I have visited several Thakurdalans in West Bengal but none was as huge as this. A Thakurdalan is a common thing in old affluent homes of Bengal. It is actually an altar studded with pillars for worship, especially meant for Goddess Durga.
In this instance, six massive fluted doric columns introduced to the structure. The top of each pillar is decorated with stucco lotus flowers along with circle of stucco petals. On the frontal area there is a flight of stairs. I could see from the courtyard five archways beyond the pillars which were leading to the inner sanctum. Beyond that nothing was visible – only darkness.
It was ten in the morning. I was accompanied by three other fellow enthusiasts inside this nearing 150 years colossal mansion. Yet that darkness inside the massive structure gave me an eerie feeling. As if it was a never ending abyss or cavern. As I stood facing the Thakurdalan, I could see on my both sides long corridors with several pillars and window shades on both floors of the mansion. Plasters had worn off and in many places age old red bricks were visible. On the ground floor, one row of corridors were distastefully renovated in recent times with walls erected in between and around the pillars.
Not a soul was in sight except us. Even in broad daylight, the atmosphere seemed perfect for a haunted story or a crime thriller. I could very well understand why my friend Sumon was frightened when he alone ventured this mansion in one rainy afternoon. In that afternoon shadows were falling fast accompanied by light drizzle. He could not stand alone in the courtyard for more than five minutes and came out of the mansion without venturing it further.
It was not the fate this colossal mansion deserved to be. This Thakurdalan has witnessed for many years Durga Puja along with Jagadhatri Puja performed with great pomp and show. The pioneer leader of Indian politics Surendra Nath Banerjee gave lecture in front of this Thakurdalan itself. Famous theatre personality Girish Chandra Ghosh staged his drama Panadva Gourav (Glory of the Pandavas) here. Even Spiritual persons like Ramakrishna Paramahansa had visited this mansion several times.
It has been decades since this Thakurdalan has witnessed any Durga Puja. The last time a Durga Idol adorned this colossal structure was an unfinished idol used during the shooting of the film Elar Chaar Adhyay in 2012. In recent times Bengali Film makers seemed to have taken a fancy shooting here. Some major scenes of Baishe Srabon (2011) were shot here too.
I was standing in the courtyard of Basu Bati (The residence of the Basus) located at 65/2 Bagbazar Street of North Kolkata. The mansion has its own original architecture pattern which was influenced by Bengali and Islamic style instead of blatant copy of European style architecture predominant in mansion raised during post independence period of India. Unfortunately only around half of the mansion remains in its originality. Majority of the structure has been converted in poor taste and is occupied by a library administered by the West Bengal Education Department. The portion which houses this immense sized Thakurdalan is uninhabited and in a poor state. Originally the mansion had address of only 65 Baghbazar street, but then there was several division and subdivision in the property which resulted in creeping up of the by numbers.
Walking down a non-descriptive lane, I was surprised to see such a colossal mansion. Although the address is of Baghbazar Street, the entrance of the house can be accessed only through a bye lane from the Main Street. There is a KMC signboard on Baghbazar street mentioning Basubati’s presence. Coming from the busy street, the mansion looked totally out of place. Earlier the house had 16 immense doric columns at its entrance. At the top of each column there were a number of stucco lions head in a circle with two rows of stucco beads under each head.
Now only four such decorated column exist, beyond which lies the entrance to the already mentioned Thakurdalan. On their right eight pillars have been engulfed by the library as new structure has been built up around them. On the left, lies another part of the house (65/3) which has not been drastically modified like the library. But the remaining four pillars in this portion have been modified too. No lion heads are visible here.
Even in the mid 1960s the house was in good shape. The entrance was from Baghbazar Street itself, as there were not so many go-downs and numerous small houses with tiled roof surrounding the area. My father himself attended a meeting of Association of Apex Clubs of Australia in this house itself in 1964. When I spoke about the mansion to him, he said “You can never imagine how the mansion looked that time. It was totally a different building”. I regret the fact that he did not take any photograph of the mansion at that time.
