Yesterday More & More
Yesterday More & More
A drive through old Kolkata reveals thousands of ancient, balconied buildings languishing in varied stages of disrepair. Many have almost fallen apart, and are fit for nothing but all-out demolition. But there are some which reveal great bones and beautiful architectural details, and can possibly get a new lease of life with structural repairs, a lick of paint and a passion for the yesteryears.
On the tours of the city’s heritage spots that he organizes through his company Calcutta Walks, the Kolkata born-and-bred Iftekhar Ahsan had often wondered why no one ever came forward to restore the gorgeous old homes that could still be salvaged. Till one day, when he decided to stop wondering, and do something about it himself.
Alongwith old friend Chris Chen and Chennai-based businessman-cum-cultural catalyst Ranvir Shah, Ahsan bought up a three-storied townhouse dating back to 1926, and set about making it a worthy representative of that period.
The house, built in a classical style, was known locally as Majumdar Bari (or the House of the Majumdars) and stood in the city’s Shyambazar locality. At first glance, it looked appalling, with missing sky lights and broken window and door frames. But since the Majumdars had conducted little or no repairs to the building over the years, the original structure, with its two courtyards, was still intact. That meant no major architectural repairs were required.
This was a big relief for Ahsan, conservation architect Akhil Ranjan Sarkar, who came in to strengthen the structure, and scenographer Swarup Dutta, who was entrusted the formidable task of creating the ‘heritage’ interiors from scratch.
All of them wanted the restored building to stay true to its original architectural style while offering mod cons like air-conditioning, wi-fi, Netflix-enabled smart TVs and ensuite toilets.
Special masons were called in from Murshidabad to work on the exposed brick walls. They used an ancient formula involving jaggery, wood apple pulp, fenugreek seeds and betel nuts, besides lime and plaster, to make the perfect mortar. Wood and iron were sourced from local buildings that were being demolished in other parts of the city. A company in Kapurthala, Punjab, was commissioned to create the old-world brass switches.
There was a lot of upcycling and recycling too. Khorkhoris, or the louvred windows that can be found in almost every old Kolkata house, were re-purposed as installations in the courtyard and inserted into bedside tables. Old tractor seats found new life as unique stools. Antique loudspeakers, an indispensable part of every Kolkata political rally, were remodeled to become hanging lamps over the dining table. The roof was redone, and a casual dining space was created on the terrace.
Dutta and Ahsan went about the country looking for suitable furniture and furnishings for the building, but finally, fittingly, found a lot of what they needed back in Kolkata itself.
After years of toiling, the old Majumdar Bari reopened its doors in the summer of 2018 as Calcutta Bungalow, a boutique heritage hotel with six guest rooms.
Each of the rooms was named after a flavour of old Kolkata. The smallest room, Patuapara, paid tribute to Bengal’s patuas (artists) who created painted scrolls of stories from Indian mythology. A mega installation of shoe lasts, along with lathes and other shoe-making tools, was put up in Muchipara (the locality of cobblers), and an old sewing machine was converted into a writing desk and charkhas mounted on the walls in Darzipara (the locality of tailors).
Jatrapara (the theatre area) made a hat tip to Bengal’s folk theatre tradition while Boipara (the locality of books) was stocked with shelves of books and given framed book covers as wall art. The very colonial Sahibpara (the locality of the Sahebs, aka the Brits) was given old maps, Victorian buggy lights, a portrait of Queen Victoria, and the only bathtub in the building for its en suite bathroom.
The mood across all the floors was one of restrained elegance. There was no ornate, carved furniture to be seen anywhere. The colour scheme across all the floors was muted and warm, in sync with the age of the house. Simple, cotton kanthas lay across the beds, madurs (bamboo mats) lay on the floors. Signs of Bengali quirks could be spotted everywhere: from the framed pix of the Boroline tube to a floor of old marbled nameplates to the display of the bajarer thole (shopping bag) that exists in every traditional Kolkata Bangali home. Special mention must be made of the exquisite grilles that the masons created and put up in the window on the staircase, and the stunning, recycled light fittings across the building.
Today, the 1.5-year-old heritage hotel attracts people from all over. Its location, deep set in the heart of Kolkata and only 30 minutes from the airport, ensures a steady stream of in-house guests as well as day trippers looking for lunch. For those looking to explore the neighbourhood, Calcutta Bungalow offers a retro ride in the green, refurbished Ambassador car that stands at its entrance. Whether you choose to step out or step in, the mood stays yesterday once more.
Location: 5 Radha Kanta Jew Street, Near Deshbandhu Park, Shyambazar, Kolkata 700004 India
Phone: +91 98301 84030