Students of architecture from Denmark and all over India are in the city to study the Anglo-Indian community and Chinese settlement and document their architectural heritage at Bow Barracks and old Chinatown at Territi Bazaar.
Led by Kamalika Bose, assistant professor, faculty of design at India’s premier architecture institute CEPT University, the 27 students of whom 12 are from Aarhus School of Architecture in Denmark and the rest from CEPT, Ahmedabad, will look at the traditions of the two communities reflected through cultural and occupational practices, food habits, dressing and architecture as well as how time has impacted the community, altered socio-economic circumstances and eroded the cultural heritage.
“The eclectic history of diverse immigrant communities shape and leave an indelible imprint on the socio-cultural nerve of a city. The cosmopolitan character of a city is demonstrated in the multitude of ethnic enclaves and their architectural diversity found within such historic urban quarters. Kolkata serves as an exemplary case of the proverbial ‘melting pot,’ of Armenians, Chinese, Jews, Anglo-Indians, and Greeks, among others who migrated to the city from 18th century onwards,” explained Bose, the lead instructor at the CETP summer school in Kolkata.
The three-week programme is designed to expand a student’s understanding of culture, community and their contemporary significance through honing skills of documentation, observation and analysis. The study had selected two ethnic settlements — old Chinatown and Bow Barracks — located in close proximity to further compare and cross-refer cultural strands that interweave to form Kolkata’s composite ethnic heritage.
The Chinese community in Kolkata has a 250-year-long history where old Chinatown forms the most distinctive settlement and the only one in South Asia. It continues to have a 2,000-strong population comprising both Cantonese and Hakka Chinese descent.
Bow Barracks, on the other hand, was built in 1918 for soldiers of the World War and has since been home to the Anglo-Indian community. Prior to independence, Kolkata was the largest and most permanent site of residence for this community of mixed descent, with over 100 families in the neighbourhood now.
The rich built heritage of both communities is, however, poorly documented as Bose discovered during the consultancy work for the Cha Project, an initiative to preserve Kolkata’s rich history, not glassed up in a museum but tangible, living heritage.
“Kolkata is architecturally a very under-studied place. I realized the paucity of base map while surveying old Chinatown. One of the first tenets of conservation is to have good sets of drawings, documenting each building that is of heritage value. The neighbourhood needs to be surveyed, information gathered, drawings of Chinese temples carried out. And it has to be done in a manner that involves the community so that they can then use these tools for the revival of old Chinatown,” said Bose.
Apart from visits to Chinatown and Bow Barracks to document ethnic neighbourhoods, the programme includes a panel discussion, trip to Danish colony Serampore and French settlement Chandannagore and a lime workshop at Scottish Cemetery in collaboration with the Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust.
“It is extremely exciting for architecture students from Denmark to have the chance to experience two foreign cultures — Indian and Chinese — at the same time and learn how to benefit from the tremendous wisdom and richness embedded in both. Denmark and India also share a short period of common history and we are curious to find and identify some common traces of the past on a visit to Serampore next week,” said Thomas Hilberth, associate professor, Aarhus School of Architecture, Denmark, and co-instructor in the programme.
Danish student Thea Dahl Orderud is bowled over by Kolkata. “The city’s cultural heritage peeks out from the everyday life of citizens; a way of living where the physical borders of houses is extended by its social activities. Never before have I experienced anything like this,” he remarked.
Prathyusha Ravi, a postgraduate student in architecture and conservation at CEPT, felt Kolkata had been a resilient canvas expressing unique painting of architecture and settlement of British, Chinese, Danish and Armenians. “As architects we study patterns that make the painting look perfect but contradicting imperfections add great value and beauty to the city. As citizens using and living in the canvas, it is in our hands to protect this great inheritance from fading. I hope that this documentation will be the first stepping stone for the same,” he added.