The Historical Legacy of the Writers' Building

One of India’s most historic and cosmopolitan cities, Kolkata has been at the centre of activity of
various civilizations at different points in time. Large populations of Chinese, Armenian, Jewish, and
other immigrant communities have all called Kolkata home, and the city’s stunning architecture pays
testament to its social, political, and cultural richness. Kolkata has many heritage buildings and
antique monuments which date back to the Victorian times like the awe-inspiring Victoria Memorial
,Town Hall, Calcutta High Court ,St Pauls Cathedral etc but The Writer’s Building has its own colonial
grandeur as the hotbed of political and social life in Bengal. The Writers’ Building in Kolkata attracts
thousands of tourists from across the world, drawn to its stunning architecture and design. However,
the colonial-era building has a history that’s just as interesting. While today the Writers’ (as it’s also
known) houses the State Government of West Bengal, it has served multiple functions over the past
centuries.

Built in 1777, the Writers’ Building was meant to accommodate junior servants, or ‘writers’ as they
were called, of the East India Company. When it was leased to the company in 1780 for this purpose,
it was described as looking like a ‘shabby hospital, or poor-house‘. After several structural changes
over the next couple of decades, Fort William College set up camp there, training writers in
languages such as Hindi and Persian, until around 1830. In the years that succeeded, the
dwelling was used by private individuals and officials of the British Raj as living quarters and for
shopping. Extensive remodelling and renovations have occurred most of the times the building was
switched between hands. Today, there are 13 blocks; six of which were added after India won
independence from British rule. The 150-metre long structure has a distinct Greco-Roman style, with
several statues of Greek gods as well as a sculpture of Roman goddess Minerva commanding
attention from the pediment.
The Writers’ Building (or Writers’) has a deep connection with all three ruling entities the city has
had. Early in its life, it housed clerks of the East India Company (EIC), which seeded the city with a

trading post and later grew to rule large parts of India. Then, in the 19th century, Calcutta became
the capital of British India, and Writers’ served as the secretariat of Bengal state. Later, the building
experienced flashes of the Indian independence movement when a British official was assassinated
under its roof in 1930. After independence, it continued to house the state government. For the
administrative power it holds, the depth of history it has seen and the fact that it’s the usual end
point of Kolkata’s many protest marches, Writers’ is the ideal building through which to look at the
city. Through its change and growth over its 236 years standing, Writers’ also acts as a monumental
barometer of sorts, reflecting the intentions and predicaments of its rulers. It’s structure went from
plain and functional during the early years of the East India Company, to ornate and overbearing
during the British Raj, to somewhat messy and overwhelmed as a newly independent India found its
feet.
By the middle of the 18th century, the city of Calcutta had begun to take shape, with an estimated
population of 100,000 who were mostly Indians. By then, Fort William had warehouses, an armoury,
and quarters for EIC officials, as well as a church, hospital and private homes of British landowners
and merchants located just outside the fort, in an area known as “White Town”. To the north was
“Black Town” where the Indian population lived, with Indo-Portugese and Armenian traders residing
in the areas in between. When houses in White Town began to be bought by Indians, there were
complaints, documented in the records of Fort William, of “black people having intermixed
themselves among the English houses” leading to “nuisances and disturbances to several of the
English inhabitants”. Maps show that for around 20 years from 1742 onwards, White Town was
fenced off using palisades.

Writer’s has worn different looks at different points. Roy says: “The skeleton of the original building
is still there, but the external structures have changed with the intention of the rulers.” Thomas
Lyon’s original was modified to house Fort William College and the government engineering college.
The front was dressed up with a long veranda and Iconic columns. Meanwhile the EIC grew to govern
all of India, often disastrously for the people. After a large-scale revolt by the EIC’s army in 1857,
Queen Victoria replaced the EIC as ruler of India. A new secretariat was needed in Calcutta and
Writers’ was picked for expansion.
“The British wanted to give a grand and powerful image to this public institution,” says Roy. So,
Writers’ received a makeover in French Renaissance style with edifying statues depicting commerce,
justice, science and agriculture, each with an Indian and European practitioner by her side. The
statues were resolutely European, perhaps suggesting the direction in which civilisation flowed.

Writers’ retains its name, though the area around it has changed names throughout history.
Originally called Tank Square, it was renamed to Dalhousie Square after the governor-general of
India, and later renamed to BBD Bagh after the three revolutionaries who killed the British official in
1930.
In brief, The Writer’s Building is one of the most significant historical assets of the city, as it is not
only a symbol of Victorian architecture but is a link for the modern society to a past of which many
are ignorant of. Infact, it is a bridge between the present society to a cultural space and time of
events which have enhanced its value and legacy by manifold degrees as they happened at certain
points of time. The infrastructure and architectural design of the Writers resembles the construction
patterns that were prevalent in Victorian England in the eighteenth century. Having adorned the
socio-political life of Bengal, The Writer’s Building has come to be identified as a symbol of the
cultural heritage and legacy of the nation and is a significant hallmark of the creativity and talent of
Victorian architecture which has withstood the test of time and history to emerge as a magnificent
relic symbolising the glory of our varied and vast culture and civilization.A tour of Calcutta famously
accorded the status of the cultural capital of the country can never be complete without a visit to this
really awe-inspiring and artistically built ancient structure which continues to be one of the most
prominent destinations along with many others for a public interested in art, architecture and
ancient history.
For further Reference:
https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/apr/10/writers-building- kolkata-history- cities-
50-buildings
http://noisebreak.com/heritage-buildings- colonial-calcutta- writers-building/
http://kolkatacitytours.com/writers-building- kolkata/

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