Can private intervention save Kolkata’s crumbling heritage?


Kolkata: On April 18, also observed as World Heritage Day, a number of prominent intellectuals of the city organised a protest against the “refusal of governmental and municipal bodies to acknowledge the importance of heritage and Kolkata’s architectural inheritance”.

Eminent citizens like author Amit Chaudhuri, filmmaker Aparna Sen, former Prasar Bharati CEO Jawhar Sarkar and many others marched to the headquarters of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation to bring the government and its heritage bodies to the table for a serious dialogue with concerned citizens on the issue of heritage.

Writer Amit Chaudhuri said that the protest was against the de-listing of buildings listed as heritage structures by the city’s civic body.

Mr. Chaudhuri cited the examples of the downgraded heritage status of the Old Kenilworth Hotel and the Metropolitan Institution.

A letter signed by scores of eminent academicians, artists and heritage experts called for “documenting the thousands of unique buildings in the city, and extending and authenticating the incomplete list”.

“We wish to work with you to urgently put in place a plan that will create heritage precincts, so that Kolkata’s unique neighbourhoods, with the most amazing variety of residential architecture, are kept from disappearing,” the letter addressed to different bodies of the State government, including the West Bengal Heritage Commission, stated.

Painter Shuvaprasanna, chairman of the West Bengal Heritage Commission (WBHC), welcomed the efforts of Amit Chaudhuri and others. However, he said, most heritage buildings were owned by private individuals and are tangled in a web of litigation.

“Being a colonial city, there are hundreds of heritage buildings. The government and the WBHC has intervened to restore heritage in some instances, but it cannot do so in all the buildings with historical significance,” Mr. Shuvaprasanna said. However, he welcomed involving private capital in the restoration of the city’s heritage.

On some occasions, the State government and the Heritage Commission had intervened to restore heritage, but it cannot in all buildings with historical significance, Mr. Shuvaprasanna said.

He referred to two instances: the West Bengal government acquired the house of Swami Vivekananda’s disciple Sister Nivedita on 16 Bosepara Road and converted it into a museum, and the Heritage Commission intervened to protect the house of 19th century poet and dramatist Michael Madhusudan Dutta at Kidderpore.

On the same evening, the restored and renovated house of Rajen Nath Mukherjee, a pioneering Bengali entrepreneur of the early 20th century, was unveiled. Located on the Ho Chi Minh Sarani, the three-storeyed building served as a family residence from 1910 to 2005.

“Restoring the house was a great challenge. Not only were squatters occupying the building, we worked to embed the house with the history and grandeur to which it was witness,” said Aditya Kumar Poddar, chairman, Wellside Group, which restored the building. The 20,000 sq. ft. area of the building will be put to adaptable reuse as an art and lifestyle destination. U.K. Deputy High Commissioner Bruce Bucknell said that there were many buildings in Kolkata with a British connection, which can be restored like this one.

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