September 27, 2012

Writers' Building, Calcutta

"The British had the idea, when they built grand buildings in India, that the very grandeur might help preserve the institutions they housed once the British had departed, as they knew they one day would.. All seem to say, monumentally, Keep me as I am."
– Simon Winchester, "The Legacy" (1997)

In the dramatically-charged political games of the past few days, almost all the shots seem to have been called either by Delhi or Calcutta (read Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee). If there is one place in Calcutta where the security and discipline appear at par with the area that surrounds the Indian Parliament (refer Pixelated Memories - Parliament House, Delhi), it would be the stretch of land housing Writers' Building (Bengal Chief Minister's office) – convoys of police vehicles and siren-bearing white ambassador cars (which have come to be associated as symbolic of high-ranking ministership and bureaucracy) do the rounds regularly, while armed, rifle-toting officers with several more guns in their holsters patrol the region. Photography is totally prohibited (!!). The only difference that the place bears with respect to the Parliament area is that it is not cut off from the rest of city and is, in fact, located in the midst of a densely populated, immensely crowded locale known as BBD Bagh where pedestrians and private vehicles share road space with taxis and vendors and shops selling cigarettes and cold drinks compete for side space with small, makeshift food outlets selling omelettes and parathas (Indian bread). Even the policemen manning the place are extremely polite and would immediately give one the permission to snap a photo or two and even guide one to the corner from where clicking photos is allowed, provided one looks earnest (or desperate!) enough.

Red and majestic - Central wing, Writers'

Locally referred to as Mahakaran, Writers' Building ironically neither houses writers nor is actually just a single building but a cluster of red-colored, massive four-floored brick structures that stretch in a line adjacent each other. The symmetrical terraces of some of these megaliths are decorated with numerous exquisitely-crafted sculptures and the fa├žade of each, emblazoned with gold three-headed Sanchi lions, symbolic of national sovereignty, portray an impressively inspiring appearance. Designed by the architect Thomas Lyon and funded by Richard Barwell who was a member of Governor-General Hasting’s (officiated 1773-85) administrative council, the central structure was constructed sans any architectural features or decorations between 1776-80 with the purpose of housing British East India Company's clerks and writers (now you get the name, eh?). But the classic epitome of grandly imposing European architecture in India did not begin in its present form – according to British journalist Geoffrey Moorhouse, back then Writers’ looked like a “shabby hospital, or poor-house”. Additional wings were constructed later on, and several other decorative features such as the iconic pillars (each 32 feet high) and the splendid statues, designed by William Fredric Woodington, were added. The Greco-Roman architecture, complete with decorative Corinthian pillars and cream-on-red highlights have since then become one of the most stunning sights in the entire cityscape. By 1970, all 13 four-floored wings were complete (though only the central five, which functioned in the capacity of a guest-house, a worker’s accommodation and a training college during different time periods, are considered heritage structures).

Consisting of three plasterwork statues each and representing the four pillars of a society-state (justice, commerce, agriculture and science), four painstakingly-detailed sculpted clusters line the terraces – each cluster boasts of the Greek deity associated with that particular domain in the center flanked by a European and an Indian practitioner of these professions on either side – thus there is Zeus depicting justice, Hermes depicting commerce and Demeter and Athena portraying agriculture and science respectively. Several other sculptures, such as those of Minerva (the Roman Goddess of learning and justice, arts and crafts, wisdom and courage, poetry and music, here illustrated robed and holding a owl in her outstretched left arm) and majestic regal lions, too adorn the roofs of the superstructures.

The pillars of  a society (Photo courtesy -

Large underground parking lots (also manned by policemen, so don’t try taking photos without permission) exist opposite the sober building complex while a small, hyacinth and garbage-clogged fresh water tank, locally known as Lal Dighi and disturbed only by a couple of flawless white ducks, exists behind it. The Dighi, whose immediate proximity and facilitation of a visually spellbinding composition prompted the choice for the building's location, is separated from it by short stretches of grassy green lawns enclosed within railings interspersed by shimmering steel poles surmounted by equally unblemished, glittering globes – the monotony of the sprawling green is punctuated by red pedestals on which sit black-brown bronze statues (a dense treeline exists only along the peripheries, perhaps to avoid security issues) – passer-bys use a well-trodden, garbage-flanked path running next to the Dighi as a thoroughfare, affording only the scantest attention to the massive inspiring buildings (including the shimmering dome of Calcutta GPO, another august colonial architectural legacy, refer Pixelated Memories - Calcutta GPO) standing on the other side, as if they are relics of a nearly-forgotten colonial past and not administrative legacies that continue to play an extensive role in national and state politics (Edit 2014 – Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has decided to undertake an exorbitantly expensive revival-upgradation plan for the majestic complex and most of the ministries and state departments have been shifted (for the time being) to another building (follow links in the end), further downgrading Writers' Building's bureaucratic and administrative standing, but nonetheless once more pushing it into the spotlight, especially with regards the concerns over the loss of heritage character and ornamentation and also the lack of sensitivity on the part of the artists and conservation authorities involved in the project with respect to the building's original appearance, intentions and artwork). Entry within the building is prohibited by permission and there is a limit to how much one can photograph it from outside, given the heavy presence of police personnel and the unrelenting stream of traffic and pedestrians. Soon one realizes that it is time to take leave and turn oneself towards the other architectural gems that hide in plain sight in the surrounding labyrinth of wide streets and snaking alleys. One hopes to someday return again.

Notice the statue of Minerva surmounted on the triangular pediment

Location: BBD Bagh
Nearest Bus stop/Metro station: Esplanade
How to reach: Walk/avail a bus/taxi from Esplanade which is efficiently connected to all parts of the city via a road, metro and tram network.
Entrance fees: Nil during office hours (9 am to 6 pm), but entry prohibited by prior permission/valid reason
Photography/Video: Prohibited, unless one obtains permission from the policemen on duty
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min (from outside only)
Other architectural/historic heritage structures located in the immediate vicinity -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Calcutta General Post Office
  2. Pixelated Memories - Nam Soon Chinese Club 
  3. Pixelated Memories - Sea Ip Chinese Club 
  4. Pixelated Memories - St. Andrew's Church 
Suggested reading - 
  1. - The Writer's Building in Calcutta, India 
  2. - Article "India's West Bengal government moves out of Writers Buildings" (dated Oct 15, 2013) by Subir Bhaumik 
  3. - Article "Back to the British drawing board for Writers’ restoration" (dated July 18, 2013) by Pranesh Sarkar 
  4. - Article "Crowning glory of Writers’" (dated Aug 19, 2013) by Soumitra Das 
  5. - Article "Power moves across river" (dated Aug 8, 2013) 
  6. - Article "Writ of Writers’" (dated May 20, 2011) by Soumitra Das 
  7. - Photo gallery - Writers' Building 
  8. - Article "Writers' revival plan 'flawed'" (dated Feb 19, 2014) by Ajanta Chakraborty  
  9. - Writers' Building

1 comment:

  1. Shame you could not go in or click many pictures. seems like a pretty interesting place though! Nice description of the history of the place!