February 01, 2014

Standard Life Assurance Corporation Building, Calcutta

You don’t have to be a monument lover or a history seeker to appreciate the plethora of culture & heritage that remains strewn throughout the beautiful city of Calcutta – from the idol makers of Kumartuli to the bazaars of Ghariahaat, from the Chinese temples of Tiretti Bazaar to the Buddhism centers of Tangra, from the old Bengali households of South Calcutta to the ferry ghats around Howrah – the city oozes heritage through each corner & crevice. And what better place to look for heritage in this essentially old city than the British-developed BBD Bagh area (formerly Dalhousie Square)? If you are done with the Writer’s Building, Andrew’s Church & the General Post Office, you can always head down to tick off other must-see buildings – Reserve Bank of India, Raj Bhavan & so on – you cannot by any chance miss the captivating building belonging to Standard Life Assurance Corporation. One of the most striking buildings built by the British in the city, this splendid red structure, despite its present decrepit state, is a gem for the architecture & heritage fanatics – though plants & weeds seem to have overtaken the building’s dominating corner tower, its stucco artwork & ornamental figurines are still in a good enough shape to make passer-bys take notice & gape – so much so that I stopped the auto I was in to get down & photograph the building in detail! The structure was designed by the Mumbai-based architect Fredrick W. Stevens (who also designed the inspiring Victoria Terminus at Mumbai) and constructed between February 1894 – May 1896. An exquisite example of Victorian architecture, the fine details of the building cannot escape a onlooker.

An insurance building - what's its worth??

Though the building has been declared a heritage structure, much of it has gone to the dogs – portions have been abandoned; restoration and conservation work are unheard of; parts of the building appear to be under a spell that’s keeping it from running aground. The old windows have been taken over by air conditioner units & a poster hangs over the façade connecting its two units; the paint has become blackened over time and the walls appear dilapidated – yet the rust red building somehow manages to appear attractive. The domed corner tower is surrounded by miniature domed towers; the figures of a young lady carrying a lamp and a Grim Reaper carrying a skull are prominently displayed on the left and right side respectively of the circular arch above the entrance. The figures are said to represent life & death – it’s another thing that they are mostly obstructed by electricity wires hanging taut between the pillars opposite the building. It is rare to find artwork of such superior craftsmanship and skill even in a city as old as Calcutta; it isn’t rare to see such artwork crumbling to dust in the absence of proper maintenance and upkeep. The red brick façade is reminiscent of times long gone; the air conditioner-choked windows are topped by round ventilators which are flanked by cherubs holding the ventilator between them.

The new and the old

The triangular pediment above the circular archway is faced with more figures – the scene is from the Biblical “Parable of Ten Virgins” and makes up the actual logo of the company. The parable is unanimously attributed to Jesus Christ and appears virtually unchanged in all New Testament manuscripts. It stresses on the importance of preparedness under all circumstances – for death in the case of an insurance company, arrival of Jesus in the case of the original story. It goes something like this (Matthew 25:1- 13) –

(When asked for the signs of the second coming of the Son of Man, Jesus replied) 

“Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. 

And at midnight a cry was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!’ Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, ‘No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. 

Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!’ But he answered and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 

Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.” 

One, two, three..ten virgins!

Colonial Life Assurance Company came into being in the year 1846 with the objective of providing life insurance to British citizens heading to one of the colonies – given lack of facilities in the colonies, the mortality rate was high and the British insurance companies were reluctant to allow their policy-holders to travel and work in the colonies under such conditions – Colonial Life Assurance treaded where no company had before – it offered attractive terms gauged according to colony-specific conditions. Business soon grew in leaps and bounds and in 1871 Colonial Life merged with Standard Life Assurance Company (formerly Life Insurance Company of Scotland) which had been into such operations since 1825 and was a leading name in this trade. Following the merger, the company located its head office in Edinburg (Scotland) and regional offices in Calcutta, Mumbai (then Bombay), Canada, Shanghai and Uruguay. The Calcutta office used to be housed in this very building.

One of the finest examples of Victorian architecture in the city and boasting of delicate artwork that remains unsurpassed except for a few instances, the building remains one of the least famous heritage structures in the city – even more famous than it would be the simple plaque installed in the wall of Presidency Hospital to commemorate Ross’s discovery of Malarial vector (it featured in the bestselling novel “The Calcutta Chromosome” by Amitav Ghosh). 

Heritage defiled & obstructed!

A sign of the way history in general is treated in this country, the building stands in its solitary corner lamenting the presence of very few sympathizers in the crowd of thousands that passes it every day. Perhaps it wishes that the British had carried back their structures too when they departed from the country; perhaps it hopes for a better existence in near future – but then what hope does an old, broken building like this have in a country where plaques have to mention “Affix no posters” along the periphery of the Parliament House?? (Refer Pixelated Memories - Parliament House, New Delhi) I’m waiting to be proved wrong.

Location: BBD Bagh
Nearest Bus stop: Esplanade
Nearest Metro station: Esplanade
How to reach: One can walk/take a rickshaw or auto from Esplanade to BBD Bagh.
Entrance fee: Entry restricted - a few Govt. offices are still housed in the building.
Photography/Video charges: Nil

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