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     Volume 2 Issue 106 | February 15, 2009|


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An Architect's Dhaka

Dr. Mahbubur Rahman

Part Twenty Two
Northbrook Hall, 100 years ago and now
Dhaka's looking back to heritage for a new lease of life can start from the crowded and forgotten old Dhaka where the craft (and caste)-based settlements had thrived before Dhaka was made the capital of Bengal. This is where the old graceful buildings still stand as reminiscence of the magnificence and grandeur that they once embodied. A tryst with the past can experience the pulse of the vibrating mahallahs among the maze of lanes and by-lanes, ambling through its 700 masjids, 52 bazaars and 53 galis. Among dilapidation and despair, there are variegated scenes of hope and glory. An enamoured journey through Farashganj or Shakharibazaar can rediscover the beauty and tradition inherent in the indigenous city.

The French found settlements in Tejgaon in around 1680. With permission from Naib Nazim Nawajesh Khan in 1740, they prospered in trading Muslin, crystal, essence, wine etc. for over half a century. The French traders had their office at the western end of Farashganj, in the Rangmahal of Sheikh Enayetullah, a Zamindaar from Faridpur. Ali Mian acquired the building in 1835 (or 1838 according to some) either from the French, or from Matiullah who may have repossessed his father's properties as the French left. The mansion later became the Andarmahal, as a new Rangmahal was built by Ali Miah's son Abdul Gani, who named it the Ahsan Manzil after his favourite son. Mr. Pogose, an Armenian businessman and philanthropist, leased part of Farashganj from the English, though it belonged to the French who were ousted by the British despite saving their lives as Napoleon lost the war. An interesting court case was fought as to whom the tax should be paid; the English judge sided with his compatriots.

Vegetable, cement, timber and spice wholesaling over-spilled from Shyambazaar on the Buckland Bundh into Farashganj a treasure trove of both colonial and hybrid architecture. It is full of derelict and often abandoned palatial mansions, many over 150 years old and yet ornately disposed, like the houses of Basanta Babu, Prasanna Babu, Ashu Babu, Jatin Saha, Ruplal, Uma Babu, etc. Besides there are few centuries old buildings Bihari Lal Jeo Mandir, Bibi ka Raoza, Shiv Mandir, Gokul Roy's Samadhi, Lal Kuthi, etc. About a km long BK Das Road is elongated East-West starting from the Adi Basanta Babur Bari up to the Kuthi. However, parts of this road are variously named that evolved over the years, like for many roads of the city.

In my first year at the university, I got involved with a Marxism study group, led by a current Dhaka University Professor who never stood second. We used to regularly meet at the eastern veranda of what was then the Public Library, the second modern building in Bangladesh which has just recently been included in the list of 100 protected buildings by the government. It eventually led to a cultural troupe for whom I even wrote a few patriotic songs and a skit. To hold one of our programs we selected Lalkuthi, at that time a very popular venue for staging drama, as usual oblivious of its history for few more years.

We took the popular murir tin from Gulistan to stop right in front of the Kuthi. After visiting the venue on our first day, one of us proposed that we visit his sister's in-laws in Gandaria. So another murir tin, which actually runs till Narayanganj, took us across the Dholai Khal over the Lohar Pul, my first time through Banglabazaar, believed to be the oldest part of Dhaka, Johnson Road, Farashganj and Sutrapur.

