The Grand Old Houses of Calcutta stand in mute testimony to the collaboration of Bengali businessmen and British colonisers over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Built mostly in the heyday of the British East India Company, they are a demonstration of the money that could be made by private business with the political power that dominated the economic, cultural and social space of Eastern India two hundred years ago.
Now largely crumbling façades, flaking plaster and eroded brickwork, these houses function as palimpsests of history. Look beyond the decay of the last century, and you see can the splendours of an earlier world. It’s the houses of this former world that the authors present in loving detail for the delectation of readers interested in a part of the past that has undoubtedly shaped, in both tangible and intangible ways, the people we are today. Taylor and Lang point out that the hybrid styles of architecture that characterise these houses are a reflection of the hybridity of the space that was Calcutta. The zamindari businessmen who built these houses were mostly landowners of rural origin, and the houses reflected a separation of gender, caste and class that belied an outer cosmopolitanism necessary to dealings with British merchants and colonisers.
The authors rightly say that elements of Hindu, Islamic and European influence show up in a manner confusing to the observer. For example, the Grand Houses favoured a Classical style of architecture, which believed in high ceilings and tall-pillared balconies. While high ceilings worked well for the Bengal climate, balconies that let in direct sun through the hot summer days were obviously undesirable. So the architects improvised, adding louvred wooden slats or jhilmils between the high columns. This alteration in the Classical design made the long balconies of these houses usable through the summer, while also keeping the inner private areas cool.
This is a book for enthusiasts of historical contexts, people and architecture. It includes a wealth of information and lore about a significant part of not only Bengal, but