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Sunday, November 4, 2001
Travel

An ode to Kolkata’s colonial history
Subhrangshu Gupta

A frontal view of the Victoria Memorial
A frontal view of the Victoria Memorial

STONE pebbles are strewn all over the straight beeline paths that lead to the focal point from different directions: there stands the giant white marble tomb that is 184 ft. high, in an area of 64 acres of land in the green field near Chowringhee. Victoria Memorial symbolises the architectural essence of Italian Renaissance and cultural nuances of Oriental art. The 16-foot-high bronze Angel of Victory, revolves upon its base and surmounts the dome to remind one of the glorious past of the British Raj. The grandeur of the statue could be seen reflected on the artificial lakes that encircle the dome in the beautiful gardens of paradise. Several marble arches depicting the British Raj are there at the entrance in the south as well as northern gates.

Victoria Memorial, the pride of Kolkata, stands as a symbol of love and respect to Queen Victoria. This is a national Valhalla of Indo-Anglian worthies conceived as a period museum of medieval and modern Indian history at the turn of the century when the British empire had reached its high noon.

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It was Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of British India who had dreamt of the Victoria Memorial after the expiry of the Queen in 1901. Its foundation stone was laid by King George VI, her grandson, then the Prince of Wales on January 4, 1906. It took some 20 years to complete the memorial which was formally opened to the public in 1921.

The construction of the stately building, surrounded by an exquisite garden, covering 64 acres that cost at that time over a crore of rupees was entirely funded by the Indian subscriptions - the building was designed by William Emerson, president, British Institute of Architects, adopting Italian Renaissance with a touch of orientalism in the arrangement of the domes.

The Angel of Victory atop the memorial
The Angel of Victory atop the memorial

The marble used for the building of 338ft x 228 ft. and the soaring height of 184 ft. was quarried at Makrana in Jodhpur. The groups of statues ornamenting the Memorial porches and the central dome were executed in Italy.

Tourists from other states and abroad will invariably be handed over a list of sight-seeing itineraries that will include Victoria Memorial on the top. The memorial is not taken merely as a beauty spot. It has been declared a national monument and preserved as a historical document of the past. It is an apparently a British imitation of the Taj.

One has to pay a nominal Rs 2 as entry fee to the national memorial which is kept open between 10 to 5 every day during March-October and between 10-4 during November-February, with usual closure on all official holidays. Inside the campus, son-et-lumiere is being held in two different shows in Bengali and English every day evening, depicting Kolkata’s past and present and its culture and heritage which has a special attraction for the tourists.

That is why, the real tourist to Kolkata would rarely miss the opportunity to visit the historical monument. It is a cultural memorial of the pre-camera days with the visuals in oil and water-colour, sketches and drawing, acquaints and lithographs, stamp and postal stationery, coins and medals, arms and armour, books and manuscripts, costumes, personal relics and archival documents of the Indo-British cultural heritage.

The single largest collection of Danniells’ paintings are preserved in the museum of the Victoria Memorial, where the Queen’s personal belongings like writing desk and fountain pen, clothes and costumes, golden ornaments etc. are there. The memorial’s philatelic collection on Indian postal history, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s hand-written Koran, Dara Shiko’s translation of the Upanishadas, George Subbs’ painting of Hastings, Qazar’s painting of Fatah Ali Shal, Tipu Sultan’s personal war-diary as well as the cannon-balls of the Plassey etc have been of great attraction to all. The memorial possesses the third largest paintings in the world — Vassili Verestchagin’s The State Procession of the Prince of Wales into Jaipur in 1876.

An arch with Edward VII on horse-back at the southern gate
An arch with Edward VII on horse-back at the southern gate

If the initial Curzonian scheme of collection and arrangement of the exhibits are seen as a composite representation of empire, the post-Independence collection preserved in the memorial could be termed as quest for Indian national identity which is certainly evident in the National Leaders’ Gallery as well as collections of their artifacts — Bankim Chandra’s writing desk, Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes and Jamini Roy’s paintings.

The exhibits are on display in the royal gallery, portrait gallery, arms and armament gallery, the central hall, the Qeen’s Hall, sculpture gallery, Daniel’s Room, Queen Mary’s Room, Hastings’ Room, National Leaders’ gallery and Documents’ gallery are of great attraction. The unique history of three centuries in capsule form are well preserved and displayed in this historic memorial.

But like all other government-run organisations, Victoria Memorial suffers from administrative lacunae, which stands in the way of proper running and maintenance of the historical memento.As a result, the Memorial now has a shabby look and the place has been gradually turning into a common place of merry-making and fun like in a Zoo or a Botanical gardens. The marble-palace building has been also a victim of pollution hazards — dust and dirt and gas emanating of the speeding motors and vehicles that run down the thoroughfares.

Every day, people who visit Victoria Memorial see the place not as history but a place for fun and merry-making.

They come, buy tickets and hurriedly make a merry-go-round the place. Some, however, would casually visit the exhibition centres and then come out to visit some other places as if they are visiting the Zoo or the millennium park near the Ganga or going round the maidan and Chowringhee areas.

There is hardly any guide present there to tell the visitors about the history of the memorial. Nor are there any easily available guide-books for the visitors, telling the history of the glorious past. The archives which preserve the rare documents and the personal belongings of the Queen and her majesties family, are always found closed.

The visitors now prefer going round the gardens, sitting and relaxing near the lakes, taking snacks and gossip to keep themselves confined inside the memorial halls. In the evening, some would buy tickets and see the son-et-lumienere (light & shades programme) on Kolkata and its glorious past.

The curator of the memorial, Prof C. Panda admits about certain inherent drawbacks that stand in the way of properly running the national museum. He says there has been shortage of guides as the recruitment of guides has been stopped on financial grounds.

He, however, discloses the memorial was given a new look by undertaking a thorough chemical cleaning of the domes and the memorial at a cost of Rs 1 crore. The internal renovation work including preservation of library, museums etc. and other valuable document has been undertaken at a cost of another Rs 3 crore, which when soon completed, will enhance the attraction of the historical memorial.

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