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     Volume 2 Issue 107 | February 22, 2009|


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An Architect's Dhaka

Dr. Mahbubur Rahman

Part Twenty Three
Reboti Mohan Das was among the first elected commissioners of the Dhaka Municipality. Like many of his contemporary elite social workers, he made a large fortune by exchanging and lending money. Despite being listed and supposedly protected, about 50 families of the Fire Service Department now live in this house in Jaluanagar, aka Sutrapur Zamindaarbari and Saadabari- one of the grandest mansions of Dhaka built in the early 20th Century. On the west bank of Dholai Khal, the house can be entered through the south portico leading to a foyer before the main living room. Another entrance through a double height foyer exists to the west, made rather monumental by the slender columns flanked by solid blocks on either side containing the stairs. My hunch is that it looked over a garden, and had a second living room behind it. With six turret pinnacles, and windows with tri-foil lunettes and console with garland motif, this side was in fact the street façade. Yet a watchtower of the Fire Department now obscures it so much so that you may often pass this grand mansion without noticing it.

There are two major inner courtyards in this mansion, connected by a double-loaded corridor running on the west. All these yards are now filled up with illegal makeshift structures. The outhouse, with servants and guest quarters around a semi-public courtyard surrounded by veranda, had steps down to the Dholai khal on the east. The first of three more courtyards is encircled by various domestic activity spaces. Rooms of varying sizes are arranged around it in a simple manner. There are a number of stairs. Beside bedrooms, the first floor has several terraces facing the khal. Almost adjacent to this mansion to its north is another large 3-storied building within the same compound, believed to have been built later by Reboti's brother. It has a large court on the north-east separated by a colonnade from the khal side. Such freestanding colonnades, very much European, have added to the sensual quality of many such mansions by enclosing intimate spaces.

Façade of Prasanna Babu's House at 45 BK Das Road

Jatindra Kumar Saha was a zamindar from Tangail. Behind the main Farashganj Road, his house a.k.a. Mangalaloy, now houses a Hostel for the Kabi Nazrul College students. The grand entrance foyer in the north is distinguished with a projecting convex stepped plinth, heavy square piers and huge pillars. Next is a big veranda, flanked by a stair and an exterior room, leading to the living room and the corridor around the main courtyard. The symmetry is broken inside which has lateral rooms and the south veranda connected through the corridor. There are four courtyards. The northwest yard adjacent to the road has a separate entry. Its surrounding rooms were probably used for public purposes like katchari, guestrooms etc. The southwest courtyard was for the services and servants. There are terraces on the south and southwest on the first floor accessible to the family members only.

Prasanna Babu, another of such moneylenders and traders, built his magnificent mansion in Farashganj more than a century ago. The south-facing 40'X200' house built on the property line has an alley running along the eastern wall and also at the back. The axial entry through the facade block of a guardhouse, guestrooms and bureau in low-height rooms led to a colonnaded public courtyard. The internal part of the house is accessed through grand steps toward an entrance lobby flanked by two small square rooms in the next block. On the facade, there is a curved balcony with cast iron balustrades overhanging the commercial street. Very unique, the scale and beauty of this frontcourt can only be perceived in no other way but by being there.

A Mansion near Mitford owned by the Bhawal Raja

An axis with symmetrically arranged rooms on both sides led to the family courtyard of half the width size, the rest consisted of a room and a staircase. This extended to another court at the back accommodating services, a semi-basement for washing areas, the servants and storage, which could be accessed from the side alley. There were separate staircases for the public, family and service areas. The first floor included parts of the service area, the guardhouse and habitable rooms. The entire upper floor is inter-connected, the front part through an open corridor above the colonnade.

This building attracted a lot of media attention as one of the brothers owning the house demolished the rear part of it that belonged to him to make way for a totally out of scale high-rise apartment. We from BUET once tried to bring this building in the limelight in early-1990s, though could not locate the owner then. I documented the building three times, and used to conduct a walking tour in the mid-1990s. This time through the tireless efforts of the only two conservation activists in the country, who happened to be architects, some awareness has been generated and demolishing of the rest has hopefully been thwarted. The RajUK is now seriously considering applying the idea of Development Rights Transfer by allowing the back part to use up all the floor spaces allowed for the whole site but retain the surviving rest of this beautiful piece of architecture.

Brahma Samaj Rammohon Library

Zamindar Sitanath Roy Chowdhury of Barisal bought a house from Basanta Kumar Das (of BK Das Road fame) who had other houses in Farashganj, for example the one known as the Baijeebari next to that of Prasanna Babu. The detailing of the arches, round columns on the ground floor, piers on the upper floor along the iron railing, and incomplete dance hall on the upper floor surrounded by stained glass windows gave elegance to this mansion, .ak.a. Adi Basanta Babur Bari or Zamindar Bari. Since we spotted and documented the building twice in the mid-1990s, the inheritors were hoping that it would catch the authority's attention and conservation would be possible. What hurts me most is that we made small approaches, which were not enough to save this despite the fact that the owners were cooperating fully. After my return from a teaching job in the Middle East, I heard that they sold the property and left the country; the jewel in the crown of Farashganj was already grinded dirt by the developer for building a market.

To my despair I cannot now locate any of the photographs taken more than a decade ago, except a few hastily drawn on-site sketches of the inner courtyard(s) and external architectural elements!

The east-west elongated house looked over the famous Lohar Pul over the Dolai Khal, which has also vanished. There was an alley along the south, with secondary entry from there while the north had open spaces. The entrance veranda led to the hall room, backed by an inner room. Next to it was the semi-public courtyard surrounded by corridor and rooms. The symmetrical arrangement had flanking rooms on both sides of the hall, living room and entrance veranda. The staircases and other rooms on either side of the courtyard were symmetrically arranged too. The first courtyard was connected to the family yard with a double-sided corridor. This had colonnades around it linking the bedrooms and a service court at the back that consists of a well and a narrow staircase up to a terrace. The terrace surrounded by high walls took a third of the first floor area to the west.

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