Toylor, D'Oyly, Davidson and Hridaynath have written much about the khal and Dhaka's civility; D'Oyly drew a serene Dholai in 1826. Almost the full length of it is now under a box culvert giving in in phases (1970s, 1990s and recently) to a major road; its tributaries are constricted and the branches off it can no more be traced. The area now houses trucking and machine parts manufacturers. To my horror after returning from the middle-east few years back, I saw the Loahr Pul is gone too! There was no protest when DCC dismantled this historic landmark. Like many others across the khal, there was a Mughal bridge over it near Lohar Pul. Magistrate Walters built a suspension bridge in 1828; an elephant was passed over it to test the strength. People made rhymes about it: Walter saab naya pool banaya/Uske neeche ganj basaya/Aor Chwak dhari Kaman Lagaya/Gur gur chal... (Mr. Walter has built a new bridge, set up a market beneath, protected by four cannons). The pul too was associated with the socio-cultural history of old Dhaka as a living testimony of community cooperation. Looking west I could see the superb Sitanath Roy Chowdhury's house, which is no more there. To the right were the remnants of two small killas on the canal mouth, not there any more. Only the big white Rebati Mohan Saha's house on the left, across the Sutrapur Thana building on the canal remains, only to be abused by the Fire Service Department despite the protected status!

Ruplal House, 100 years ago and now

The citizens of Dhaka to commemorate the visit by Lord Northbrook in 1874 erected Lalkuthi (Northbrook Hall), an elegant Indo-Saracen building, opened in 1880 by the Commissioner. Subsequently used as a town hall, public library, telegraph office, women's college, and various offices, it blended the Mughal and Renaissance elements cunningly. The library was started with 1000 books, procured mainly from the UK, supported by many zamindaars some of whom otherwise were known as oppressor of their raiyats. The horseshoe arches, projected bay over the northern entry with a trefoil arch, four octagonal minarets, ornamental parapet, towering pinnacles, distinguished the Mughal elements. The deep red colour of the grand structure, along with a small temple and the hybrid style Johnson Hall, now occupied by a sports club, gave a spectacular view from the river, and feature prominently in all late-19C photos of the city's riverfront. A government education office erected by its side in 1998, part of which is now used by a decorator, and a pentagram fountain now disrespectfully obscure the view.

However, the multi-court mansions are the most notable Farashganj edifices. These used cast iron railing and balusters, often designed and manufactured in Kolkata, lime plaster on small hand-made bricks, and Greco-Roman columns with ornate capitals. Built by the late-19 and early-20C nuevo-riche, these are now mostly in the hands of the government or illegal occupiers; none shows any remorse in striping them off of the ornaments and grace. Only three of them are listed as protected properties by the Archaeology Department, the care stops at that. The emerging elite ruled the society by virtue of its socio-economic might, reflected in the ways and places of living. The manipulation of forms and images of glory had a vast appeal to the emancipated individual who rose to lead the society despite being a native. He endeavoured to consolidate his status by acquiring taste for things western, most visible and expressive in the houses.

The classical style adored by the local elite and British patronisation gave birth to a hybrid Indo-Saracen style. This enabled them to adhere to both tradition and prestige, a habit acquired by them over a century. The introvert plan, verandas and courtyards with functional, climatic and cultural roles retained the traditional organization draped with the transformed facades. Building scale, grandeur, and ornamentation were testimony of the owner's affluence and acquaintance with the colonisers who used neo-classical turrets, arches, pediment, columns, capitals, foliated motifs, entablature, architrave, freeze and cornices in buildings, and also incorporated a few local elements like overhanging eaves and wooden lattices.

The rich spent money made in salt, tannery, brick and currency businesses, for socio-cultural and philanthropic causes generosity extended to bringing utility services to the city too; they befriended the British for mutual benefits. They built large mansions first along the riverfront, farther to the east and west and later in the north of Mughal Dhaka. Charles D'Oyle in the early 19C drew sketches of two dozens of such houses on the Buckland Bundh, some of which can be viewed at the national museum, though often not displayed don't know why. These buildings have several courts; most had a separate outhouse and terraces. At the front they used classical columns and other elements along a central axis that gave a sense of awe and formality; the facade symmetry was extended through the often double-height hall rooms. The spatial progression from court to the sanctum, maintained in the level of privacy and the nature of the space, defined the relationships of allowed activities and spaces.

Basanta Kumar Das's house or Baijibari on Basanta Kumar Das Road (left), Front of Ruplal House, encroached upon by illegal structures.