Presently the property is owned by Ambuja Realty headed by realty tycoon Harsh Neotia. Casual entry is forbidden. There is a security guard deputed at the gate of premise number 65/2. My fellow enthusiast Kanad Sanyal got us permission to venture the Mansion.
Harsh Neotia has plans to convert this mansion (which is left with only 4 bigha area) into a heritage hotel. Kolkata Municipal Corporation has already declared this as a heritage property. As per newspaper reports, conservation architect Abha Narain Lamba and architect Channa Daswatte were looped to do the interiors. Apart from designing premium rooms, the spacious courtyards were thought to be used as venues for board meetings, birthdays, engagements and anniversary celebrations. The major stumbling block is to relocate the library premises. No-objection certificate is needed from the society that runs the library, which is not an easy task.
However this plan is in cold storage since last six years and this portion of the immense mansion is decaying slowly with the vagaries of time. Chunks collapse on regular basis in the courtyard and rooms. Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) is yet to give a go ahead to Ambuja Realty to progress with the restoration.
Venturing the interiors of Basu Bati
As I slowly walked up the steps of the Thakurdalan, a second row of archways were visible beyond the first. There was thick layer of dust on the black and white squares design floor. After the Doric columns, there were another two stairs to reach the base of the Thakurdalan. The pillars of the first row of archways were not decorated. But above each archway there was a stucco figurine within a star shaped frame. Above that a row of floral designs adorned the entire top portion. I could recognize figures of Hindu God Ganesha and Kartiyeka.
The second archway was more decorative. The top of the pillars had intricate floral designs on it. It seemed some restoration work was done on some of the pillars. Instead of having a single figure on the top of archway, there were two stucco figures – one each on either side. It was interesting to see that the inner side of the first row also had two stucco figures besides each archway. Standing between the two arches, the Thakurdalan looked like a Hindu Temple. It seemed once there were petal shaped decorations at the base of all pillars. This artistic element has worn out from all pillars with the exception of one from the first row of arches.
The figurines have lost most of their details and thus were difficult to recognize. One looked like a King and a Queen, probably Ram and Sita. The figure of Ram was considerable larger than Sita. The others were mainly single figures. One was having a long beard and hair standing with a stick in his right hand. Another was a warrior in horseback.
Just above the second archway near the ceiling, once there used to be beautiful Kalighat paintings on the entire top portion. The paintings were spread out to the top portion of the inner side of the first archways as well.
Nothing remains of these paintings except one portion above the second archway. The painting here is heavily damaged and is sure to get wiped out in the coming years. It shows some men on horseback. Only one person is somewhat recognizable and he looks like a soldier. There is a chariot like object in the painting.
Moving past the second archways, I finally reached the inner sanctum of the Thakurdalan. Daylight was reaching there, although I guessed that in the afternoon it must be pretty dark inside. The wall also had similar archways, but they were closed with bricks. On each of this closed area there was a face of a woman. It was interesting to note that the eyes were downcast or maybe closed.
Except this the design on the archways was pretty similar to the others. However the stucco figures were couples here. These were Hindu God and Goddesses – Shiva and Parvati, Brahma and Brahmani, Vishnu and Lakshmi, Indra and Sachi. The pillars had floral designs on them, which was different from the second row pillars. The walls on my left and right were decorated too with floral designs and false archways. There was severe dampness on the walls which have resulted in worn out plasters from the walls.
We retraced our path to the courtyard. There were two rows of lamp holders fixed on walls on our two sides. These were gas lamp holders. In pre-Independence era, gas lighting was predominant. Gas pipes were still hanging from one row of lamp holders.There were parallel long iron beams above the courtyard with their ends fixed on top parapets of the house. Thin iron nets were fixed on them. It was primarily meant to prevent birds intruding in the area. During any functions in the courtyard, trampoline were spread over the iron nets to protect from sun and rain. There were originally four courtyards in this house. But this one with the Thakurdalan was the most grand out of them.
We went to venture the top floor of the mansion. Half of the mansion is not approachable. For example no rooms of the first floor are approachable except two small rooms at the entrance of the mansion. The rooms besides the long corridor of the ground floor were all shut.There used to be a sitting room in the first floor which had some of the furniture and paintings in it. The security guard looked blank when I queried about it. The two rooms I saw in the ground floor looked like store rooms. One of them had an arch over its door.
