WARI A Heritage Crumbling in the High-rise Scramble
Syed Maqsud Jamil
Everyday Wari is losing the remnants of its heritage to high-rise scramble. The look of the first planned neighbourhood of Dhaka is undergoing wholesale change. It is taking place at a brisk pace. A few years from now, only the north-south and east-west network of roads, their British Raj names and the Baldha Garden will be all that will perhaps remain. It has a cluster of English colonial names in Rankin, Larmini, Wyer, Folder and Hare street. The few local names are Nawab and Chandi Charan Bose Street. There is however another one by the name of A.K. Sen Lane. A.K.Sen or Akshya Kumar Sen was the commissioner of Dhaka Municipality. Baldha Garden with its two sections of Cybele and Psyche form the eastern boundary of Wari with the Christian Cemetery on the other side of the road. Rankin Street, the main artery runs like an arrow from north near Joy Kali Mandir or precisely B.C.C. (Bama Charan Chakravarty) Road to hit the southern end at Tipu Sultan Road formerly Madan Mohan Basak Road.
The entire area of Wari is marked right and left by dismantled houses, mixer machines churning out mortar for the new construction and by sands, bricks, brick chips and rods piled up on the road. It is the general scenario with solitary sights of pre-partition mansions, bungalows and sprawling houses of the fifties, sixties and even of early seventies. They are waiting for their turn to succumb to high-rise scramble. Many of the high-rise buildings are unlike the six-story high apartment blocks and reach up to stunning heights of 10-12 floors. Wari now has a skyline to match the rest of Dhaka. But the rare trees of Baldha Garden put up by Anami Prasad Roy Chowdhury is under threat by the lengthening shadows of the high-rise buildings.
Wari is among the highlands of Dhaka. It is known to be above the flood level. The Mughals used this vast tract of land for garrisoning their troops in large tents or Wari in Persian. It was during the time of British District Magistrate Mr. T. J. Rankin in 1880 A.D. the area was developed for building a planned neighbourhood. The whole area was divided in to 1(one) bigha residential plots with a network of 30 feet wide north-south and east-west roads. It became a posh residential area for the Hindu elites and professionals of the town. On the other hand, a part of Begumbazar developed into residential area for the Muslim elites. Names of the members and their forefathers of the Nawab family of Dhaka are to be found in Hafizullah Road, K.M. Azam Lane etc. However, Begumbazar was never a planned neighbourhood.
Many Hindu celebritie and elites had their palace and mansion in Wari. The red brick palace of the Zamindar of Dhala in Rankin Street is reminiscent of the architectural landmarks of Lord Curzon's time. It was taken over by the then government after Indo-Pak War of 1965 and was converted into School Text Book Building. Adjacent to it is 37 Rankin Street, celebrated for being the residence of the noted physician of the time, Dr. Bhabesh Chandra Nandi. A small section of his house is still visible. In the same row, there is a small house of Late Justice Debesh Chandra Bhattacharya the father of Dr. Debapriya Bhattacharya. Dr. Amartya Sen had his parental house in Larmini Street. The building that came up in place of Dr. Sen's parental house has also been dismantled and a new high-rise building is coming up. Manik Ghosh's mansion on the Larmini and Chandi Charan Bose Street cross-section with sprawling compound in front of it is among the oldest houses of Wari. I have seen late nineteenth century memorial plaques in its compound consecrating the memories of his grand parents. Front part of the compound on the two sides of the main gate was sold out earlier. The frontal access to the building is shuttered up and I have learned that it is under the custody of somebody else. It is a matter of time for the Manik Ghosh mansion to perish and for a high-rise building to take its place.
Manik Ghosh's House
There is a bungalow type house overgrown with parasitic plants in 6 Nawab Street, on the western periphery of Cybele part of Baldha Garden. It is a pre-partition structure and the compound is now curved out in many plots. Mrs. Fazilatunnessa Mujib, wife of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman along with his other family members took asylum here for few days after the crackdown of 25th March. The house is in a pitiable condition. I have learned that its present owners are planning to develop it. Kabitangon, the elegantly built house on Rankin Street, was the residence of Justice Nurul Islam and poetess Jahanara Arzoo for a long time. It is reported that after 1947 it also served as the consular office of Indian High Commission. The front part of it is now blocked by a clinic and a new constructed building - big earth cutting machines are gouging up the backyard of the house for another high-rise building.
Most of the post-partition residents have left Wari and those who remain are waiting for their time to leave or to end up in an apartment on their land. When I think of Wari, I recall few lines by celebrated Urdu poet Meer Taqi Meer on the tragic fate of Mughal Delhi. While Old Delhi was devastated by the swords of Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali, Wari has been overwhelmed by the demands of an expanding city. Wari will have no heritage to live with. Once Wari was the hub of a rich cultural life. I remember plays being staged at the sprawling compound of 4 Rankin Street. Altaf, Farid Ali, Khan Jainul and others spearheaded the group. It was perhaps in the fifties I saw the drama Ei Parkey or This Park staged here. The famous music director Robin Ghosh and his brothers, the industrialist Badal Ghosh and film director Ashoke Ghosh grew up in Wari. Shubash Dutta was in Wari for a long time till he shifted to some other place. The parental house of eminent footballer Salahuddin or Turja was in Wari. Noted novelist of the country Razia Mahbub still lives in her residence in Rankin Street with her painter daughter Masuma Khan.
A wind of change is sweeping over Wari. The new Wari will have no link with her past. All will however be not lost for Wari for it will hopefully have Baldha Garden. It can serve as a befitting link to its heritage. Like human beings, the Garden will need a supportive natural environment to thrive. I am afraid that the wholesale high-rise scramble will put it under siege. The present trend is spreading rapidly and looks like ending only at the last obstacle, the walls of Baldha Garden. An imposing high-rise apartment complex is already there as the neighbour of Psyche, on the southern side near the Narinda Square. Besides, the general lack of the uniformity in the height of the new constructions and the desperado nature of their execution naturally raises questions about the law-abiding aspect of the high-rise scramble. It is difficult to find respect for social and environmental concerns in it. The garden will need an outer perimeter of sufficiently good size to allow sun and air for the trees of the garden and to impart it an exclusive entity.
Wari is a typical case of metropolitan malaise. Like many parts of the city particularly the older section, it is becoming a welter of commercial greed and residential needs. Almost the entire part of old Dhaka is doomed to chaotic existence. It is the general picture of old Dhaka that almost every house has a warehouse or stores in its frontal portion. Wari is no longer an exception in this regard. Big warehouses are sprouting up in the ground and basement floors in once quiet areas. Large covered vans and trucks loaded with goods packed high to the overhead wire are lined up on the roads.
The features of the planned neighbourhood in Wari are being obliterated by the incursions of commercial greed. Changes do come with time. Neighbourhoods therefore do change. People come and go. Buildings make way for bigger and better ones. But when the change obliterates the founding features and purpose, the change is not a mere march of the time, it is a loss. Except for the Baldha Garden Wari's link with the past or heritage, if one wants to call it so, is crumbling in the high-rise scramble.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006