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Opening a Door


Jean-Marie Lafont


A surprising book. Jeremy Losty, publishing his commemorative volume in 1990 for the three hundred years of the foundation of Calcutta, entitled it Calcutta: City of Palaces, as this city became famously named in the early 19th century. These palaces were mostly the private residences built by British officials, bankers, traders and businessmen after the recapture of Calcutta by Clive in 1757 and the construction of the new Fort William.   Joanne Taylor, in The Forgotten Palaces of Calcutta, shifts the interest of the readers from the British to the Indian palaces of Calcutta, i.e. the great mansions, hotels and "demeures" built by the Indian elite who, before and after 1756, threw their lot in favour of the British, helped them with local knowledge, manpower, money and political connections to develop, restore and strengthen their hegemony in Bengal, Orissa and Bihar and became the de facto bulwark of British hegemony and ultimately Empire in India; a move that ended with the Annexation of Punjab by the East India Company in 1849, until practically the whole of India "turned red", the colour of British territories on the maps of India published until 1947.   Joanne Taylor is not the first person to recently bring these interesting monuments back to the public's attention. In her seminal book The Making of a New Indian' Art ... (CUP, 1992, p. 51) Tapati Guha-Thakurta had already recalled "Dwarakhnath Tagore's 'Belgatchia Villa', the 'Tagore Castle' of the Pathuriagatha Tagores, the 'Marble Palace' of Raja Rajendra Mullick at Chorebagan, Raja Manmathanath Mitra's house on Shampukur road, and the palaces of the Burdwan Maharajas ... " Although this was more in connection with their splendid collections of arts and paintings than with the architecture of their extraordinary palaces, her reproduction of the Marble Palace (fig. 15) from Glimpses of Bengal by A.c. Campbell (1907) can be interestingly compared with some of the illustrations of the present book (pp.46-53).   The book starts with a warm "Foreword" explaining how and why Joanne Taylor became emotionally involved with India. This is followed by an "Introduction" dealing with the historical development of Calcutta, from the three small villages existing on the bank of the Hoogly river at the time of Job Charnock in 1690, until the developing town became the above-mentioned "City of Palaces". There is nothing much to observe in this historical section: the Battle of Plassey took place in 1757, not 1756, and the real power passed to the East India Company not in, 1757, ...


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