August 11, 2014

Metropolitan Building, Calcutta

“That magician whom I brought from Rangoon is a clever fellow. He has toured all over India as a circus conjurer. The bullet-proof jackets were bought at Whiteaway & Laidlaw’s stores, one rupee eight annas each. They are costing me a pretty penny, I can tell you.” 
– U Po Kyin, a Burmese character in George Orwell's "Burmese Days"

The graceful but poverty-stricken existence and existential conditions of the massive, palatial Metropolitan Building, architecturally and artistically one of the most prominent and underrated of Calcutta’s iconic landmarks, at the corner of Esplanade Square has for the past few years become a concurrent theme for the city’s heritage enthusiasts’ unwavering devoted adoration and unequivocal criticism over lamentable governmental neglect and unsound conservation and maintenance principles – recently given a bright coat of dazzling white paint with glittering golden highlights for its numerous Victorian features, the handsome building that started out as one of the most well-renowned of colonial-era structures in the subcontinent couldn’t have seen worse days – portions of it, including the stained glass atrium, have collapsed and the striking structure has been declared unfit for human occupation while simultaneously being subjected to ever-deteriorating standards of maintenance with the removal of its original exorbitant Italian marble, damage due to water seeping to the expensively replaced woodwork and modifications in the interior layout – the only aspect that has probably remained unchanged in its history thereof is that the majestic structure has always housed a departmental store except for a brief interlude in recent past – it is a little known fact that the building began as Asia’s biggest departmental store in the form of headquarters of the famed Whiteway, Laidlaw and Co., dealers in the latest in English fashion apparel and renowned among the European community of the entire subcontinent (and the Anglicized native population who professed to an unabashed attraction towards European-style fine dressing), today it houses on its huge ground floor the Big Bazaar store, a retail outlet with branches in almost every Indian city promising to inundate the domestic lives of customers with cheap daily-use accessories as well as hundreds of thousands of billboard and print promotional advertisements. 

Regally spread over two massive floors and custom-built by Calcutta-based contractors Mackintosh Burn Ltd. for their clients Whiteway, Laidlaw and Co., the building’s stately Victorian appearance is completed by the presence of three domed cupolas at the corners with clocks embedded in them, tall Corinthian pillars and impressive triangular facades mounted in the center of each face – at present the majestic domes, the ornamental urns that define the rooftop and the Acanthus leaves surmounting the pillar capitals have been drenched in a coat of glistening golden paint that contrasts with the dazzle of the rest of the building’s understated white to create a flamboyant appearance that in no way appears to be unharmonious to my untrained eyes – yet great hue and cry was raised, to no effect, when the visual modification was first perpetrated over the erstwhile all-white color scheme of the structure. Just as it might seem difficult to imagine the Esplanade square without the building majestically seated at its present prominent location, it has become equally difficult to imagine the building now without its glittering highlights. Having glossed over old photographs of the building, I find the present color scheme more heartwarming than the original grey-white monotonous appearance. I just earned several enemies in Calcutta’s heritage circle by confessing so! Nonetheless, as Mr. Ratish Nanda who heads the Aga Khan Trust's much-appreciated conservation-restoration work at Delhi's Humayun's Tomb complex once pointed to me – the purpose of restoration is not to enforce a color scheme or add features that you see fit, but to return to the original design and artwork after removal of such modifications and additions to go back to the artist/architect's original conception. Though I adore the new appearance and find it in general more attractive and eye-catching than the original, I cannot, in any case, support this highlighting on a heritage building since it goes against all laid-down principles of restoration and might well be equivalent to opening a Pandora's box with conservation and landscape architects giving free rein to their own wills of fantasy and beliefs regarding the monument/structure's appearance and layout.

Calcutta's pride

Jocularly christened as “Right-away, Paid-for and Co.” over its principle of not lending credit, Whiteway, Laidlaw and Co. derives its name from the two enterprising Scotsmen who started it in 1882 and ran an impressive business conglomerate with merchandise outlets at Calcutta, Shimla, Madras, Lahore, Burma and Shanghai; the much glossed over Calcutta outlet was the most popular one stop shopping center for British soldiers and administrative officers posted anywhere in south-east Asian colonies and was considered uber-posh and classiest amongst all the centers; the Co. was one of the first pioneers of the concept of "sale days" and introduced "Rupee Friday" in its Indian branches were customers could purchase several items each for one rupee; the accounts however began to dry up after India gained independence following the long and tenuous freedom struggle and the Co. was forced to shut shop and sell the beautiful building to Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. which explains the present nomenclature. At present, the building is owned by the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) and the Big Bazaar operates out of the ground floor and the upper floors, referred to as Victoria Chambers when they housed Whiteway, Laidlaw and Co.’s administrative and official staff, have been quartered and given over to numerous tenants. Imagine my surprise when I first arrived at Calcutta by bus and deboarded at Esplanade (which happens to be one of the largest state bus terminals and an important metro station) and came face-to-face with this striking architectural specimen that most Calcutta residents have come to take for granted – never having read about it since it isn’t generally included in the list of important colonial-era landmarks and not understanding what such a princely structure is doing in the midst of the city, I ended up asking the passer-bys about it, most of whom themselves knew little or nothing! My eyes might have almost popped out of my head due to utter astonishment and surprise on learning that the handsome Victorian building is “just” another Big Bazaar store – thankfully my friends brought me out of my contemplation and we explored the entire area in much detail and observed all the happenings almost all day long. Since then, I have been to Calcutta numerous times and almost every single time end up clicking the building – usually the same shot over and over again – somehow the building, because of its antiquity, gracefulness and immaculately magnificent appearance despite all the loathsome modifications it has been subjected to and the irreverent maintenance conditions that have been heaped on it, attracts me to itself – in its miserably forgotten and ignored state full of gloominess and dejection over its future existence, and yet possessing an air of unparalleled stately splendor and unmatched glamour, the building represents Calcutta – antiquated, much modified from its original pristine state and struggling against its existence in a world that has galloped far ahead in times and yet claiming its fair share of admirers and enthusiasts who are forever willing to wage battles if their beloved is subjected to a single modification – be it the addition of the golden highlights to the building, or the enforcement of the white-blue color scheme for the city. 

Though there isn’t much info available about Mr. Whiteaway, I did chance upon some interesting trivia about Mr. Robert Laidlaw who happened to be a philanthropist and a Member of the British Parliament and donated profusely to charitable establishments and schools throughout the country. He funded and helped maintain numerous World War I relief operations being run by Red Cross and several other charities.

Location: Esplanade (Coordinates: 22°33'48.8"N 88°21'05.9"E)
How to reach: The building is immediately opposite Esplanade bus stop and at a stone's throw from the metro station. Buses and taxis can be availed from different parts of the city.
Timings: Sunrise - 9 pm
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Other landmarks located nearby - 

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