Redefining its Future

Writers’ Buildings, Kolkata – A Note on its Historical Perspective and Development

INTRODUCTION

Writers’ Buildings or Mahakaran is the headquarters of the State Government of West Bengal. Situated in the heart of Kolkata on the northern side of  Lal Dighi,a body of water in B.B.D Bagh ( formerly known as Dalhousie Square, one of South Asia’s few surviving colonial centers ) it is unique in that much of its peripheral environment remains intact.
Constructed in the 18th century and having undergone numerous modifications the Writers’ Buildings complex as it stands now has 14 major blocks and is of immense historical importance as the architectural heritage of the British Colonial Period.

A Time line has been prepared to have an understanding of the events in and around the centre from 1600-till date


Timeline 1600 – 1700


Timeline 1700 – 1800


Timeline 1800 – 1900


Timeline 1900 – 2000

“There! To the northward, in one heaven line
The Writers Buildings stand - nineteen in number
Where young Civilians prosper or decline”

(from “Tom Raw, the Griffin”)15


After two unsuccessful attempts to find a suitable anchorage that would be at arms length from the long arm of the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb and his subahdar (then at Dacca) and at the same time provide ease of navigation (Adi Saptagram further up the river Hooghly had already got silted up), Job Charnock, then senior agent of the East India Company, landed one rainy and overcast day on 24th August 1690 at the village of Sutanutee 5,12, practically where Hatkhola-Jorabagan7,12 stands today. 

The next three years flew by with Charnock trying to set up the trading post, build warehouses and dwelling houses for the staff of the East India Company (usually of mud-and-bamboo walls with a thatched roof), establish contact with local traders, and send the business reports to the East India Company. It was a hum-drum life.

On the demise of Charnock in 1693, John Goldsborough, who then assumed charge as the Chief of the Calcutta post, took a more pro-active role and proceeded to set up the Old Fort William by the side of the river (completed by 169812, where now stand the GPO and the Eastern Railways central office). In that same year, the East India Company was able, with the blessings of Nawab Azim-us-Shan, the Moghul subahdar at Dacca, to take on rent the three villages of Sutanutee (the Hatkhola-Jorabagan area), Dihi Kolkata (the GPO area) and Govindpur (where now stands the new Fort William) from a local zamindar1,5. The St Anne’s Church (that once stood almost where the Rotunda is in Writers Buildings today) came up shortly thereafter, then more warehouses and dwelling houses for the Company servants and so on. It was inside the Old Fort that in 1706 the old factory was pulled down and a single-storied house was built to house the “writers”1. This was followed over the next few years by a row of buildings that came up as dwelling accommodation for the company “writers”, that is, those who wrote out the accounts, prepared stock and sales reports, and handled the correspondence with the East India Company Head Office on Leadenhall Street in London and sister-offices in Madras and Bombay12,20. This set of “writers” dwellings came to be known as the “Long Row” by 171512

According to most reports, many of the “writers” indulged in some form or the other of private trade on the sidelines or plainly filched from the warehouses12,20. The salary of a junior writer was then about Rs. 200 per month5,13. They worked according to a fairly strict   hierarchy; for the East India Company board had laid down that “When the apprentices have served their time, they be styled as writers; when the writers have served their time, they be styled factors, and the factors having served their time, be styled merchants”12. That the apprentices, writers and factors made merry on occasions in those rough and ready times may be understood from the further stricture passed by the EIC board – “We do Christianly admonish everyone to abandon lying, swearing, cursing, drunkenness, profanation of the Lord’s Day and not to be out of their lodgings late at night”12.  As “Tom Raw, the Griffin” put it –

“Where peppered ‘devils’ and a Burdwan stew smoked on the Board 
and courted well the taste,
Pale ale frothed right and ruby claret graced the sumptuous tiffin – 
while some brisk champagne sparkling ran down their thirsty throats in haste;”15

That the writers – willy-nilly – found ways and means to make money much beyond what their monthly salaries provided, may be found from the account of one Mr. Cochrane who had joined in 1769 as writer, and by 1776 he was a factor, in 1778 a junior merchant, and in 1780 a senior merchant. Then he retired from the Company service and started a business of liquor and provisions for the troops and returned home in 1808 with 40,000 Pound sterling19. At the same, many of the “writers” were improvident, adopting life-styles much beyond what their salaries allowed and ran into heavy debt with the local money-lenders or their own “sircars” or assistants.12,13,20. In course of time, young persons of some standing and well-known families joined as writers20 and came in time to occupy high positions in the administration (e.g., Sir William Grey, who later became Lt. Governor of Bengal in 1867 3).

