April 05, 2012

Victoria Memorial, Kolkata


"In Calcutta – a city of European origin and construction — where all the main buildings had been erected in a quasi-classical or Palladian style, and which possessed no indigenous architectural type of its own – it was impossible to erect a building in any native style" 
– Lord Curzon, regarding Victoria Memorial’s design 

Unarguably the first location on every tourist’s itinerary when visiting Calcutta, the massive Victoria Memorial complex, one of the finest structures ever built in the country, has become an icon for the beautiful city that Calcutta is and also for the prominent architectural and artistic heritage left behind by the British in the city when they reigned supreme over the vast country. As the name suggests, the colossal memorial is dedicated to Queen Victoria, the British monarch under whose reign the Indian territories of the British East India “trading” company had lapsed into the hands of the British government and who had notably prefixed in her name the title “Empress of India”. This foremost of landmarks in Calcutta, designed in the budding Indo-Saracenic architectural style (combining Indian architectural practices that were a fusion of Hindu and Islamic designs with Victorian,Venetian and Egyptian influences and layouts) by Sir William Emerson, the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, with inputs from the supervising architect Vincent Esch (especially responsible for laying the foundation of the gigantic memorial after taking into learned consideration the soil and ground conditions of the location), was a brainchild of Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India (in reality, it was his secretary who came up with the idea but Curzon got the credit), and is best summed in Curzon's own words –

"Let us, therefore, have a building, stately, spacious, monumental and grand, to which every newcomer in Calcutta will turn, to which all the resident population, European and Native, will flock, where all classes will learn the lessons of history, and see revived before their eyes the marvels of the past." 


A majestic memorial to a powerful queen 


Curzon had intended the memorial to be a tribute to the recently deceased matriarchal monarch in the capital of the country that was considered by many to be one of her crown jewels, but though the Queen passed away in 1901, the actual plans for the design could only be formalized by 1905 and the groundwork began in 1906 with most of the funds coming from native states and princes as a show of adoration towards the Queen (and of course to derive favors from the British administration of the country). The enthusiasm for the magnificent edifice had waned after Curzon’s departure from the country following the much opposed and devastating partition of Bengal in 1905 (though most people never remember his contribution to the conservation and restoration of the country’s architectural heritage and the protection he extended to the same from vandals and encroachments); the construction proceeded at a sluggish pace and when the memorial, set in extensive lush, manicured lawns and surrounded by large pools that reflect a surreal image, was finally thrown open in 1921, it had already been ten years since the capital shifted from Calcutta to Delhi – Curzon’s masterpiece, supposed to be the centerpiece of the country’s administrative capital, was thus relegated to a provincial capital. 


Queen Victoria's life-like statue seated on an ornamental bridge in front of the memorial hall 


Stepping into the beautiful, well-maintained grounds of the memorial through a gateway flanked by large realistic marble lions, one notices an abundance of statues in every direction – there is a large bronze statue of Queen Victoria seated on her throne in the foreground leading to the memorial structure; atop the gigantic front facade are statues of Motherhood, Learning and Prudence while the massive well-proportioned dome is surrounded by allegorical statues of Art, Architecture, Justice and Charity besides being topped by a 16-feet high statue of the Angel of Victory that in itself weighs about 4.5 tons! The Angel of Victory, with its slender figure, large wings and blowing a bugle, was made in Rome and stands on a mercury ball that allows it to rotate on its axis when the wind speed is high (and given that the ball is 184-feet above ground, the wind is considerable there) – however, the ball has stopped rotating in the past few years despite the use of grease to facilitate the rotation and experts fear that this unequal weight distribution would put unnecessary load on some parts of the memorial’s dome and is likely to harm it in the long run. There are bronze panels too (though not as delicate a work of art as that of the Queen or the marble statues around the dome) embedded in the walls that display processions of the viceroys and governor generals with full regalia and military bands.


Allegorical statues of Motherhood, Learning and Prudence above the front facade. Also notice the royal coat of arms set above the arched entrance


The memorial was to house an inspiring museum dedicated to the Queen and the colonial history and the interiors cater to just the same – but before heading within, one cannot but roam around the central structure taking in the splendid architecture made more captivating by the white marble slabs stacked one over the other to complete the striking edifice as well as the exquisite patterns carved skillfully in the marble – the majestic royal coat of arms competes with realistic lions, intricate floral and geometrical patterns and uniform arches and brackets for visitors’ attention and there is a slender little cannon placed in front of the entrance to the memorial. Of course another thing every visitor will notice is the presence of couples under every tree and next to every statue – public display of affection is more apparent in Bengal, especially glaring if one heads to public parks – despite the honorable Calcutta High Court’s directive to the police and the authorities to clamp down on such instances, there is no stopping the young lovers who come here and can frequently be seen hugging, petting and smooching – I personally do not have anything against such activities and even support the coming out of couples and the LGBT community, nonetheless at times one feels if national monuments like these could have been spared. But then that’s only my view; Victoria Memorial would not have been reputed as Calcutta’s lover’s point if not for these couples. Moreover the first time I was in the memorial, I was so fascinated by the memorial’s appearance, mesmerized by the statues and bronze panels that I did not even notice the couples – it was only on my second visit that one of my friends pointed it out! 


