The Great Houses of Calcutta: Joanne Taylor

By Indranil Halder

Few months back when spring was one week away and it was still snowing in the Australia’s Blue Mountains, I meet Joanne Taylor with Deborah Bedford at Ironwood Coffee Company cafe, Woolwich. We all enjoyed coffee, piccolo and chocolate latte and talked about our connection to the Indian city of Kolkata.

Joanne Taylor :

Joanne Taylor is a Sydney resident. Graduate of University of Sydney with a bachelor’s degree in art (history and theory) and English literature. She did her master’s degree from the University of New South Wales. Her thesis was The Great Houses of Kolkata, 1750-2006. She photographed and travelled extensively in India, especially in the City of Kolkata ( also known as Calcutta) and the state of Bengal. Her published book, The Great Houses of Calcutta, with Jon Lang(received the Reed and Mallik Medal from the Institution of Civil Engineers,London) is an amazing account of hundreds of Kolkata mansions.

Joanne’s Contribution to Kolkata mansions :

Sitting at the cafe, in the glowing Sydney sun, Joanne softly mentioned her visit to North Kolkata in 1973. She was so amazed by the very existence of majestic mansions with Bengal, British and Mughal influences that she asked herself, “what are such majestic mansions doing here in Kolkata?”

In 1990, Jeremiah Lost published Calcutta: The City of Palaces: A Survey of the City in the Days of the East India Company, 1690-1858, to understand the significance of these mansions. In 2018, I purchased Joanne’s book The Great Houses of Calcutta : Their Antecedents, Precedents, Splendour and Portents ( published 2016) from Oxford Book store in Park Street to learn about these mansions. In 2019, when I was invited to Bagbazar Halder Bari to celebrate several century old Durga pujo festival by Dr Partha Sarathi Mukerjee, I got to see several of those majestic mansions of North Kolkata which Joanne highlighted in her book.

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During my teenage years in Ballygunge suburb of Kolkata, I was used to Bengal Bunglows and garden houses in Mandeville Gardens, Iron Rd and Ballygunge Circular Road which Joanne knew too well. Surprised I was. Sooner we realised, we both love the town of Murshidabad with its mansions (where I spend my early childhood years). Joanne ask,” Have you visited Jagannath Seth’s house?” I replied ,” Many times.” Joanne continued, “Jagannath Seth was an exemplary trading agent for the East India Company, who made enormous wealth supplying textiles to the Company.” Before, we knew, we were both looking at the Instagram photos of multi million dollar renovation of Bari Kothi( mansion in Azimganj, Murshidabad). Joanne was thrilled to see the renovated mansion.

Reading her book, I felt, Joanne has been the very catalyst, we needed to understand the relevance of these mansions and the urgency to renovate them to their former glory. She loved their aesthetics. As an Australian born heritage historian, her interests in Kolkata mansions is exemplary. Joanne went through the pages of her book and pointed out The Khelat Chandra Ghosh Bhavan in Pathuriaghata. A landmark mansion in the Pathuriaghata area of North Calcutta. Unlike Raja Nabakrishna Deb’s Jatimala Kachari (1901) mansion which no longer exists, The Khelat Chandra Ghosh Bhavan still exists.

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From her book, she put together the family associated with each of these mansions and their significance to Indian society, history and heritage. For instance, the owner of Khelat Chandra Ghosh Bhavan, “Khelat Chandra Ghosh (1829-78) himself was the grandson of the founding father of this Great Family, Ramlochan Ghosh” said Joanne. She wrote in her book “Ramlochan was one of those men who started off in a lowly paid job (in his case assisting a Bengali clerk working for the East India Company) and worked his way up the employment ladder. He became the dewan for Warren Hastings in the 1770s.” The very people who help fund the development of British Empire across the globe.

As a Non Resident Indian (NRI) Bengali and lover of Kolkata heritage, I feel she had done an extremely effective job to promote these mansions for restoration and future generations. Way better than the owners and governments. They are not only part of the heritage but also have huge potentials to draw tourists from all across India and the globe. They are definitely more than family fued, neglect and demolition ready. Today, Joanne spends her time as loving grandma but she cherishing her days roaming from one mansion to mansion as a historian in Kolkata for research documentations.

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She loves the trading community connection to the Kolkata mansions as she wrote, “ The Bengali Hindus, banias or dewans, possess a unique position in the Calcutta of the eighteenth century. They were deeply involved in the city’s business life running many British commercial organisations and households as well acting as interpreters and traders.”

In between our discussion, she also signed my copy of her book. After leaving the cafe, she pointed out the use of Hindu methodologies of Shilpa Shastras and Vastu- Purusha mandala in building these mansions. She mentioned them in her book, “Reflect on courtyards of these great houses as unbuilt-on open space with the god Brahma, at the heart of the Mahal.” This important Hindu methodology was key to the coexistence of both public and private spaces in these mansions. Very different to the residences, I see today.

Standing near the Woolwich Pier, with a view of Sydney skyline, as Joanne left to pick up her grandkids, I thanked her for her immense contribution to the understand of these heritage mansions and their local and global significance. Hope we restore them all for our future generations.