By about the second and third decades of the 18th century other buildings had begun to come up around the “Great Tank” or the “Lal Dighi”12, which was a perennial source of potable water due to a number of underground springs: the Old Court House (the premises hired by the company from the Vestry of the Church School, where now stands the St. Andrew’s Kirk)12, the Council House where the governors of the East India Company at Calcutta used to sit for deliberations (then on Koilaghat Street adjoining the Old Fort)5,12, the Mayor’s Court and the Jail (next to and opposite the present Lal Bazar, respectively), the Armenian Church (1747), the Portuguese Church (also in 1747, both by the side of what is now Brabourne Road or Maharaj Trailokya Nath Sarani)12,13. Last but not the least was the Harmonic Tavern on the north-east side of the crossing of Lower Chitpur Road (now Rabindra Sarani) and Bowbazar Street (presently named as Bipin Behari Ganguly Sarani)12.

Thus, with ups and owns, the East India Company went about its business for the next few years in saltpetre, silk and cotton textiles, opium, sugar, spices and so on12,13,20. But by this time the political situation in India was changing, with the decline of the Moghul imperial authority, the rise and spread of Mahratta forces and the assumption of office of Nawab Siraj-ud-daula at Murshidabad (where the subahdari had been moved from Dacca by Murshid Quli Khan, the better to keep an eye on the British and other European activities in Bengal5,12,13). Siraj had been uneasy for some time at the way the British were conducting their business, setting up fortifications, and presuming zamindari rights to collect rent. The tipping point came in two ways1,12 - firstly, the 7-year war between England and France had commenced and the British thought it fit to bring the war into Bengal by threatening to attack the French settlement at Chandernagore. Secondly, Kissendass, the son of Raja Raj Ballav at Dacca, was thought to be conspiring with some of the Nawab’s opponents and, apparently the British had given him shelter at Calcutta. So in June 1756, Siraj attacked the British settlement at Calcutta and destroyed much of it, including the Old Fort William and the warehouses and buildings inside it, the St Anne’s Church and so on.1,5,12 It did not take the British long to respond and, Col. Robert Clive sailed up from Madras with a force and re-took Calcutta in January 17575,12. At the same time conspiracy was in the air, and the British suborned Mir Jafar, the uncle of Siraj, with the assistance of Omichand (a leading business man and banker to the Nawab), to assume a neutrality in the event of any further hostilities between the Nawab and the British1,5,12. On grounds that the reparations for the damages caused by the Nawab’s forces in Calcutta in June 1756 were being inordinately delayed, Clive marched from Chandernagore towards Murshidabad. He was met at Plassey by the Nawab’s forces on 26th June 1757. But the damage had been done by the conspiracy and the Nawab’s forces, lacking any proper leadership, were driven back and dispersed. Further demands for reparations from the royal treasury were imposed and it is noted that a fine of 7 lakhs sikka Rupees was paid in the first installment to the British, amounting to 8 lakh Pound sterling.12 (some sources put it at 3 million pound sterling finally, though Bagchi has it as 38 mill. pound sterling).

