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Victoria Memorial

Like Shah Jahan, Lord Curzon wanted to write history in marble and sandstone. Victoria Memorial, the monument of his dreams was built to pay homage to a legendary monarch. It has survived the city’s tumultuous history and become an integral part of its imperial legacy. This year the Victoria Memorial will be seventy year ol.

When Lord Curzon died,his youngest daughter Lady Alexandra Metcalfe was by his side. She heard the old man faintly whisper the two words-Victoria Memorial just before the breathed his last. Lady Alexandra could not have heard wrong as a major part of her father’s life was dedicated to the construction of this mausoleum. Curzon, unpopular though he was in Bengal for having partitioned the great province, presented its premier city, Calcutta this beautiful edifice. Long before the monument was erected, curzon was aware that the building would survive him and become an integral part of the city’s imperial legacy. Alighting from his pahaeton near the Maidan, he would wonder what the marble structure would look like after completion. He would dream o its brilliant whiteness and would pride himself in having visualized this piece of exquisite architecture.

Curzon had the mind of a true architect. Like Shah Jahan, he wanted to write history in marble and sandstone. Calcutta’s magnificent Raj Bhavan, which served as the Viceroy’s residence before the capital was shifted to Delhi in 1991 was built during his reign. Raj Bhavan is presently the official house of the west Bengal Governor. Victoria Memorial was the result of a faithful servant’s unflinching loyalty to his royal masters. Once he d3ecided to go ahead with the scheme and received the green signal from the British Government, Curzon was an inspired man. His noval method of raising resources and collecting objects d’art displayed his keen interest in the matter. However, Curzon who had conceived the museum and worked hard to implement the project left the country when the construction had only just began. Fate was so cruel to him that he did not figure among the invitees at the inaugural function in 1921. by then, Curzon,s contribution was forgotten.

In 1991, the Victoria Memorial will be 70 years old. It has survivd some crucial decades in the city’s tumultuous history, fraught with the impact of partition and blood spilled by the unsuccessful terrorist movement of the Naxalites. Today, it stands in the heart of Calcutta Maidan, gleaming under the blistering summer sun with the black bronze angel atop the dome moving noiselessly. Every morning, the health-conscious middle class occupy its sprawling lawns and walk around the garden-the total area of which is not less than 26 hectares. In the evenings, the picturesque building is washed by a soft glow of arch lights.

Bathed in a haunting blue. It evokes memories of the British Raj. Opposite the main entrance, darkness engulfs the stretch of the Maidan known as the Brigade Parade Ground and the flickering lamps of the phuchkawallahs quiver in the distance. In a city where there has been a severe recession in the tourism industry, the marble halls and galleries containing priceless art objects and important historical documents still draw a large number of outsiders.

The story behind the construction of this beautiful monument is very interesting. Queen Victoria, the grand empress died at the age of 94. for long she had symbolized permanence. It was said about her, when the Queen is in Buckingham Palace the people of England sleep well. No wonder her death was a blow to Englishmen. The demise also shocked the sahibs in Calcutta. It was Lord Curzon who raised the issue of erecting a monument as a mark of homage to Queen Victoria through newspaper advertisements published in “The Englishman” and “The Statesman.” He repeated the proposal in two subsequent gatherings of the city’s elite. He proposed that a solemn mausoleum be constructed at the center of a beautiful garden. Even Indians were invited to the condolence meetings where the proposal was placed for discussion. The idea was appreciated and approved by all those who were present. Curzon, who preferred to abide by democratic norms, sought advice from various quarters regarding the probable site and the nature of construction.

Several suggestions were put forward. Someone recommended the vacant plots around Sealdah railway station as th ideal location. It was argued that this would enable visitors to the city to have a glimpse of the memorial as soon as they stepped out of the platform. Sir Gurudas Banerjee wanted the museum to contain documents and objects depicting the Indian heritage and he laid stress on models portraying stories from epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Sir Surendranath Banerjee seemed to have put forward the most practical suggestions. The firebrand nationalist felt that the museum would be extremely popular if it narrated episodes from the country’s past with special emphasis on ethnic groups like the Sikhs, Rajasthanis and the Marathas. Obviously, Sir Surendranath desired that great moments in the history of India nationalism be given prominence.

Curzon, however, dodged these suggestions with unmatched cunning. Without sounding harsh and authoritative, he had his way and overruling the advice of the Indian intelligentsia declared that the museum would focus its attention on Indo-British history and would date from the advent of the Raj. Since British rule was still continuing, he also ruled that the museum would not contain exhibits connected in any way with a living person. Even art objects to be on display in the museum would deal exclusively with this particular period in Indian history.

