The magnificent Marble Palace in all its splendour recalls the fabulous wealth and aesthetic of the elite of Calcutta when it was the capital of the Raj
1/31/2017 3:33:49 PM
|written By : Basabi Banerjee|
On my last trip to Calcutta, I visited a magnificent Palladian mansion set amidst lush, extensive gardens. One of the first “Great Houses” in the north of the city that I had the privilege to view, it left an indelible impression by affording a glimpse into the architectural history of the period in which it was constructed. The Marble Palace, so named because of the ninety varieties of imported marble on its walls and floors, was built by five hundred artisans over five years. The young man under whose orders it was constructed, was merely sixteen years old when he decided to have a mansion designed for himself in the European classical style.
The adopted son of a wealthy gold merchant, Raja Rajendranath Mullick was only three years old when his adoptive father, Nilmoni Mullick, passed away in 1821. Brought up by his mother, Hiranmoyee Dasee, and his English guardian, Sir James Weir Hogg, the young Rajendra was deeply influenced by British architectural tastes of the period. Well before Raja Rajendra was born, the East India Company, riding on a wave of confidence following the defeat of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, had started functioning more like a government than a trading concern. As the British set about building a new Fort William to replace the one destroyed by the nawab’s forces, they evicted Indians from their homes in the vicinity to create a ‘White Town’ which would see the construction of architecturally impressive buildings designed to reinforce the image of British strength and power. Calcutta, as it was then known, saw a rapid increase in international trade and soon became a part of the global economy. The erection of Palladian palaces during the building boom that followed, earned Calcutta the appellation: ‘city of palaces.’
The entrepreneurial but politically subservient Indian traders and merchants of the time enjoyed British patronage and became both wealthy and influential by getting deeply involved in the city’s business life and trade. Keen to demonstrate their elevated status, they built their own mansions and palaces in Sutanati to the north of the city, now known as North Calcutta, in imitation of the magnificent architectural styles the colonial rulers admired. Some of these grand homes, symbols of the city’s past opulence, are now in ruins while others have been taken over by the government and transformed into public institutions; a small number still survive in their original form, lovingly maintained by descendants for whom the ancestral property is intricately woven with their heritage and identity.
Rewarded with the title “Raja” by Viceroy Lord Edward Lytton for his “charitable disposition and philanthropic deeds”, Raja Rajendra Mullick would undoubtedly be ecstatic if told that the mansion he built in 1835 is “the most famous of Calcutta’s Great Houses”. Comprising two separate buildings, the first one, facing a narrow alley called Muktaram Babu Street, is maintained as a private museum to house the enormous collection of art and artefacts collected by its founder; the second building continues to be home to his descendants.
My first reaction to the beautiful mansion with its impressive white facade, is one of amazement as we turn off the chaotic, crowded environs of a cramped street to drive through ornate metal gates past fountains and statues of lions and deities set amidst well-kept lawns. The portico of the first building that houses the family’s diverse art collection consists of six Classical columns topped by an entablature and ornate pediment. The ground and first floor of the palace feature impressive Corinthian columns separated by Venetian shutters. The sound of tinkling bells wafts across from a small temple in the gardens housing the family deity Jagannath.