Many of them had notorious stories of luxury and entertainment money could buy, stupefying wealth and tremendous power, mystifying characters and intrigue events. However, the days of horse driven cart under the grand porch, or the bright nights lighted with twinkles of baijees, numbers by kawals, and tinsels are long gone, along with the splendour and glitter. Alone stand the skeletons in desolation and disarray to remind us of their once glory and galore, mirth and merry. In early-1996 I took a group of foreigners to a Walking Tour through Lakshmibazaar and Farashganj; among them were a renowned Bangladeshi architect and a sculptor. The architect was the only non-Singaporean who won Singapore's National Award while the sculptor has recently been honoured with our National Award. They told me with just little care, glare, and embellishment, these could attract millions of foreign tourists, while we have wishfully thought somebody shall do it, someday!

From money exchanger in the footpaths of Banglabazaar, Mathura Nath became a banker. But he could not earn the dignity and status till his sons Madhusudan and Swarup Chandra bought zamindaari, the only way to climb the rungs to aristocracy, and founded one of the leading families of late-19C Dhaka. Swarup bought a house from Aratone- a rich and influential Armenian salt merchant who loved kite flying, pigeon and cockfight. The Calcutta Martin Company modified and extended the original house to rival the Ahsan Manzil; Ruplal and Raghunath inherited them. Ruplal, a music connoisseur, used to arrange jalsas in the house, where renowned musicians like Ustad Alauddin Khan and Lakshmidevi used to perform. A ball, held in the house to receive Lord Dufferin during his 1888 visit, and attended by the top socialites, demeaned all other mansions in Dhaka in prestige, ands remained long in the memory of the Dhakaites. Raghunath's part, now named Nurjahan House, is occupied by Mr. Murad who claims to have exchanged his Kolkata property with the original owners. One of my students told me that his uncle did the same with the Ruplal House, but despite court cases have failed to take possession.

The complex consists three blocks- the imposing western one of Ruplal in hybrid style, the more ornate eastern one of Raghunath using mostly local elements, and a connecting gable-roof structure over two archways fronted by the entry court. It was possibly surrounded by gardens up to the Buckland Bundh on the south which is now occupied by the bazaar. The bed rooms are in the upper floors with terraces to pan on the river. Anybody can enter the house, a listed property now occupied by the BDR personnel and the spice traders, and roam around, or climb a broken wooden stair to go to the roof for a panoramic view of the river. I am unsure about the legality of lower level BDR staff living there as I enquired with very high level in the army who seemed to be oblivious of it!

Each block has two courts surrounded by rooms; the dance hall in the upper floor is well decorated with wooden floor and relief ceiling.

The north entrances fronted by foyers are grandly disposed with double height fluted columns with Corinthian capitals, pediment and entablature. These lead to the internal court surrounded by colonnades to connect other rooms around. The western block is different in external treatment; its second entry facing the entrance court has no arches. The columns are of hybrid origin, made with plaster moulding on round bricks; same way stone details were imitated in other places over brick. On the other hand in Raghunath's house plain round columns on square bases and capitals have been used. Wooden floor and relief ceilings were decorated with stucco and gold gilt patterns.

The government first in 1963 took up a Buckland Bundh scheme to revive the promenade between Mill Barrack and Babubazaar, but failed. Restricting the movement of trucks in early-1980s saw much of wholesale market being shifted to Kawranbazaar and Gabtali. Currently the Inland Water Authority is preparing a project that shall evict all encroachments along the riverfront, and introduce recreational activities to be maintained by the communities. Recently I also heard that there are talks about vacating the place of all illegal occupiers, conserve it and adopt tourist reuses. Definite proposals were made by architects attending a conservation workshop in 1989. However, any such move, though welcome, should take into cognisance the river, traffic and businesses and should consider the entire frontage with the remaining mansions like the Ahsan Manjil, BAFA, Lal Kuthi, etc.

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