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Engaging With Stones

Sudipto Basu

By Joanne Taylor  and Jon Lang 
Niyogi Books, New Delhi, 2016, pp. 326, Rs. 1500.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 9 September 2016

There are different ways of getting familiar with a city, and perhaps the descriptions of its monuments are among the most popular ways of doing so. Tourist guides and brochures of every major city in the world are replete with pictures and descriptions of its most visited and iconic monuments and buildings, more often than not, a newcomer to a city gets acquainted with it through its monuments, and therefore, a proper understanding of a city’s monuments and buildings is the crucial first step of getting acquainted with a city. The Great Houses of Calcutta by Joanne Taylor and Jon Lang attempts to familiarize a wide audience with the city of Calcutta, its socio-political and economic history and the lives of its people in an era gone by through a detailed analysis of some of the mansions of the local Bengali elites of colonial Calcutta. The book takes one through a heritage tour of old Calcutta, its houses and what lies inside each house. As the authors themselves point out, the book intends to celebrate and also reflect on the lives and values of the Rajas and merchants who occupied these houses and prospered under and alongside the British during colonial rule (p. 10). Although, there have been books written on the architectural layout of the streets and mansions of Calcutta, with the works of Swati Chattopadhyay being the more recent and prominent one, the book under review differs in its style and treatment of the subject. At the outset, the authors point out that even though it is crucial to understand the ideas and meanings that one could interpret from these buildings and houses, their chief concern was to figure out the functionality of the architecture of these houses and what they look like, rather than focussing on the symbolic meanings that their acoustic and haptic properties convey. Their concern, they point out, is merely with the visual world (p. 15). The book indeed focuses on the visual meanings of these houses which are to be looked through the functions of each portion of the house. One can get a glimpse of the lives and changing fortunes of the important families of colonial Calcutta over a span of two centuries through the changing characteristics and grandeur of their houses. The book shows the changing ideas and material fortunes of a city by engaging with each and every stone of the ...

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