With the re-taking of Calcutta by Clive in 1757, immediate steps were taken to construct a new fort – also called Fort William – in the Govindpur area close to what is now Hastings, by re-locating some of the trading families of Setts and Bysacks (who had settled there after migrating from Adi Saptagram)1,5,7,12. The Fort commanded a wide view of the river (to its west) and the Maidan (to its east) and has been remarked upon by many travelers of the day as being a splendid structure12,13. By this time, the Old Mission Church was coming up (completed in 1770) on what is Mission Row, as also the new Governor’s House (then at Belvedere), the new Council House (where now stands the Treasury Building) and the Supreme Court. Chowringhee was then a notable suburb of Calcutta and, a fine boulevard – the Respondentia – ran from Chowringhee westwards towards the river. The “Course” where most of the British administrators and their wives took their “air” in the evening while driving in a coach ran southwards from the Council House, along the river, past the Fort 1,5,7,12,16. Calcutta had begun to grow as a trading centre and as the seat of the British administration in India (overseeing even the trading posts at Madras and Bombay). The responsibilities of trade and of revenue, law and order, administration of justice and so on (arising from the grant of the subah of Bengal (including Orissa and Bihar) in 1765 5,12,13 by the then Moghul emperor to the East India Company) were increasing by the day.
So, by 1765 or so, the Company began seriously to think of consolidating its working staff in a central place so as to economise on growing expenses for residential accommodation 1,5,12 (a rental of Rs. 150 to Rs. 200 for a dwelling house being fairly common in the late 18th century) and the cost of palanquin bearers to carry the “writers” back and forth between their residences, spread out in Alipore, Garden Reach, Hastings, and Chowringhee to the Company offices at Sudder Street, Chowringhee and elsewhere, besides administrative delays, and problems of coordination 5,12. Thus it is found that one Thomas Lyon (whether fronting for Richard Barwell as some had alleged, or otherwise) was granted permission by the Council of the East India Company on 18th November 1776 through the Collector of Calcutta to take on a rent of Rs. 50 per month two adjacent plots of land (one within Dihi Kolkata, and the other in “Bazaar” Kolkata) on the north face of “Lal Dighi” for erecting a building to provide residential accommodation for the “writers”4,5,12,15. By 1778 the “Writers Buildings” was ready for occupation, comprising nineteen apartments, each of two rooms and an office room, each apartment to house two “writers” free of cost; the stipulation was that these writers should not be drawing more than three hundred rupees per month12,15,20. While some contemporary observers compared the Writers Buildings in those days to be more like a set of barracks 14,15, others however noted that the interiors were like chambers in the Inns of Court in London and “more or less elegant”14. It is this long “heavy” building that is depicted by Thomas Daniell in his acquatint painting of c.1786 of the Writers Buildings from the east (i.e. Old Court House Street side, as reproduced in Losty12). This shows a three-storied building (the tallest in Calcutta at that time) with about fifty windows along a flat unornamented wall running the length of its southern front overlooking the Tank with one, central colonnaded Doric pediment, and three windows to the side. 

This state of affairs did not last long; for, by 1800 Lord Wellesley had decided to set up the Fort William College (to train the writers in Hindi, Sanskrit and Persian)4,12,14,15 and this resulted in several of the apartments at the centre of the Buildings being amalgamated to provide space for lecture rooms of the Fort William College, as also accommodation for its faculty and some of the students 1,,5,12,15. 
A further phase of re-modelling and improvements of “Writers’ Buildings” was under way by 1820-2112,15, to further extend the Fort William College, with a long veranda being added on the south front and two small pediments on columns (considerably smaller than the central pediment) being added at the east and west ends, the latter both to provide some additional space and a better ornamented façade (by Capt. George Lindsay)15. to the north of the Tank. Some of the lecture rooms were to be 30 ft. 6 inch by 20 feet 6 inch, four libraries (on the ground floor) each of 30 feet by 20 feet15. It however seems from a photograph (unascribed - from the Internet, most likely by Johnston & Hoffman, c. 1860-61) that aside from the south veranda and the three colonnaded pediments, slatted window shadings (missing in Daniell, 1786) and three projecting structures (two at the ground floor level and one (towards the western end), two-stories high, had been built by 1860s. The capital of the columns then is seen to have been Ionic (“ram’s horn”) rather than the Corinthian that is seen presently.  This photograph suggests – though not supported by any textual references – that sometimes between 1822 and 1860 the slatted window shadings and the projecting ground floor-first floor structures had possibly been constructed.

 
Writers' Building, Calcutta, c. 1860 (from the Internet – possibly Johnston & Hoffmann)

Subsequent governor generals apparently did not share Wellesley’s imperial vision and by 1826 the Fort William College had been asked largely to vacate the premises in Writers Buildings (it stayed on in parts till 184718) so that it could revert to accommodation for the writers.  Again, after the tenure of Lord Bentinck as Governor General, it is found that by about 1862 Writes Buildings had passed out of the Council’s control into private hands and used for motley purposes, from private residences to shops and warehouses 1,4,12,15. By this time, the Calcutta GPO was under construction; the Customs House (where now stands the Calcutta regional office of the RBI) was already functioning and East India Railways office had also come up (at the corner of Fairlie Place and Clive Street)12.

