Love among the ruins

Calcutta was the great imperial city. Now, as Sophie James discovers, its architectural decay parallels Britain's vanishing significance in India
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The Independent Culture
In the old palm court at the Grand Hotel in Calcutta, giant palm trees surround the pool and an untypical breeze cools the tourists who sunbathe here, enjoying the reprieve from the dust and heat of the crowded streets outside. Across the din of the city, the sound of the cathedral bells of St Paul's can be heard in the court, one Imperial oasis, it appears, calling to another.

Suddenly and without warning, the peace is broken. Huge palm leaves fall 30 feet to the ground, narrowly missing the limbs of those resting under the tree. Tourists scatter. Then silence. Waiters and pool attendants comfort the bewildered, offering glasses of water and oriental philosophy. Those who have just escaped with their lives are assured that had they stayed indoors today, of course they would have fallen out of bed or perhaps tripped down the stairs. A sense of fate fills the court. The huge leaves are cleared away and the tourists settle down again. No one warns the new arrivals who manoeuvre themselves into the shade. In the space of four days, I observe this fated commotion three times.

Such a comic carry-on seems a metaphor for Calcutta's genial response to its own inevitable decline. This was once a great imperial city. Now throughout, from palaces to palm trees, forts to old Raj buildings, the city is witnessing an architectural decay of Roman proportions. In the year that celebrates the Jubilee of Independence, it is on its way to becoming the first charming ruin of Britain's imperial history in India. But like the waiter's mild response to the falling palms at the Grand Hotel, the citizens are philosophical. This is fate, or karma: the comeuppance of the Britishers' time here. And anyway, they say, in a city which copes with extreme heat and rain, architectural ruin is inevitable.

The local tourist-guide spin-doctors have embraced the decline, presenting it as an art form. Calcutta - the oriental Venice. They hang around in hotel lobbies trying to tempt visitors into exploring the town and letting Calcutta's infamy rub off on them. Few take them up on their offer. The common expectation about Calcutta is what is internationally famous about the city: poverty and pollution; Mother Teresa and starving babies.

Two hundred years ago it wasn't poverty that made Calcutta famous. As the capital of the Raj - until Delhi took over in 1911 - Calcutta was proud to be the grandest city built by Europeans outside Europe. It was a model classical city of cool white Palladian and Regency facades. The East India trading company had set the style when it opened its first free trading post here in 1690. Spectacular growth and private wealth followed. Eighteenth-century water-colour paintings show elegant, Napoleonic couples promenading with parasols against a broad vista of perfect neo- classical buildings. If it wasn't for the Indian servants and beggars tucked in at the corner of the pictures, this could easily be fashionable London society strolling out in Regents Park or Piccadilly.

Calcutta offers idiosyncratic treasures far away from the grim experience of the main commercial areas. On the ghats of the River Hoogly in the shadow of the Howrah Bridge and around the bazaars of north Calcutta, whole districts of undisturbed Regency, neo-Baroque and Gothic structures flourish: warehouses and wharves, private mansions and markets, arcades and colonnades supporting elaborately tiered buildings, chapels and graveyards. Not one of the structures stand immaculate, or even straight. The plaster is no longer white chunum, but painted carelessly in Indian pastel shades, green and pink, the colours washing into each other during the monsoons. Outside red-brick buildings, ornate iron spiral staircases twist upwards - and lead nowhere. Intricate wooden balconies with peeling wooden shutters play home to invading bania trees and bougainvillaea which have seeded themselves in the walls and burst through the brick.

These are not large imperial monuments, but they are more loved. This was Calcutta's work-a-day environment created by the wealthy trading communities of the British, the Indians and even the Americans, and inherited by the present communities. Standing in the local bazaars, the Tiretta, the Barabazaar and Machaabazaar - names which would never point to anything but oriental origin - I am surrounded by mango sellers and artisan shops, gold- and silversmiths, all flourishing against a backdrop of decaying European architecture. Trams and narrow cobbled streets replace the cars and thick black pollution of the main commercial areas. The barefoot rickshaw wallah - who the government has failed to ban - has space to be prince again and chases me down the street, begging to be of use. Chai-seller shelter from the heat in the neo-classical arcades and offer sweet tea; barrow- boys race bicycles in order to get a better look at an unusual guest. The atmosphere is heavy, busy and Dickensian. But, contrary to popular belief, it is far from unpleasant. And hidden around the dusty narrow streets are remarkable memorials to hard work and inherited wealth.

