Lost Calcutta

Calcutta, 1996
Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos
Calcutta, 1996

On the Calcutta Maidan, or central parade ground, one morning in January 1906, the Prince of Wales tapped into place the foundation stone of British India’s most self-aggrandizing monument. The Victoria Memorial Hall, as it would be called, had been dreamed up by Lord Curzon, the former viceroy of India, who envisioned it as a museum celebrating the late Queen Victoria and British rule in India. It was to be “not only a Victoria Memorial but an Indian Valhalla,” The Times of India declared, though, faced in the same marble as the Taj Mahal, it might more aptly be called the Taj of the Raj.

The Victoria Memorial Hall sits on the Maidan like an enormous dollop of Italian meringue. Inside, a gallery chronicles the city’s history since 1690, when an East India Company agent named Job Charnock established a factory near a village named Kalikata on Bengal’s Hooghly River. Charnock lived there for thirty-five years with his common-law wife and their children, and though the legend that he had rescued his wife, a Hindu widow, from her first husband’s funeral pyre is doubtless apocryphal, the founding story rests on an elemental truth: the city’s development was a joint British and Indian affair. In 1757, the East India Company commander Robert Clive defeated Bengal’s local ruler, or nawab, in battle and consolidated the company’s power in the province.

Over the subsequent decades, as the company’s reach spread across northern and central India, Calcutta blossomed into the cultural as well as political capital of the emerging British empire in India. It became an important center for higher education, social reform movements, literature, and nationalist activism—all of which were discussed in the city’s intellectual salons (or addas). But the city of the mind was every bit as much a city of money. Under company rule it flourished on the trade in textiles, saltpeter, indigo, and opium. After the 1857 revolt, when the East India Company was dissolved and the government taken over by the British Crown, Calcutta continued to thrive as India’s business capital, a prominent shipping hub, a financial services center, and a major industrial city oriented around the processing of jute, a vital material in the pre-plastics age. Grand houses built by the merchant elite gave Calcutta the nickname “the city of palaces.”

During his 1906 visit the Prince of Wales declared that “there is nothing…more typical of the relations between the British and the nations of India than Calcutta, which has grown from a swamp to be the second city of our Empire.” But before the Victoria Memorial Hall had even been completed, in 1921, the prince—by then King George V—had moved the capital of British India from Calcutta to Delhi to spite the city’s vocal nationalists. And by the 1970s no one would have called it the city of…

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