How the old houses of Kolkata are learning to stand on their own feet

November 13, 2022
How the old houses of Kolkata are learning to stand on their own feet

Old Kolkata houses that are neither heritage buildings nor supported by conservation grants are finding novel ways to raise money for their upkeep. Some with picturesque interiors are rented out for photo and film shoots, or have been turned into cafes and heritage homestays.

At the 200-year-old Barrister Babur Bari in Beleghata, a pillared courtyard, arched corridors, red-oxide floors and slatted French windows transport you to a bygone age. While developers have had their eyes on it for years, 79-year-old Nandita Basu is determined to keep the house intact.

“This house is an emotion for us. We have many memories connected with it,” says her daughter Krishnakali. When her father passed away in 2017, developers approached them with offers to buy. Their co-owners were also eager to sell, but mother and daughter had other ideas. “We decided to open an Instagram page and rent out the house for photo, film and web-series shoots. We now have a healthy number of bookings,” says Krishnakali.

They had to go through two difficult years to get here. During the pandemic they dug into their savings to repair and maintain the house. Krishnakali says they are now ready to collaborate with people interested in converting the house into a homestay.

Big Financial Commitment

“This is like preserving a white elephant,” says Sayan Bhanja, who has renovated his mother’s ancestral house at Gopal Bose Lane in one of Kolkata’s oldest neighbourhoods. Owners of old houses know that feeling well because they are constantly spending on repairs – repainting walls, plugging leaks in ceilings, and fixing broken plumbing.
With its green-shuttered windows, pillared courtyards, long, red-floored verandahs, Bhanja’s house “encapsulates time and defines a neighbourhood,” he says, adding, “these houses have a legacy that needs to be retained. ” He rents out the lawns, verandahs and two rooms of the more than 150 years old house for photoshoots, and plans to open a heritage-themed cafe in it.

How the old houses of Kolkata are learning to stand on their own feet

Finding A Business Plan

A five-minute walk from Bhanja’shouse brings you to a colourful cafe named Baithak Khana at a 200-year-old house near Vidyasagar College in North Kolkata. With graffitied walls and wooden seats, this dimly-lit joint has become a favourite of college-goers.

“My sister Archita and I started the cafe in 2019. Then the pandemic hit us and we had to remain closed until December last year,” says Banibrata Nath Khan, coowner. They started the cafe to make use of the ground floor in a sustainable way. “Since there are a few schools and colleges nearby, we thought of opening a cafe where people could have pocket friendly food as well as space for ‘adda’,” explains Banibrata.

The Olde House Eatery in a narrow alley off Southern Avenue also evokes nostalgia. The restaurant occupies the ground floor of a 90-year-old three-storey house. “Most people nowadays give old houses to promoters, but I did not want to do that. I love feeding people so I thought of turning the house into an eatery,” says owner Manju Datta. She has restored and reused all the old furniture, and retained the house’s green-shuttered windows. The second floor is rented out for private parties and get-togethers.

Then there’s Zs’ Precinct on Dover Lane, a museum-cum-art space inside a three-storey art deco building from the 1930s. The collection includes contemporary saris, jewellery, showpieces. Italso has a kitchen serving ‘heritage recipes’ of now-closed restaurants. Curator Rajesh Sen says the owners were finding it hard to maintain but did not want it to make way for a multistorey building. “They rented it out to me since my idea excited them. I wanted to restore the house without erasing its age or character. The red-oxide flooring, light fittings, furniture, doors, windows, air vents and even the old wooden letter box have been kept intact. ”

Rooms With A View

A few kilometres outside the city, ‘Nihar on the Ganges’ is a sprawling century-old house with a garden on the riverbank. Diyali Biswas inherited the property from her grandparents and turned it into a popular destination for day-outs after restoration.

“The house and the garden bore the brunt of Amphan (cyclone in May 2020), and we had to renovate it. So we thought of using it as a day-out destination,” says Biswas. “Since it is on the banks of the Ganges, guests canenjoy a magnificent sunset from here. We have also started an inhouse travel cafe and it has become popular. ” Likewise, Rashbari Garden House in Belur has been converted into a heritage homestay with facilities for picnics and day-outs. Atanu Daw, a member of the famous Shibkrishna Daw family, took the initiative to restore the neglected Rashbari. “The revenue from Rashbari Garden House is utilised for its maintenance,” he says.

Need Of The Hour

Architects say these old houses reflect Kolkata’s distinctive architectural legacy and reimagining them in the contemporary context is the need of the hour. “Cafes and homestays in such properties can evoke an old-world charm and attract lots of people, if done properly,” says G M Kapur, state convenor of heritage body Intach.
Architect Gopa Sen also hailed such initiatives and said there is nothing like reutilising old buildings and earning money from them, instead of razing them.

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