The most eccentric private house here wasn't built by the British, but by an Anglophile Indian. The orphan of a rich merchant, in 1835 Raja Rajendro Mullick was inspired by his English guardian to assemble vast quantities of European treasure. The result would make the National Trust burn with envy. A solid Palladian mansion remains that mixes the marble and gold grandeur of the Pitti Palace in Florence and the cobwebbed cosiness of Miss Haversham's home.

The Marble Palace, as Lord Curzon called it, is a fantasy of the unlikely. At its entrance, I find barefoot custodians in dhotis lying sleepy and incongruous on the marble floor of the large porte-cochere. A menagerie surrounds them; the garden and the open courtyard of the Palace have long been an impromptu zoo. Cages of parrots, macaws and, strangely, giant squirrels lie higgledy-piggledy, displayed between and around classical sculptures and watched by roaming peacocks.

Inside, the rooms and galleries are no less extraordinary and the custodian begins his guiding wide-eyed and disbelieving, as if this was his first visit, too. Thick with antique objets d'art, the rooms are scarcely visible for furniture , sculptures, figurines, stuffed animals and oil paintings. There are Belgian mirrors and ormolu clocks, Venetian chandeliers and Satsuma vases, classical and religious images, Renaissance and Baroque, all peeling, tarnished dusty - and probably priceless.

Warming to his task, the guide fires off random dates and confuses his classical references with a theatrical flourish: Christs and cupids merge; Aphrodite joins the Holy Family. The first earnest instinct to know facts about these pieces is quickly replaced by the apathetic enjoyment of sheer sensation. This is collecting Indian style. Like the Hindu temples with their excess of decoration - or the overwhelming street scenes where people and animals merge into one - the assembled objects become a gilt and marble blur. This collection is wonderful, absurd, loveable and unloved, all at the same time.

Legends vary about the exact stock at the Marble Palace: one or two Gainsboroughs, three or four Rubens, a Reynolds, a Murillo, some Titian, a statue by Michelangelo. The custodian looks offended when I press him to point to the Rubens. Are they not all great? Don't they all belong to one grand tradition? Of course they're all priceless! Enthusiastically imported here under the dictates of fashionable European taste, they are now abandoned, largely unknown by the passing tourists. They are part of Calcutta's waiting game and, like the palm trees and the palaces, must stick out their sentence against the heat and the humidity of a climate, which will inevitably overcome them.

At the opposite end of the street another neo-classical mansion lies tucked away. This time the house, with its stark classical silhouette, is nearly empty. What was the Tagore's family house is now a museum and a shrine, a university, a reference library and an art gallery, exhibiting hundreds of Tagore's mysterious paintings. His young disciples hang around on the verandah waiting to guide Indian pilgrims around the rooms and discuss Tagore's gentle humanism. White faces - apparently rare - are quickly adopted by students keen to show off the Tagore family domestic arrangements: here is the kitchen, this is the bed where Tagore slept, here is where his wife died. I am tested on the details of his biography, and fail miserably, although I do know that Tagore is famous for leading the Bengali renaissance. And exploring this mansion, it is clear how representative his family were of that peculiar Bengali dilemma - caught at a cultural crossroads, imitating the British, hating the British. "When in the village," he wrote resentfully, "I become an Indian. When I go to Calcutta, I become a European."

The architectural legacy of one of his family amply illustrates this. Down the road, the freshly knighted Jatindsamohan Tagore enjoyed his ennobled right to build his own castle - an extraordinary mix of Scottish Baronial and Bavarian Gothic, complete with plaster turrets and a clock tower.

Mansions like these were built close to the river, the conduit through which families first made their money trading tea, spices and opium. The ghats along this stretch are neither touristed nor promoted, but pullulate with practical, have-to-survive local crowds, selling, shaving, washing and praying.