A towering personality and a couple in search of solace 


Within the marvelous memorial, a museum is housed that displays, spread over several galleries, reminders of the colonial rule, statues and memorabilia of the Viceroys and Governor-Generals who administered the Indian subcontinent, a large collection of oil paintings and watercolors pertaining to British India executed by various European artists – the most famed of these being the Daniells from 18th century – paintings by the famed artist Thomas Daniell and his nephew William Daniell. Besides these, there is a dagger that once belonged to Tipu Sultan, the legendary Emperor of Mysore and foremost of freedom fighters who was killed in a battle against the British forces. The official dresses of the administrative officers are a big draw – done in gold thread on black cloth, Lord Curzon’s jacket looks impressive beyond measure. Standing within the vast interiors of the memorial is an experience in itself, even though the display and the artifacts might appear dry and mundane – looking up at the high ceiling, one wonders at the limit of British expansionist policies and territorial ambitions. Standing in the galleries on the upper floor and gazing out at the sprawling lawns sprinkled with marble and bronze statues, one is tempted to flash out the camera and quickly snap a few photographs! Ionic pillars lining the circular hall support the weight of the extraordinary dome, while passageways run along the length of the dome’s interiors and are flanked with large semi-circular alcoves set with paintings displaying scenes from Queen Victoria’s life (the passageways can be accessed from the first floor by interested visitors). The royal coat of arms is perennial company throughout the memorial interiors too, appearing on walls, arches and doorways – were it not for the large, thick net covering the dome’s concave surface to prevent pigeons and birds flying in from spoiling the specimens on display, I would have had a good photograph of the entire gallery clicked from the upper floor. 


One of the bronze panels executed by Sir Goscombe John and donated to the memorial by the dowager Countess of Minto  


Stepping out, it is only natural to head towards the back of the memorial where more statues and life-like replicas await the visitors – a well-sculpted marble statue of Lord Curzon stands guard right outside the memorial while on its periphery is a marble archway with exquisite sculptures on its two walls and topped by a bronze sculpture of Edwards VII seated on a horse; besides these, there statues of other eminent personalities like George Robinson (Governor-General of India), Sir Andrew Fraser (Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal) standing on their high stone plinths to be clicked, but given the abundance of statues in the vast complex, I cannot put a finger on the exact number of statues and sculptures there, the place is evidently dotted with them everywhere one looks. 


Splendid, isn't it?


The beautiful lawns with their delicate brilliant pink, red and orange dahlias and vibrant green shrubbery contrast with the glistening white of the marble, so does the blue of the deep ponds, yet the overall picture is one of peaceful serenity, of silent coexistence and intermingling despite the differences, much like the Indo-Saracenic architecture that fuses influences drawn from various cultures and artistic evolutions to create a striking edifice. Evenings at the memorial complex are even more touching – the orange-red sun setting behind the tall minarets of the memorial and covering the sky with a blanket of darkness, the cacophony raised by the chirps and caws of birds returning to their nests, the red-blue of the sky emphasizing the silhouette of the precisely conceived and executed structure – it is truly a scene that makes the beholder feel breathless! 

Dusk


The memorial has often been compared with the ethereal Taj Mahal of Agra, many writers going to the extent of stating that had it been erected for some native queen or princess instead of the colonial monarch, the memorial would have been deemed the greatest architectural building in the subcontinent, surpassing even the Taj itself. While it is true that Lord Curzon insisted on using white marble from the mines of Makrana (Rajasthan) that also supplied marble for the Taj, and William Emerson drew from several Mughal and Hindu architectural practices such as the massive central dome surrounded by chattris (kiosks/umbrella domes mounted on slender pillars) and minarets, the memorial doesn’t hold a candle to the Taj (which I’d like to clarify, for the sake of disclosure, I haven’t yet been to, but the photographs speak for themselves). Of all the resemblances, perhaps the one that neither the Viceroy nor Emerson would have anticipated or preferred was the 15-year long time span it took to complete the memorial’s construction! 

A thing of beauty..


