next post! Till then relive the history of this lovely historically rich city of ours!