Lost Monuments of Kolkata
'Monuments do not lose relevance. They lose patronage'
"Calcutta has a long history of being one of the most important cities of the modern Indian country, but from antiquity it has a tradition of building," says archaeologist Anica Mann Kapur. "However, they all lie in disarray and disrepair.
"Who is responsible for it is difficult to tell, but there is a sadness to the city that comes when its buildings lie untaken care of."
The Citizen visited some barely known monuments from colonial Kolkata to discover the stories behind them and how they fare today.
Panioty Fountain, in the Esplanade area, was constructed in 1898 as an initiative of Lord Curzon to shelter a drinking fountain for the public. It is named for the Panioty family, who had moved to India in 1870 as traders from Greece.
Trade opportunities in India were declining, so the Paniotys turned to other means of income. Demetrius Panioty, who began his career at 16 as a writer at the Bengal Secretariat, rose to become assistant private secretary to Governor-General Ripon and many of his successors.
Curzon came to dedicate a fountain to Demetrius Panioty for his stellar service to the Empire, three years after his death. The monument is made of Jaipur marble sculpted in the Indo-Saracenic style.
"The monument made a brief appearance in Parash Pathar, a film by Satyajit Ray in 1958. The opening shot was filmed in front of the fountain," says Rangan Datta, a travel writer and photographer.
Years of neglect have damaged the pavilion. The fountain is tough to locate because there is no identifying plaque, and an overgrown garden surrounds it.
"Although it is said to be a Grade-I heritage, the structure is in a state of apathy and disrepair," says Amitava Purakayastha, co-founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta.
Our next monument is so small, it is easy to miss even while walking past it. Parts of the plaque describing the memorial are concealed by paint. It is dedicated to Colesworthy Grant, an English artist and writer who was a pioneering activist against cruelty to animals in India.
Grant was a self-taught professor of drawing at the Bengal Engineering College and Presidency College. In 1861 he founded the Calcutta Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (CSPCA) after seeing the cruelty perpetrated on animals, especially draught animals. He worked for their rights and welfare in the early period of Company rule.
In 1880, after his death, his admirers erected this obelisk memorial with a drinking trough in front of the Writer's Building, then the Bengal Secretariat. Grant's work against animal cruelty influenced people in the 19th century, and although the drinking trough set up for animals is no longer there – the bustling location proved to be its undoing – the CSPCA is still functional.
Monuments like these are "essentially related to the colonial past," says Arpita Chanda, co-founder of Explore Bengal Heritage. "As the legacy of the colonial past, there is a continuous tendency of an attempt to erase the past either by forgetting monuments, renaming streets or institutions.
"Accepting the history and being comfortable with it – even without agreeing with the ideology they represent – calls for a culture that, unfortunately, we have failed to inculcate as a nation. Neglect and apathy towards historical monuments may originate from such a culture."
Vinay Kumar, who teaches history at the Banaras Hindu University concurs. "Monuments are under neglect because of lack of awareness about their heritage value. People do not look after any monument as they are not attached with it. They are not made the stakeholders of the revenue generated from these monuments."
If the name Shaikh Daulat Hossain is unfamiliar, there is a memorial dedicated to him in a remote corner of Park Circus. In 1931, armed dacoits attacked a shop in the Park Circus neighbourhood. As they were leaving with the loot, 18 year old Daulat Hossain jumped on the footboard of the running car to grab hold of its steering wheel in an attempt to steer it into an open drain by the side of the road. However, they shot him dead on the spot.
The Calcutta Municipal Corporation laid the foundation stone for the monument in 1932. The memorial was inaugurated by Justice T Ameer Ali, one of the founders of the Muslim League. Today the hawkers who vend their wares around the memorial do not know about it.
In fact, locals have made the Daulat Hossain Memorial a dumping place. "Who thinks so much? We have a lot of other work to do. Wherever we find a place to dump, we dump," says a local vendor. "If the place around the memorial was clean and maintained, people might have stopped to read the plaque in either of the three languages," says Rangan Datta.
"The problem is lack of awareness in people," he adds. "I went to Daulat Hossain Memorial about a year into covid-19. The monument is built next to a school and the area is surrounded by bazaars yet people don't know what it is. When I was photographing the memorial, the people out there started asking, 'What are you clicking? Why are you clicking?' I told them the story and showed them the three plaques which are in Urdu, Bengali, and English. Those people have never read a plaque. It shows the lack of awareness."
Similarly, he says, "There is nothing written about the Panioty Fountain. At least the other monuments have a plaque to identify them and know about their stories someday but the fountain lacks an identification. Identifying plaque is very much necessary now."
"Monuments do not lose relevance," says Anica Kapur. "They lose the interest of the patron. So they have lost the interest of the patron. They have lost the finance to fund the conservation of those monuments."
Vinay Kumar says, "As these monuments are the symbol of our bygone era, and are associated with different important historical events that happened in the past, they have artistic value, they should be preserved."