The memorial is also the venue for important exhibitions and hosting visiting dignitaries; the 2013 Kolkata Literary Festival was also held here and saw the presence of some of the most remarkable writers of the Indian diaspora like Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy, besides several notable foreign authors. The memorial complex receives an average footfall of 35,000 visitors daily (in my opinion, most of them are the couples who never venture within the museum but stay to the grounds), often rising to 100,000 visitors on special occasions and exhibitions. Thankfully, the security arrangements and the maintenance of the complex is noteworthy and except for a few trees and sculpture plinths disfigured by the etchings and scribbling left behind by idiotic lovers, most of the complex is relatively such nuisance and eyesore free (unlike most monuments throughout the country). 


Such grace - The Angel of Victory (Photo courtesy - Timesofindiatravel.com)


Plans are in the pipeline to transform the memorial’s museum and convert it into an excellent source of knowledge about the British rule over the country as well as the people associated with the administration – these include shifting the museum offices from within the memorial hall to the gardens outside, building new galleries to display the large collection of historic artifacts and possessions (many of which rarely see the light), opening the entire first floor (and not just the passageways along the semicircular paintings) for visitor entry and making the memorial more visitor and environment friendly. It is quite another matter that recent reports by environmental and health agencies demonstrate through scientific findings and observations that the memorial structure is deteriorating and steadily turning pale yellow because of the overwhelming presence of pollutants in the air and the health of the regular visitors and morning/evening walkers to the extensive lawns also suffers because of the toxic nature of the air as a result of the passage of thousands of vehicles everyday on the major arterial roads that run in the vicinity of the memorial complex.

More sculptures


One can purchase souvenirs from the publication sales counter (in reality, the small cupboard-like room underneath the stairs that lead to the first floor) – postcards, small replicas, books and key rings are available – the postcard sets are really excellent and of very good quality. One can also buy cheap postcard books from outside the memorial where numerous memorabilia sellers converge and run from visitor to visitor in the hope of finding an occasional patron. Vendors set up their small stalls and trolleys to offer Bengali street fare like jhal muri (rice flakes mixed with mustard oil, spices and onions) and papdi chaat (). Interested visitors can avail rides on silver and gold painted horse carriages that make rounds of the area stretching from the memorial to the nearby “Maidaan” (a vast open stretch of ground); in fact there are tides of these carriages coming and going at irregular intervals, some with patrons, other looking for them – the horses, with their manes close cropped, look starved with their rib cages peeping out from under the coarse, thin skin, but then the men manning the carriages are not very much different either! 


If statues could speak - The massive lions at the memorial entrance


The picturesque monument, a tribute both to the skill of the architects who worked on its construction and to the ingenuity with which they drew from several architectural and artistic techniques, a reminder of the parasitic rule of one country and its people over another to drain out the wealth accumulated over centuries in the name of reformation and education to build such staggering structures while millions perished under the yoke of inhumane taxes, inconceivable slavery and induced droughts and famines, has both been praised and derided for what it represents – British supremacy over Indian subcontinent by means of modern warfare techniques and weapon technologies as well as ruthless diplomacy and diabolical greed. Curzon wanted a memorial to remind the generations to come of the monarch who controlled their destiny and was integral to their history – irrespective of his intentions, good or bad, the memorial is dedicated to the matriarchal personality who never once deemed it fit to visit the territory that supplied her with the revenue and treasure to keep her her country adrift. Nonetheless, despite all the criticism, the inspiring memorial is bound to leave an indelible mark on the minds of visitors – both with its controversial history as well with the fine sculptures and tasteful artwork. Drawing from the words of the correspondent of “The Times” who reported about the memorial’s founding in the Dec 25, 1905 issue – 

"(Victoria Memorial is) a magnificent public monument which, it is hoped, will serve for all time to remind India of the great Empress whose name is so inseparably bound up with the most important events of her modern history" 


Open: Tuesday-Sunday
Timings: November-February: 10am – 4:30pm; March-October: 10am – 3:30pm.
Nearest Metro and bus station: Esplanade
How to reach: One can walk/take a bus or taxi from Esplanade.
Entrance fees: Rs 10 for Indian citizens; Rs 150 for foreigners
Photography/Video Charges: Nil. Photography strictly prohibited inside the memorial hall.
Time required for sightseeing: 1.5hrs
Nearby attractions - 

4 comments:

  1. really nice

    ReplyDelete
  2. nice place.. sadly dey dont allow u to click inside.. they've got great historical stuff in dere. a must place to visit!!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Gitanjali MohantySeptember 09, 2014

    The first pic articulates calmness, gem of a click Sahil

    ReplyDelete
  4. Divyansh JasujaSeptember 09, 2014

    The photos are perfect, absolutely flawless!

    ReplyDelete