Heritage and Conservation within an Indian Context

Early one morning, out on our exploration through the narrow streets of North Kolkata, an interesting conversation with a curious local led me to delve deeper into the meaning of Heritage and Conservation within an Indian context.

Care vs. Neglect (Image Credit: Author)

Armed with our smartphones and cameras, we traversed various streets and alleyways, clicking away furiously at anything and everything that caught our attention. One of the perks of this project is undoubtedly stumbling upon remnants of Old Calcutta’s glorious past, something we may have never explored otherwise; classical mansions, delicate iron railings, slender balconies and colourful glass windows stained with the vestiges of time.

While we stopped and admired these buildings ever so often, bemused locals passed us by, trying to follow our line of sight and wondering what made our faces light up. The stark difference in our reaction to these buildings as opposed to the rather nonchalant nature of the locals served as the premise for many a conversation amongst ourselves. While standing outside a boarding house on Sitaram Ghose street, we caught the attention of a home-owner who was seemingly surprised with the subject of our attention. We discussed the premise of our project with him and he was quick to revert back with something along the lines of, “but temples and monuments are heritage buildings, a messbari is not”.  While my initial reaction was one of infuriation, it took me a while to understand that coming from a background of Conservation handed me a certain privilege of knowledge and understanding as opposed to the locals, who were made to believe that their humble ancestral homes and neighbourhoods had little to no place amongst India’s varied heritage landscape.

How often do funds and manpower repeatedly get poured into structures and monuments of international acclaim while the neighbourhoods, or the veins of the city, languish under disregard and disrepair. Is it through a select group of elite buildings that we wish to present an image of our country, while the real character of the city lies under a shroud of perpetual gloom? There may well be no end to this line of thought and the many discussions that it could foster but let’s limit our scope to that of Calcutta’s messbaris.

As discussed in earlier posts, the mess-culture was the cornerstone of late 19th and early 20th century Calcutta. While on one side there were the intellectuals: poets, authors and the like, developing some of the greatest works of Bengali literature, many boarding houses were dedicated to people from India’s varied communities such as the Marwaris, Muslims, South Indians and even the Scottish and Europeans amongst others. Calcutta’s cosmopolitan nature during its heyday, as the capital of the British Empire, can well be understood by the differing nature of its many messbaris. At a time when these very characteristics of the city are being questioned, it is imperative that initiatives such as the Messbari Project are encouraged and undertaken so as to shine a light on the many carriers of Calcutta’s illustrious past which otherwise may be fading, and fading fast.

Introducing the Messbari Project

The Messbaris, or traditional boarding houses, in Kolkata are in a state of rapid decay. In Calcutta’s cultural and economic heyday in the early and mid-20th century, the messbaris provided much-needed affordable accommodation in the city for young bachelors, many of whom would go on to become famous in the fields of literature, academics, or sciences. The vibrant “Mess-culture” became central to a number of Bengali novels and inspired Bengali movies. While many of the old boarding houses still survive, they are often at-risk structures that face demolition, which makes recording them imperative.

Kitchen of an old Messbari in North Kolkata
(Photo: Satyaki Seal)

While working on our first Sutanuti Diaries episode on Kolkata’s old messbaris (see below), we realized that no tangible record of the location and history of the boarding houses exist. The objective of the current project is to create just that as a first step to stir public awareness about the boarding houses and hopefully generate interest in conserving them. The Messbari Project is also an attempt to question the narrow Bangali-oriented definition of boarding houses and extends it to look at similar institutions used by other communities in the city. 

The Messbari Project is supervised and funded by Heritage Walk Calcutta. We welcome additional governmental and non-governmental support for the long-term functioning of the project. The project will be kicked off by three young Heritage Walk Calcutta interns Barshana Basu, Anmol Grover, and Dipanwita Paul from January 1. 

The Pilot Episode of Heritage Walk Calcutta webseries Sutanuti Diaries focused on some old Messbaris in Kolkata.