Not a single paise was raised outside the India sub-continent for the memorial. Curzon appealed for funds and he received immediate response-both from the mercantile elite, comprising the burgeoning industrial classes and chambers of commerce; as well as the princely kingdoms who assured help despite their depleting coffers. Within two days, curzon had been promised a sum of Rs.2,65,000. it has been alleged that some of the Indian royal families did not come forward voluntarily. They understood that if they dissociated themselves from the prestigious project they might land themselves in unnecessary trouble by antagonizing the British. The Government ensured that the promises regarding financial help were kept. When a Rangoon based timber merchant died without paying the amount he had vouched, an inquiry was undertaken to find out if he had been rendered insolvent prior to his death and if his sons had enough money to make the payments.

The construction work proceeded in the absence of the chief architect who provided guidance from Britain Since Curzon would have nothing short of the best, the job was entrusted to none other than Sir William Empson, president of the British Institute of Architects. He drafted his plan modeling the building on the tradition of the Italian Renaissance Architecture, though its resemblance with Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal was unmistakable. Sir William described his model as one that was occidental in design. Appointed in 1903, his duties were confined to the preparation of the building plan and advising trustees on the choice of contractors. It was decided that he would visit the work site annually if it was necessary in his opinion or if the trustees desired so Mr.Roert Lyons Serenoaks, who was appointed as superintending Achitect oversaw the dayto-day functioning. He was made responsible for the execution of the project and sent photographs of the progress made in construction work to Sir Willians every month. The initial estimate was $300,000. three applications were received for tenders floated by inviting contractors to undertake the implementation of the scheme. Messrs.Martin and company of Calcutta who had promised to complete the construction at the cost of around Rs.54 lakhs excluding the price of marble clinched the deal.

It is said that a goods train 17 miles long would have been required to bring over the entire building material needed for the memorial. The total weight of the building has been calculated to be around 80,300 tonnes and the quantity of marble measured 16,080 cubic feet. The same quarries in Rajasthan from where Shah Jahan had obtained the marble for the Taj Mahal were initially excavated. However a decision was subsequently

Taken to mine the Markana area then a part of the Jodhpur kingdom and presently located in the Nagpur district of the desert province. The cost of marble including freight charges was initially estimated to be around Rs.25 lakhs. Later, the expenses were reduced by Rs.2 lakhs when the Railways waived the transport costs and offered free carriage. In the latter part of 1917 constructionwas temporarily brought to a halt as heavy rains had flooded the Markana region. New quarries were opened in the adjoining area to maintain uninterrupted supply for the edifice. The construction which began after laying of the foundation stone in 106 took 15 years to be completed. The building was formally inaugurated on December 28,1921.

Both the foundation stone laying ceremony ad the inaugural functions were grand and colourful events with a curious blend of pomp and solemnity. King George V, who had not yet been crowned in 106, laid the foundation stone. Similarly Kind Edware VIII, who made history by relinquishing the throne to marry a commoner was then still the Prince of Wales when he inaugurated the completed structure in 1921. Queen Elizabeth II visited the galleries during her brief visit to the city in the fifties. So did Prince Charles and other members of British royalty when they toured Calcutta decades later. Terrorists operating in the city during the freedom movement seemed not to have borne a grudge against this colonial institution as their numerous exploits never brought them to the gardens and the museum interiors. Neither did the Naxalites carry out any plan to defile its premises even when red terror had reached a peak in the early seventies and statues of freedom fighters were being beheaded by the young anarchists. The memorial and its placid gardens did not witness much violence. Only once when some rebels had garlanded one of the statutes with a wreath of chappals did the authorities react and two constables were posted at the gate. The practice of patrolling the gardens by two lathi-wielding policemen continues even to this day and presently their job is to ensure that the young couples who converge here in the afternoons do not cause what may be civilly described as public offence.

The black bronze angel holding a bugle in her hand and placed at the apex of the dome has always been regarded as a curious addition to the monument. The statue, five meters tall and weighing 3,500 kilogrammes is fixed to its pedestal with ball bearings and can rotate when the windspeed is high enough. In the early eighties there was much concern when the mechanical device stopped functioning and a leading engineering company’s services were sought to rectify the defect and make the melancholy angel resume her movement. This statue as well as others that adorn the garden were sculpted by Italian craftsmen with the marble available in that country. The Greek muses figure among these pieces of sculpture. Special care was taken to collect exhibits for the various galleries. Leading art auctioneers like Christie’s and the Sotheby’s were approached to provide help in expanding the collection. The Maharajahs were also made to contribute

From their own private collections.

The Victoria Memorial is now beset with problems resulting from falling environment standards. Gaseous fames are said to have damaged the quality of the marble which is fading in some portion. The Maidan area receives dust fall during the heavy Calcutta smog in winter. The air quality monitored by scientists in this part of the city shows that dangerous pollutants including heavy metals are in the atmosphere which damage the edifice. During the first 30 years the building subsided 18 inches but fortunately this trend of subsidence disappeared latter. It has also been noticed that villagers who stream to this tourist spot are often inclined to wash their clothes and have a quick bath in the ponds within the compounds. Therefore efforts are being made to regulate the flow of visitors. a restoration center inside the museum repairs and restores the art objects and plans are being made to start a daily son et lumiere show to attract the tourists to this glorious edifice to revel in its imperial beauty.

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