Book Review by Somdatta Mandal
Title: The Shaping of Modern Calcutta: The Lottery Committee Years, 1817 – 1830
Author: Ranabir Ray Chaudhury
Publisher: Niyogi Books
If you ask any layman about the city of Calcutta (now rechristened as Kolkata) you will get three major pieces of information — namely, it was founded by Job Charnock in 1690; it was the seat of East India Company and capital of British India till 1911; and that it was divided roughly into two sections — the white English town at the centre and towards the south and the native town in the north. Beyond that, very few people have the idea of how the city developed spatially and how several major arterial roads, tanks and squares were built systematically during the beginning of the nineteenth century and this is where The Shaping of Modern Calcutta: The Lottery Committee Years, 1817 – 1830 by Ranabir Ray Chaudhury gives us plenty of information about the gradual development of Calcutta. This was undertaken by raising money through sale of lottery tickets and implemented by the creation of a Lottery Committee which functioned specifically for thirteen years from October 1817 to 1830.
Under the system then prevalent, the surplus lottery funds remained with the Bank of Bengal which would continue to be involved in the sale of tickets and the payment of prizes but would have nothing to do with other payments. The three senior members of the committee were John Eliot, Charles Trower and Henry Wood who had already looked after the construction of the square and tank at Baparitala (Wellington Square) and the new road being built from Dharamtala Road to Bowbazar. Later officials like Henry Shakespear and Barwell, G. Gordon and A. Colvin were inducted, and featuring in various sub-committees, they were also deeply engaged in the city’s development work.
In 1830, for all practical purposes, the functions of the committee relating to the improvement of the city ceased effectively. Though the beneficial impact of the committee’s work affected everyone, native and European alike, and there was nothing remotely furtive about it, yet the Directors of the East India Company in London were not happy with what was happening in distant Calcutta on the city-development front, choosing to view the evolving picture in a different light. Keeping in mind the virtues of economy in expenditure, the Company wrote to its Government of Bengal that whenever there was any activity relating to general and public utility, some part of the charges ought to be borne by the inhabitants. Further, the Lottery Committee was handling large sums of money and perhaps there was the Company’s deep-seated skepticism about the sensibility of such expenditure in general and a tendency to conclude that the money was not being spent efficiently. The work done by the committee was phenomenal because the projects conceived and implemented by it still cast a long shadow on life in modern Calcutta.
It becomes very clear that the city of Calcutta gained immensely from the development work carried out by the Lottery Committee since October 1817. The Strand Road had spruced up the eastern bank of the River Hooghly beyond recognition; the western side of Tank Square (today’s BBD Bagh) down to the Maidan till the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, had been given its modern shape with its grid of streets; pucka drains had been built and upgraded all over the city; the major north-south arterial road extending from Park Street in the south to Shyambazar in the north with four squares along it had been constructed; Free School Street had been made; the entire area south of Park Street up to Circular Road had been transformed into ‘virgin’ land ready to be settled in by the genteel (for the most part, sahib) population of Calcutta; and the modernisation of the Garden Reach area, reaching up to Khidirpur in the north, had been begun.
Among other things, the Lottery Committee built the major arterial roads in the northern and central parts of the city, which in time determined the layout of the contiguous residential areas. Dalhousie Square and the entire ground between Park Street and Circular Road were developed by the committee. Previously, a large part of the ground south of Park Street was low-lying and marshy, generating pestilence all around. Bustee clusters were located here probably because of the availability of Gangajal from Tolly’s Nullah (the Adi Ganga) through the existing network of drains, the river being some way off to the west.
The story of the making of Strand Road is narrated in detail, as with increasing economic activity and population pressure, it would provide the inhabitants with easier access to the river, both for recreation and commerce. The Lottery Committee was also responsible for putting up the first brick-and-mortar decorative balustrade which still adorns the Chowringhee area and Red Road. Thus, in its 13 years of effective functioning (till 1830), the committee had been successful in providing the critical push necessary to transform Calcutta from the topographical shape it had inherited since the years immediately following the landing of Job Charnock at Sutanati in August 1690 into one which, in a manner of speaking, would make the city ready to be launched into the 20th century and beyond.
The interest in reading the book persists throughout because apart from the maps, figures, numbers, statistics, and other logistic details, we get a lot of information of the different hindrances the Lottery Committee faced while implementing their projects. Human nature has not really changed much and so we read about people at that time who flouted the rules to line their own pockets and for whom profiteering was the norm.
The basic premise here is that human nature being what it is, there are some aspects of life and behaviour which are universal in their reach, both temporally and spatially. Another very interesting area of study is how the officials encountered the problem of encroachment, the process of land acquisition and the demand for compensation by native plot holders. The committee was aware of matters affecting the native sentiment and there are instances of how they altered the alignment of a major road to suit the convenience of the natives. Even then in some instances tiffs and legal hassles with local residents in North Calcutta were also recorded. Apart from private property rights, religious considerations too played an important role in the decision-making process of the committee.
Before concluding it is worthwhile mentioning a few lines about the author of this volume. During his quarter-century with The Statesman in Calcutta (1970-94), principally as a leader writer, Ranabir Ray Choudhury became interested in the past of a great city which the East India Company had selected as the nerve centre for its operations in the Indian subcontinent and further to the east, extending to Singapore and beyond. In time, this growing interest led to three compilations – Glimpses of Old Calcutta 1835-1850 (1978), Calcutta a Hundred Years Ago 1880-1890 (1987), and Early Calcutta Advertisements 1875-1925 (1992). He next wrote The Lord Sahib’s House, Sites of Power: Government Houses of Calcutta 1690-1911 (2010). A City in the Making, Aspects of Calcutta’s Early Growth (2016).
This volume under review is his sixth book and thematically is a sequel to the last one. That work ended with the formation of the Lottery Committee in 1817: this book takes up the story from there. From a connoisseur of the city, we get details of its development to a point that a lot of unknown facts are provided to the reader which the author garnered from documents and archival material available at the West Bengal State Archives.
Though he is not a historian, trained or otherwise, the author mentions in the ‘Introduction’ how he faced the constant struggle to avoid getting enmeshed in detail and to refocus attention on the broad current of policy and the effects of its implementation. Attention to the specific problems faced in the day-to-day execution of projects also does help to throw light on the precise nature of hurdles encountered at the grassroots level. The book is therefore highly recommended for scholars of history, architecture, town planning and every layman reader who is interested in Kolkata – a city which has been defined in multifarious ways as a city of joy, a city of palaces, a dead city, and so on.
Somdatta Mandal, an academic, critic and translator, is a former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.
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