By about 1865 it is once more found, firstly under Sir Cecil Beadon, and more firmly under Sir George Campbell as Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, that proposals were afoot to consolidate the scattered offices once more at a central place for ease of coordination and effective administration.3,4,5,,15 There was considerable correspondence as seen from the “Deposit Papers” 10 as to the positioning of dressing rooms and lavatories and whether there should be space at the Lyons Range end for 6 or 8 coaches; they finally settled for space for 6 coaches and 6 horse stalls. This correspondence also reveals that decision was taken to have a certain hierarchy in the accommodation: the Records, the Registry, and some of the executive engineers on the ground floor, the secretaries, assistant secretaries and superintending engineer of the Presidency Circle on the first floor, and heads of departments and other executive engineers on the second floor; the entrance for the Secretaries would be from the opposite the “Lal Dighi” while clerks and office assistants would enter from the  Lyons Range side9,10.

It was under Sir Ashley Eden, Lieutenant Governor for 1879 to 1883, that Writers Buildings took its “heritage” shape and appearance 4,9,11,15. This comprised principally the complete re-modelling of the front façade by E.J. Martin15, architect and engineer, by (a) removing the three old colonnaded Doric pediments of the southern façade and replacing with a mixed Italianate-Grecian frontage with three structures (at the centre and at the eastern and western ends) projecting from the southern veranda, (b) Venetian style arched windows, (c) Doric pedimented entrances in the centre and at the two sides at the ground floor;  (d) addition of the Rotunda with its domed Georgian roof at the western end (where once stood the St. Anne’s Church – now for Legislative Council meetings), (e) angled high roofs in Italianate style on the top floor, (f) addition of the statues of the goddess Minerva (sculpted by William Frederic Woodington 12,15) and that of Science, Agriculture, Justice and Commerce on the top floor pediments, and (g) finally, three three-storied structures to the rear of the building and at right angles to it and to Lyons Range. It is also notable that yellow terracotta tiles from the U.K. and slabs of grey stone were used to cover the outer walls of the south façade.12,15  and a photograph (unascribed – from the Internet) taken in 1915 suggest that this light-coloured façade was extant even then; it is not known when these terracotta tiles and grey stones were removed. It seems that sometime in the 1920s a watering trough for coach horses and a plaque to commemorate Colesworthy Grant (1813-1880)18, who helped set up the Calcutta Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was set up near the eastern end of the Writers Building (earlier sketches and photographs do not show this). 


 
Apparently the additional space created by 1883 did not prove sufficient to house the government offices and in her article 11, Arunima Ghosh mentions that two more blocks were built at the rear, one in 1889 and the other in 1905 (in addition to the three in 1982-83), making it a total of five rear blocks to the Lyons Range side. The spiral staircases alongside these blocks came up at the same time. This practically completed the “heritage” part of Writers Buildings. The Government of India Act 1919 had extended the provisions for local self-governance, and Writers’ Buildings became the seat – notably - for the administration of local self-governance (e.g. district boards, municipalities), irrigation, roads, revenue, public health, law and order, cooperative credit and so on10. These departments suggest the focus of public administration of those days, and the gradual – but at times faltering - progress of representative governance and accountability since the Government of India Act of 1858.

The increased security considerations at Writers commenced after the attack on 8th December 1930 when three intrepid Bengali nationalist youth, Benoy Basu, Badal Gupta and Dinesh Gupta managed to enter the Writers’’ Buildings dressed in European clothes and shot dead the infamous Inspector General of Police, Colonel N.S. Simpson, known for his oppression of prisoners in the Alipore Central Jail. After killing Colonel Simpson, they occupied the Writers’’ Building for a time, but soon were overwhelmed by the police and two of them took their own lives, while Dinesh was later tried and hanged. It was from that time that collapsible gates and security checking on the ground floor were introduced at Writers’ Buildings. 

Copies of drawings of plan and elevation of some sections of the Writers Buildings in the PWD (now with the Dept. of Architecture, JU) suggest that from 1944 active consideration was being given to further additions, and a drawing dated 21/12/1944 refers to “elevations facing Lyons Range”. Another, of 1949, indicates a Block E between Blocks I and II; however another of 25/11/1959 suggests “proposed new 5 storied block between Blocks I and II”. These indicate (in the lack of immediate availability of proper textual references) that proposals were taken up from time to time, but may have been deferred for one reason or the other and the blocks parallel to Lyons Range linking the original Blocks I, II, III, IV and V came up at various times between 1945 and 1960. However, a presentation prepared by he PWD17 (seen on the Internet) suggests these later buildings (parallel to Lyons Range) apparently came up during the war years of 1945-46 and, finally, the buildings that now occupy the courtyards at the rear came up in 1960s and 1970s. Thus, Writers Buildings in time came to occupy about 5.5. lakh sft of office space on 16 bighas 17 cottahs of land, housing 34 departments and more than 6000 staff17.

