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British Colonial Architecture II
An Imperial Vision
|by Ashish Nangia|
With the defeat of Tipu Sultan of Mysore in 1799, the British became the most powerful political and military force in India. With this status came also the need and responsibility to govern territories under their control, and to be seen as a powerful, civilizing force by the Indians. The Military Boards set up by the English contributed the bulk of secular architecture, like barracks, forts, housing for soldiers and other assorted building, but for the purposes of government and the church, something more assertive was needed to proclaim the supremacy of the British. It is thus that Government Houses and Town Halls, from where the business of governance and justice was carried out, follow closely changing trends in Britain to a great extent, and show also the continued influence of the so-called ‘pattern books’, from which the bulk of the Company’s design was carried out. These pattern books, while conforming more or less to Europe’s Greco-Roman heritage, incorporated ideas on the form architecture ‘should’ take, depending on its function. In essence, a pattern book would show how to put together different elements and combine them into a building.
Like Madras and Bombay, Calcutta was an early British outpost, its Fort William being the highest point on the Hooghly that ships could reach. Unlike Madras and Bombay, however, principles of urban design were applied here, stemming from its position in the last decades of the 18th century as the Company’s main seat. Calcutta was stamped with the hallmark of authority like the era’s classic European capitals – indeed contemporaries likened it to St. Petersburg. There were two main axes. The first one led from the civil arm of authority around an expansive square dominated by the barrack-like Writers’ Building, to the military arm in the Maidan by Fort William. The secondary one embraced the Council House, the Courts and the Town Hall. At their perpendicular intersection stood Government House, built for the Governor-General Lord Wellesley from 1798 by Captain Charles Wyatt of the Bengal Engineers – and the architectural family then prominent at home.
The increase in British influence led to traditional architecture becoming more eclectic in its choice of sources. A projection of British architecture as that associated with power and influence was a first and essential step for its elements to be associated with the architecture of Indian patrons, both Muslim and Hindu. Amongst examples too numerous to count, the Tomb of Mushirzadi (1814) and the Kaiserbagh at Lucknow, the Gopalji Temple, Tipu Sultan’s Mosque and the Sitambara Jain Temple, all in Calcutta, can be mentioned.
Architecture, of course, is only one facet of the whole picture. The subcontinent was now firmly part of Britain’s colonial responsibilities, and one aspect of the structural changes wrought by the British was a change in the education system, and increased intellectual contact between the two countries. It is ironic that these changes, brought about to convince the Indians of the superiority of British civilization, would partly fuel the nationalist debate in India, based on the same civilizational values that the British espoused.
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