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     Volume 2 Issue 108 | March 1, 2009|


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An Architect's Dhaka

Mahbubur Rahman

Part Twenty Four

LOKENATH Brahmacharya for ever changed the life of Mathuramohan, a schoolteacher. To gratify Brahmacharya who cured his serious illness, Mathur Babu set up 'Shakti Oushadhalay' in Dayaganj in 1901. The large mansion that housed him and his pharmaceutical is offset by a garden from the road on south. This entrance is a single-height arcade that leads to the living room flanked by two rooms. Rooms on the east open to a colonnaded corridor with huge Doric columns with mixed foliage capitals. This opens to an oblong courtyard facing the Dholai Khal, and flanked by a gate house on the south and a family temple on the north. The unique gate house has a huge multi-foil arch entry and oriole windows; the small temple sits on a podium along this axis. Both these courtyards lead to an inner courtyard surrounded by corridors in the middle of the main block. Consisting of the fluted pillared facade and the rooms leading out of them, excellent light and shade play on the yard of moderate size and proportion.

Manik Babu built his house, aka Goala Bari, at Hazaribag. This ornately decorated two-storied pink mansion was spotted by a colleague of ours at BUET who had it documented in the early-1990s under a Ford Foundation grant the outcome of which is yet to be made available to anybody. Half a decade later a student under my supervision made an analysis of the building for her thesis. But Nirjhar brought this house into limelight though could not have it saved from destruction. He was very excited when the developer that was part of the oldest local business conglomerate agreed to wait till he could finish filming his first feature film 'Aha'; the storyline evolved around the old house. Being an architect turned film-maker, Nirjhar could really frame-in contemporary contradictions in urban Dhaka, with the fort, river, highrises, and the changing surroundings and the scale of the journey from the airport to familial old Dhaka! I believe it also depicted the isolation of every individual. Hence when he requested me to write the subtitle for the film, despite awful busyness and the songs being particularly very abstract, I couldn't say no.

The main structure and the outhouse of Goala Bari flanked the entrance court. The outhouse had verandas on its front and back; the features and spatial organization of the part of the house were in typical colonial bungalow fashion. The entry inside the house was through the living room, besides the secondary entries to the courtyards from the eastside alley. Besides two external courtyards, there were three inner courts, two on the east and one on the northwest corner. The northeast yard had the main rooms around while the southern one tied the services, kitchen and servant areas. The was no veranda around the court; rooms were entered directly from the courtyards. There were corridor links between some of the spaces. This house bore neo-classical motifs like fluted pseudo-Corinthian pilasters with acanthus leaf capital, wooden lattice, bridled console and bracket, dog tooth ornamentations, Gothic tracery, etc. Yet unfortunate may be, this gorgeous edifice with all its grandness and beauty was hit by the developers hammer just as filming of Aha was over.

Sankhanidhi House, Dance Hall that is no more and Radha Krishna Temple

The Saho Banik family built the magnificent Shankhanidhi Lodge (listed), Natmandir, Bhajohari Lodge, and Radha Binod Temple (listed) on the Tipu Sultan Road. The second brother Lal Mohan in 1921 built the two-storied Shankhanidhi Lodge around a courtyard with ornate Greco-Roman façade; the six double height graceful Corinthian columns accentuated its grandeur. The dramatic composition of side bays with three openings on each floor and pilasters in between treated with foliage could compete with Baroque palaces. A strip veranda fronts the large hall room; the floors are flagged with imported white marble. 'Shankha' motif, a family symbol, is extensively used on the facade. There was a handsome 20'X20' cottage at the southwest corner with small triangular wooden portico over ornamental iron posts.

Built sometime around 1925, the more ornate lodge of the eldest brother Bhajahari picked elements from many sources; the parapet delicately treated with triangular pediments incorporated traditional jalis creating a vertical rhythm in the skyline. The 150' long symmetrical grand facade is grafted with successfully fused elements from Indian and Gothic architecture. The three oriole windows, one with a conical top, the others with half-dome capping, were of Mughal origin while upper storey columns were inspired by temple architecture. The entry through an elongated trefoil arch below the middle oriole was the main entry topped by a gable roof glorifying Gothic influence in Dhaka's Architecture; the incompatible western block was a late-addition. Unlike the others in the group, this generally lacks plastered mouldings. Though built as a residence, Dramas were often staged in it. The ornamental fountain in the front has already disappeared. The building is now used by the Graduate School and Suhrawardi College who are in loggerhead and want to demolish the structure.

The family temple further down the street most successfully fused Indian and western styles. The cella is placed at the end of an axis through the front courtyard; its embellishment is similar to several other famous Bengal temples. The mandapa, approached by a broad flight, is supported by three multi-cusped arches on Corinthian round columns. The cella has three large wooden doors, intricately carved with floral scrolls. The floors are done with imported marble; windows are glazed with coloured glasses. The facade of this building too is profusely decorated with 'Shankha' motif. The North Indian temple columns on the two-storied side wings supporting a veranda above with multi-foil arch and projected eaves on brackets remind of the Mughal pavilions. Arches used in the ground floor are Gothic, while openings at the upper storey are European: articulated and moulded into Indian Multi-foil look. The railings of the upper floor gallery, inter-woven by twisted steel columns, remind Romanesque influence. The flat roof with projecting eaves copies those in the Rajasthani palaces.

The youngest brother Goura Nitai erected a well proportioned architecturally significant and ornate Nachghar (dance hall) to the east of Shankhanidhi Lodge. The fenestration of the temple-like structure on a 5' high podium reflected a Greco-Indian image.

Exterior openings with multi-cusped arch on slender Corinthian paired columns on kalasha base approached by 20' wide flight, fretwork on the crowning freestanding pediment, fluted domes on two octagonal protruding edges fronted by trefoil arches and crowned with finials were extra-ordinarily superb in composition and proportion, as an Indian-Gothic interpretation. This elegant building had a lofty hallroom in the middle with decorated ceiling and walls glazed in tiles. As the family migrated to India during 1971 the Ministry of Land took over the property and sold it later. The new owner demolished the Nachghar in 1991 to build temporary shops and stores. When informed of the imminent demolition, the Archaeology Department argued that laws against destructing listed property should deter the offenders. It didn't, and no legal action ensued as the dance hall was just a mere structure on record!

In between proof-reading BUET magazines in a place on the same road I would often stroll towards the Cemetery and Baldah Garden on the east and pass by these buildings on the south edge of Wari. Rooms were rented out to many weird uses, including a car workshop. I was involved with the cartoon magazine 'Unmad' during its initiation when we were at the first year of BUET; so were the authors of the excellent book 'From Pundranagaar to Sher E Banglanagaar' that documented 70 heritage buildings, and never realised that the Unmad Press was actually in the Shankhanidhi Lodge. However, few leases were cancelled in 2007 in face of criticism by the conservation activists and media, though the Archaeology Department utterly failed to protect them.

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