Public Clocks

A feature in the Indian Express titled “Mumbai O’Clock” in its supplement called “eye” was published recently. The feature was, in fact, one photo-journalist, Chirodeep Choudhury and his fascination for public clocks which he called ‘The City’s timekeepers”.

 The feature was accompanied by numerous photographs of public clocks of Mumbai. Choudhury went around the town, mostly on foot, to photograph them. Some of his photographs were first exhibited in a Kala Ghoda festival where, according to him, they became hugely popular. Later he exhibited 81 of his photographs of “Clocks of Bombay” in Max Mueller Bhavan in Mumbai.

His photographs are generally of public buildingsbuilt in an era when topping them with a clock was almost de rigueur. Placed prominently on the crowns of the buildings or their towersthey,apart from adding to the aesthetics of the town,would help people to check the time, particularly in days gone by when timepieces andwatches were scarce. There are few of those that are on Churches, mosques or temples. He found some on private buildings, too. One of these curiously had no numbers or digits, onlyDevnagri alphabets to indicate the hours. Obviously, to everyone these clocks served a purpose – that of checking the timeby stealing a glance at the clock while running to school or rushing to office or hurrying to keep an assignation.

The feature reminded me of my own fascination with public clocks. Living in a small town – Gwalior – in the backwaters of the country in a princely state the chime of the local College clock tower was a perennial presence for us. We had necessarily to get attached to it since my father used to be a professor teaching in the College. My childhood revolved round it. We, other siblings and I, would be taken to the College grounds for the evening outings and would be taken back home as the clock struck 5 in the evenings in winters and 6 in summers. My mother too used to schedule her household chores by its chimes during the day. The chimes would be audible in our house every hour of the day and much further away. They were so loud. The clock was installed as the building came up in 1891 to house the Victoria College. 

I recall once our help who used to take me out somehow got hold of the man who used to wind the clock. Along with him he carried me in his lap up the three or four floors on spiral staircases of the clock tower. We had not gone up even half way up when the clock started to strike the hour of five. It was deafening in the confined spaces of the tower and hit my ear drums hard enough to unsettle me. The help hurried down the stairs as fast as he could but soon the chimes stopped. Since I had burst out crying he did not dare go up again. Audible practically all over the small town the chimes necessarily had to be loud and inside the clock tower they were ear-splitting and unbearable. That happened about 80 years ago.

My next brush with a clock tower was years later in 1970s when I was already in service and was working as Regional Director of Post Offices in Nagpur. I came up against a peculiar situation. Nagpur GPO was then about half a century old building and had a clock tower. It was not as tall as the Gwalior college tower or so I suppose. One morning as I was settling down to commence my work I was told the brass plates of the clock tower had been stolen during the preceding night. The brass plates were the ones on which the hammer would strike every hour. These were supposed to have been huge and couldn’t have been detached and carried to ground floor byonly a lone burglar. There must have been others who most probably were helped by conniving watchmen.We reported the matter to the local Police but they had not been able to trace the brass plates till the time I left Nagpur on another posting. This time, however, there was no help to carry me up the clock tower.

During my travels I came across many interesting public clocks in India. I came across a great variety in Mumbai and Kolkata. Kolkata, of course, had the iconic clock on the GPO building high up near its magnificent dome. The one which impressed memost in Mumbai is the Rajabai Clock Tower near Bombay University. It is more than 150 years old and is reputed to be architecturally one of the finest.

I was fortunate enough to see the Big Ben, the grand dad of all clock towers, from close quarters. Then travelling in Europe I happened to come across the famous clock tower at Marienplatz in Munich which is a must-see tourist destination for those who visit the city. It not only chimes the hours it also re-enacts stories from sixteenth century for amusement of crowds. One more interesting clock tower I happened to come across in Prague. It is a medieval clock tower which is astronomical. Located on the Old Town Hall it displays, inter alia, the movements of the sun and the moon. It is also a great tourist attraction and one will always find crowds gathered in front of it.

The Indian Express feature brought back long lost memories to me.It was such a pleasure to re-live those far-away days.


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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