In her book “The Forgotten Palaces of Calcutta” Joanne Taylor describes this room in details. She writes “Although the carpets have long since gone, the room is comfortable with large ornately carved armchairs, marble side tables and statues and potted palms. Enormous oil paintings of the Basu ‘s ancestors line the room in gilt frames, a number of them painted by artist Bamapada Mukherjee.”(Page 64)
Taylor’s book was published in 2006. Ambuja Reality acquired the property sometimes between 2008 to 2009. There is every possibility that the Basu family took away all their furniture and paintings prior to that.
The stairs to the top floor looked scary. Some of the decorated iron banisters were missing, probably stolen by local vandals. A strange light was falling from the top, possibly due to a broken skylight. We walked up and came in front of a door which leads to the interior balcony overlooking the courtyard.
Before venturing to the balcony we first encountered a room to the right. It was very dark inside the room. There were two doors visible at its end which leads to a small covered balcony. Two long closed windows were visible with decorated stained glass. The sunlight through them was not enough to lighten the interiors. Rubbles were lying on the floor with a thick coat of dust. A bad odour covered the room. Probably a dead rat was lying somewhere. Or was a bat hanging from the ceiling? I looked up. It was too dark to spot anything.
The stained glass decoration looked familiar. Pondering on my mind suddenly it struck me. This was the same room which I have seen in the film “Baishe Srabon”. Actor Prosenjit was sitting on a chair playing chess in this room with the stained glass windows on his back. Remembering how well the room was decorated in the film, I gave out a sigh viewing its present condition. I remembered in particular the floor decorations. It was not visible in the dark. Nevertheless, the floor was so much covered with rubble, it would be impossible to identify it even if there was light.
We came out and went towards the balcony. One can view the entire courtyard from here. The iron banisters of the railings were intact. There was a wall raised in the middle of the balcony which forbids you to venture in the other part of the house. This must be due to a partition between co-owners of the house as this wall extends to the ground floor and in the process has gone through (!) a door. Just before this balcony there was a long corridor on the left with window shades. These corridors were for womenfolk who viewed activities on the ground floor through these window shades. There were several rooms besides this corridor. Most of them were closed.
The room just besides the balcony was quite huge one. I knew there was a dancing room in this floor somewhere. Was it this one? Or is it in other inaccessible part of the house? Or it has been modified when the library was built? There was a huge decorated arch on the wall. On the opposite wall there was an ill tasted drawing of Lenin probably drawn by some local. This room leads to another large balcony which overlooks the garden and the entrance gate. Some of the banisters of the railing still existed. They looked different from the banisters on the staircase and the interior balcony. Standing on the balcony, I got a closer look to lion’s heads on the pillars. I found them different from the lion heads I have seen on similar buildings in West Bengal.
Joane Taylor describes the interiors of the house in this manner – “The house once boasted of a gold ceiling, large chandeliers and twenty four feet high walls in the grand hall. A dancing room on the second floor included a stage, rows of chair for guests and a zenana on the upper level from where the ladies and children of the house could watch the activity below.” (Page 64, The Forgotten Palaces of Calcutta).
Sadly only two things are predominant in the house – dust and damp. But the walls and the pillars are thick enough. If Currency Building and Town Hall of Kolkata can be renovated, I see no reasons why this mansion cannot be saved? Unlike many other mansions I have seen at West Bengal (like the Hetampur Rajbari at Birbhum), this house has all its doors and windows intact. Many of its ironwork and stucco work still exist.
History of Basu Bati at Baghbazar Street
The year was 1874. The Basu Family were Zamindars of Gaya. Mohendra Basu, the eldest son of Basu Family inherited a large property from his uncle at Baghbazar. However Mohendra could not enjoy his inheritance and died early. His two brothers – Nandalal Basu and Pashupati Basu built up the house with their inheritance after laying foundation in 19th October 1876. The family started living at the premises from 10th July 1878. The house was built with its garden on an area around 22 bigha (0.3306 acre = 1 Bigha). Originally the house premises extended up to Maratha Ditch Lane on the back side of the house. Once there was a private zoo and a stable in the premises of this mansion. Now only the house remains with a bit of space around. The descendant of the family lives in a new house located opposite to the mansion which was built 35 years ago.
