From restored rare paintings to a refurbished and digitised library, the varsity, set up in 1857, has undergone a much-needed transformation
These days, regular visitors to the University of Calcutta’s main campus on College Street — returning to the heritage buildings on official work after the long gap forced by the COVID-19 pandemic — often pause in disbelief: have we come to the right place?
Gone is the look one associates with a typical university campus in Kolkata: weather-worn buildings reeking of neglect, rickety furniture, walls painted with (and also reverberating with) political slogans, a place accustomed to seeing more demonstrations outside the classroom than inside.
Today the campus, dating back to January 1857, has witnessed a rebirth. The restoration began in 2017 but since the premises have reopened after a prolonged closure, the process appears overnight.
The most extensive changes have taken place in the Darbhanga Building — it was the King of Darbhanga who had donated generously for the setting up of the university — which serves as the administrative wing of the university and is the oldest existing structure.
The Senate Hall, Syndicate Hall and the Vice-Chancellor’s office, all located in this building, have undergone a total transformation. Long-time employees and regular visitors recall that these rooms were in a extremely dilapidated condition. A tea-seller had made himself at home in the Senate Hall from where he would go around selling tea. Pictures on the wall had become covered with grime over the years and were hardly visible.
“In 2015, when I was the pro-VC (finance) and a UGC (University Grants Commission) team was visiting us, I strongly demanded that funds be given to us for renovation. It was a crying historical need,” recalled Vice-Chancellor Sonali Chakravarti Banerjee — a former student and professor at the university and the driving force behind the renovation — speaking to The Hindu.
Her elevation as the V-C in 2017 saw the project finally taking off. While West Bengal Public Works Department was engaged to carry out structural renovations, renowned artist and Chairman of the West Bengal Heritage Commission, Subhaprasanna, was brought in to restore rare artworks, lying abandoned, and the elegant, old-world charm of the halls and corridors. By 2020, with COVID-19 keeping away the regular traffic, the restoration was complete.
“Not only antique furniture, even many rare paintings, including originals of Jamini Roy and Nandalal Bose, were rotting in the godown. The level of neglect was shocking,” said Prof. Chakravarti Banerjee.
Today the wide corridors and staircases are clean and once again imposing under the gaze of dignitaries associated with the university — Indian and British alike — whose busts have been rescued from different corners of the campus.
The Senate Hall — also known as Darbhanga Hall — is a treat for visitors: restored paintings of dignitaries, each with a helpful caption, look over rows of restored rattan chairs, neatly arranged. In a small conference room attached to the hall, on display are a rare Jamini Roy — a mother and child, but not in his trademark style, a portrait of Mirza Ghalib and a chair dating back to 1810, presented to the university by Prodyot Coomar Tagore.
The massive library, situated in another wing, also underwent complete renovation last year, and it is now not only open to the public but its contents have also been digitised and placed in the public domain. Now anybody, anywhere in the world, can access several articles, journals and dissertations, including rare issues of the Calcutta Review dating back to 1844 and the Tagore Law Lectures dating back to 1870.
“We are responsible not only to our students and our faculty but, as a public institution, also to the citizenry as well as the world at large. Learning should not be restricted by borders,” said Prof. Chakravarti Banerjee, who is into her second term as V-C.
The charismatic V-C has also been in the news recently because the university has been ranked high on the list in international as well as national rankings — best among Indian universities in the Shanghai Ranking and no. 4 among universities in the NIRF Rankings 2021.
Apart from the library, the public will also be soon allowed access to the university museum, which is still under restoration.
The only thing that looks odd in the renewed environs is the statue of Rabindranath Tagore, which was installed in the compound in the recent decades.
Standing in the lawn between the Darbhanga Building and the Centenary Building (built in the 1960s when the original 1857 structure), the Nobel laureate looks away from the heritage structure. The joke among varsity fraternity was that Tagore was so unhappy with the prevailing education system that he chose to look away from the Darbhanga Building — the administrative wing. Given the dramatic changes in the University, the poet might want to change the direction of his gaze, but that’s unlikely unless the statue is replaced.
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