It may be of interest to note that as per a document prepared in 1933 (“Deposit papers” in the State Archives10) the member of the Legislative Council designated as Chief Minister had a room on the eastern side of the building overlooking Old Court House Street and, most of the rooms adjoining the Rotunda was taken up by offices of the Surgeon General for public health. By 1940s this had changed and the room of the Chief Minister was by now at the centre of the first floor with the Cabinet Room next to it and the room of the Chief Secretary thereafter17. In time, certainly from 1972 (with Mr. S.S. Ray as CM, as recollected by some retired officers), the Chief Minster’s Secretariat also came occupy a central place on the first floor. Two other aspects may be of interest – firstly, the Writers Building Library was started in 1925 on the ground floor and came to serve as a useful reference library18; secondly, a staff canteen was inaugurated by Dr. B.C. Roy in 1956 (personal recollection) on the ground floor (western side, facing St. Andrews).  

Thus, between 1780 when the Writers Buildings were first constructed as accommodation for the “writers” to 1883 when “Writers” became the seat of the Government of India (and that of the state government upon the transfer in 1911 of the central government to Delhi) and now into the 21st century, Writers Buildings have been witness to the history of Kolkata as well as to the British imperial government and the republican government of India. As Nair 15 has put it so aptly about “Writers”, “few functional old buildings have been turned into a beautiful one by grafting from time to time, architectural features”. That will also be the hope for the future.

The note has been prepared by INTACH on behalf of Department of Architecture, Jadavpur University as a part of the assignment given by the Government of West Bengal  for the renovation of the Writers’ Buildings project.

Bibliography

  1. P.C. Bagchi, “Calcutta Past and Present” (Calcutta University Press, 1939).
  2. William Baillie, “Plan of Calcutta reduced by the permission of the Commissioner of Police”, 1792 (in Losty).
  3. C.E. Buckland, “Bengal under the Lieutenant Governors”,  (Kedarnath Bose, B.A., 1902)
  4. Bidisha Chakraborty, “The Bengal Secretariat – A Silent Witness to Urbanisation”, in Bidisha Chakraborty and Sarmistha De (eds.), “Calcutta in the Nineteenth Century – An Archival Exploration”, (Niyogi Books, 2013).
  5. H.E.A. Cotton, “Calcutta Past and Present” (revised edition, ed. N.R. Ray, General Printers & Publishers, 1980).
  6. Thomas Daniell, Acquatint of Writers Building from the east, 1786 (from Losty).
  7. Prosenjit Das Gupta, “10 Walks in Calcutta”, (Harper Collins, 1999).
  8. S. Dasgupta, “Echoes from Old Calcutta”, (Naya Prokash, 1981)
  9. Directorate of State Archives, Govt. of West Bengal, “Select Documents on Calcutta 1800-1900”, 2011
  10. Directorate of State Archives, Govt. of West Bengal, “Deposit Papers” by Public Works Dept.
  11. Arunima Ghosh, article in The Statesman, 13.08.2013 
  12. J.P. Losty, “Calcutta – City of Palaces” (The British Library, Arnold Publishers, 1990).
  13. P. Thankappan Nair, “Calcutta in the 18th Century”, (Firma KLM, 1984).
  14. P. Thankappan Nair, “Calcutta in the 19th Century” (Firma KLM, 1989).
  15. P. Thankappan Nair, “Architecture of the Writers Buildings” (undated article, personal communication)   
  16. Pratapaditya Pal (ed.), “Calcutta through 300 Years” (Marg Publications, 1990)
  17. Public Works Dept. presentation (Govt. of West Bengal), from the Internet
  18. Ranabir Ray Chaudhury, “Glimpses of Old Calcutta (period 1836-1950)”, (The Statesman, Nachiketa Press, undated);
  19. Anurandha Sharma, article in The Mint, 14.09.2013
  20. “Sripantha”, “Kolkata” (in Bengali, Ananda Publishers, 2001).