One thing needs to be clarified. Nandalal Basu of Basu Bati is NOT the celebrated painter of the same name. In the cyber world many bloggers have erroneously mentioned Basu Bati Of Baghbazar as the residence of Painter Nandalal Basu.
The first qualified Bengali engineer Nilmani Mitra was employed by Basu Family to design and built up the mansion. Nilamani Mitra had built several remarkable mansions including the Emerald Bower (New location of Rabindra Bharati University) and Sadharan Bramho Samaj. He also redesigned the famous chariot of Mahesh which is used in the most celebrated Ratha Yatra festival of Bengal. However, Basu Bati was Mitra’s magnum opus. He built up the huge mansion shifting away from the prevalent European style architecture. Instead his work seems to be inspired from the traditional Bengali style and Islamic pattern. The arches had distinctive Islamic flavor in them, while prevalence of lotus could be seen in different forms. He used highly decorative murals and reliefs using turquoise and amber paintwork. Over hundred of paintings by famous painter Bamapada Banerjee adorned the walls of Basu Bati.
Nandalal Basu was very religious. It is because of him Paramhansa Ramakrishna and many other spiritual persons visited this house. His religious nature is evident from the several stucco religious figures as well as hand painted Kalighat paintings of various Hindu God and Goddesses found on doors and walls of the premises.
Pashupati Basu loved Art and Theatre. It was due to his efforts several playwrights and actors visited this house. During that period, the last Nawab of Hindusthan and the last ruler of Awadha – Wazid Ali Shah, was held prisoner at Metiaburuz. Girish Chandra Ghosh staged his drama Panadva Gourav (Glory of the Pandavas) at this house for the Nawab.
The Basu family was very patriotic too. They offered patronage and shelter to many prominent freedom fighters and reformists during British Rule. Anti British meetings and rallies were regularly held here. Apart from presence of prominent personalities like Surendra Nath Banerjee who gave lectures here, conferences were held in the adjoining lawn during Bengal Partition Movement (Bangabhanga Andolan) protesting the 1905 partition of Bengal conducted by the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. A National Fund was formed in this house in protest of the Partition in the presence of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
A plaque can be seen besides the entrance door on this behalf. The text in Bengali on the plaque is somewhat in these lines. “On the auspicious day of Rakhi Bandhan in protest of Government order for Partition of Bengal and to rejuvenate Bengal’s sick industries, historical National Fund was constituted in this premises in the presence of Kaviguru ( Rabindranath Tagore)”. The date of formation of National Fund is given as 16th October 1905. It is also mentioned that this plaque was erected by Kolkata Municipal Corporation on 17th October 1986 on the occasion of the 125th birth year of Rabindranath Tagore.
As I left Basu Bati with a heavy heart, ironically I heard somewhere a song being played from the movie Baishe Srabon.
“Ei Srabon dhuye pheluk ei rasta-dhulo..
Ei Srabon bhijiye dik dirgho chhayagulo..”
(Let this Srabon cleanse dust on these roads
Let this Srabon soak wet these long dark shadows)
Srabon is one of the months of monsoon in Bengali Calender.
I hope the dark shadows from Basu Bati gets removed soon and it becomes a prominent landmark of this city.
1. Kanad Sanyal – who arranged permission needed to explore Basu Bati
2. Sumon Das – who first informed me about Basu Bati’s interiors
1. Taylor, Joanne : The Forgotten Palces of Calcutta, Niyogi Books – 2006
2. Bandopadhyay, Debashish : Bonedi Kolkatar Gharbari, Ananda Publishers, 2010
(The book was written during 1981-1982)
3. Guha, Nandini : Heritage Highs, The Telegraph – February 27, 2010
4. Law, Abhishek : Ambuja Realty mulls hotel on Kolkata heritage property, The Hindu – January 11, 2011
5. Acharya, Namrata : Glory dreams of Kolkata’s Rajbaris, Business Standard – March 29, 2013