The Raj Bhavan in Kolkata has been aesthetically refurbished and thrown open to the public.
When His Excellency, the Governor of West Bengal, Viren Shah was being sworn in as the head of the state, he couldn’t have missed the sense of history permeating the air that surrounded him.
The Durbar Room where he was taking oath of office was the same place in which his predecessors had spoken similar lines in the past. The grand Raj Bhavan- now nearly 200 years old- had witnessed history on many occasions. Before Independence, Government House, as it was called then, had been home to British viceroys and Governor-Generals.
From the records of Lord Curzon we learn that the Marquis of Wellesley had drawn inspiration from Kendleston Hall in Derbyshire when he was constructing this building. The Marquis, had in fact, spent the grand sum of Sicca Rupees 7,02,320 for the building and Sicca Rupees 571,500 for the nine acres of land on which it was built.
The Government House’s illustrious residents included a veritable who’s who of the British regime. These included the illustrious Lords. Wellesley, Cornwallis, Minto, Bentinck, Dalhousie, Elgin, Mayo and Curzon. Each one of them played a decisive role when India was under the British rule. While the grandeur of the erstwhile Government House, home to the Governor Generals, impressed more or less every visitor who had a opportunity to view the luxuriously appointed interiors, there were a few whose opinion differed even then. Thus Tom Raw had this to say rather irreverently:
“In such a palace one might have expected
A splendid staircase, as at home we find
In noble edifices well-erected,
And made in spacious turns and sweeps to wind.
But there forsooth, there’s nothing of the kind,
It certainly a strange and very rare case is,
One must suppose the architect was blind,
When there was so much room and lots of spare places.
When Lord Wellesley was informed of this defect, he was keen to rectify it immediately. The architect, however, refused to comply due to some practical considerations. The governor was left with no choice but to leave the architecture the way it was.
Since Calcutta was India’s political capital, Government House played a pivotal role in the history of our country. The power brokers met in the Council Chamber - the Governor General’s Legislative Council - brought into existence in 1861 after the Crown had taken control. The marble floored ballroom is also historically significant because it is the place where the first important celebrations were held after the building opened in 1803. The commemorate the occasion, Lord Curzon held a fancy dress party in 1903 when guests were asked to dress up in costumes worn in 1803.
Thousands of miles away from their home, when the men fought bloody wars against natives and hunted tigers and boars, the women suffered in isolation. With retinues of personal attendants, the memsahib had precious little to occupy her. In sheer boredom, some turned to gardening. The South Garden, now so lush with its green lawns, beds of flowers and lily pools took shape under the care of Lady Many (1869-72) and Lady Lytton (1876-1880).
In the present context, if any casual onlooker takes a look through the imposing gates of Raj Bhavan, he would think that the grand old edifice has remained unchanged over the years. Nothing could be further from the truth as Anjana Shah will tell you. When her husband was sworn in two years ago, the Raj Bhavan in a sorry state. Looking at the musty interiors of the building, she wanted to rush back to her tastefully done up apartment in Mumbai. Mercifully she didn’t.
Today, the aesthetically refurbished interiors reflect the First Lady’s personal touch. The task of renovating Raj Bhavan was an extremely difficult one. Not only did the Governor’s office, the Durbar and public reception areas needed urgent attention, it was equally important to restore suites such as Prince of Wales, Anderson, Wellesley and Duffer in which were used by dignitaries. Anjana went about her mission with grim determination.
Floors were stripped off layers of black paint and the wood beneath was polished. Tiled flooring was laid out to replace chipped slate floors. Next, orders were placed for furniture that would complement the interiors of Raj Bhavan. Digital prints - relevant to the history of the heritage building - were put up in the suites. Paintings dating back to ancient times were repaired by professionals. Thanks to Anjana’s efforts, Raj Bhavan looks exactly the way it did in the past. But there’s a difference. Now the Indian tricolour flies from the flagstaff of the building.
For the first time in the history of the city, Raj Bhavan has thrown its gates open to the public. Like the interiors, much has changed at the Governor’s residence.