At the American Ghat - a crumbling wharf - the bank is transformed into the flower market where hundreds of traders sell thousands of flowers. In the shadow of the Howrah Bridge, ropes of jasmine and tuberose coil up like snakes from large baskets, waiting to be bought by the temples and hotels. There are sunflowers and marigolds, gladioli and paan. The air is thick with pollen and the strong scents hide the nauseous smell of the river. As the heat rises, sacks of flowers in large tarpaulin bags are soaked in the river to cool them. Whatever is left at the end of the morning is given to the cows to eat and by 11.30am, felicitous images proliferate of cows breakfasting on the blooms. All this against the background of Victorian warehouses and an Armenian church.

It is, ironically, the cool, unpopulated churches in Calcutta which are the city's best maintained buildings, and the most visited. The present Christian communities are tiny but the church guardians are well trained in prompting sentimental visitors to donate generous sums. Or perhaps it is simply that foreign visitors respond best to what is most familiar. After all, the British built these churches to make themselves feel at home, imitating spire for spire, brick for brick, famous landmarks from their motherland: here on top of St Paul's Cathedral is the Bell Harry from Canterbury; here in the west window, is stained glass by Edward Burne- Jones, with pre-Raphaelite angels looking homesick under the tropical sun; and here at St John's is a full replica of St Martin's-in-the-Fields, in a congested corner far from Trafalgar Square.

In the south of Calcutta at Park Street Cemetery, an imperial village of the dead exists, the tombs as large as houses. No expense was spared to commemorate those who had given their lives to serving the Company, and later the Empire, and some critics claim that the imperial dead are rather better off than the local living. Large classical monuments line a miniature grid of avenues, with a wealth of trees and flowers. Obelisks, pyramids and temples with large rounded domes are half-hidden by acacia trees and bougainvillaea. The effect is like a jungle adventure in the Valley and the Kings. Inscriptions tell pathetic stories of early deaths. Young wives who died in labour; boy-clerks who caught typhoid; victims of shipwrecks or of monsoons, the heat, mosquitoes and tigers. Walking around these monuments, one is assailed by unbelief: were we really here? The young boys who run amok in the cemetery don't seem to care. They play cricket among the tombs, the obelisks and graveheads doubling as wickets.

When Calcuttans remember the British here, it is Victoria they think of most fondly. As with the Hindu goddesses, myths have grown up around her. It's a common belief that she visited India, staying in Calcutta and blessing the poor. She represents to many people an archetypal Indian female figure: matriarchal - like the large mamas at the heart of Bengali families - fertile, stout and benign. Her statue is everywhere in the city, sitting plumply in bronze outside the Victoria Memorial, immune to the gentlemen teasing her and covered in birdshit; or as a wooden bust in the Marble Palace, riddled with wood worm and confused by the custodian with Diana, the huntress.

We must thank Victoria. She never did visit Calcutta, but she did give the city its greatest monument in the Victoria Memorial. The collection of white marble domes is reminiscent of the Taj Mahal - and, some guides will tell you, designed by the same architect - and surrounded on all sides by the broad open vistas of the Maiden. Clive cleared the jungle to make these two square miles of parkland and it remains remarkably unchanged after a hundred years: an expanse of honest green.

The best time to come here is at dawn. Because of the heat, Calcutta is more alive at six in the morning than it is at noon. I take a taxi to the Maiden and am thankful that for once the streets are not the black tubes of diesel pollution they become in the rush hour. But already the traffic is building up: dogs and cattle, rickshaw wallahs and pedestrians seem to me to be lost in some of the world's worst traffic. This is why tourists stick like glue to the swimming pools at the main hotels, whatever the cost of falling palms.

As we approach the Maiden, in the ethereal mist of morning smog, the white dome rises up from the ground. This was one of the last buildings that the British built in Calcutta, and, possibly by accident, it suits the native landscape and those who flock to see it. Notices scattered around the building prohibiting yogic exercises don't seem out of place. People here are oblivious to my alien face, too intent on enjoying their space. In a city which has so much poverty and pollution, this is a pastoral scene - cool, calm, quiet and proof that the village origins, even in modern Calcutta, will never die. Herds of goats amble across the green led by child-shepherds and elderly couples promenade before the heat forces them indoors. Dogs are walked, and polo ponies exercised; young lovers huddle beneath the trees before work; solitary individuals practise yoga; and the cricketers play. Against the Memorial's perfect white silhouette, this is the resilient heart of Calcutta, a monstrous and marvellous city. A place of paradox where you either come to terms with decay, or fall in love with it. !