Kolkata was a ‘City of Palaces’, the ‘Paris of the East’, a vibrant melting pot of cultures. As capital of the British Empire, it was once the grandest, most advanced of Asian cities. Our vision is to give back to Kolkata some of that lost glory.
Here’s what we plan to do:
We believe that all of this can be achieved through design intervention. Design plays a critical role in today’s ideas-driven, knowledge-based economy and is a vital enabler for transformational change
RESTORATION AND HERITAGE CONSERVATION
There is an utter lack of awareness among heritage building owners in Kolkata of the huge economic potential of old buildings. Most heritage buildings are dilapidated and poorly maintained and not put to any economic use. Their values can be unlocked through adaptation for mixed uses. Through restoration and conversion into mixed-use spaces – galleries, restaurants, art schools, performance places – they can , in themselves, become a big source of income for their owners.
In Chinatown, the community fought hard to save the beautiful Toong-On Temple building from the wrecker’s ball. By helping to restore it and putting it to economically viable uses, The Cha Project will help create awareness of the worth of old buildings and sensitize owners, the government, and the public into attaching more value and respect to heritage structures.
This is also the heart of sustainable development as it not only lessens the amount of energy expended on new development, but heritage can be used to boost local economies, attract investment, highlight local distinctiveness and add value to the properties.
Heritage conservation will also lead to the development of an architectural icon for Bengal. In colonial Bengal, between 1750 and the late 1800s, wealthy Indian families commissioned famous British architects of the time to build them large family homes. These “Great Houses” or “Baboo Baaris” as they were called, incorporated Western architectural styles – from Corinthian columns and Romanesque windows to balustrades and statues – while keeping in mind the needs of a Bengali household – like thakur-dalans or louvered screens or south-facing balconies with wrought iron railings. Through historically accurate preservation, several architectural gems can be unveiled adding to Bengal’s pride in its rich heritage
In Chinatown, the area around Damzen Lane is a quiet warren of lanes and by-lanes with immense potential for a Heritage-Led Regeneration. The Cha Project is planning a Heritage Trail connecting six Chinese temples around Tiretta Bazaar and taking in the cultural and architectural diversity of the area with trail markers that will bring out the history of the place.
MAKEOVER OF STREETSCAPES
Unplanned, chaotic development, poor civic amenities, and a complete lack of guidelines on cleanliness and maintenance have turned Kolkata’s once beautiful avenues into a visual mess. Beautiful heritage buildings are obstructed by ugly hoardings and electrical wiring. And there is unsightly garbage everywhere. The Cha Project will spruce up the streets, the buildings, the neighbourhoods in Chinatown and College Street to set an example for the rest of the city to follow. Currently there are no guidelines and rules in place on storefront design, mandatory cleanliness, maintenance etc. The Cha Project will help develop a set of yardsticks for shop-owners to follow for the general aesthetics and well being of the area.
Bengal has a rich artistic heritage that should get reflected in its public spaces. Developing aesthetic Bangla fonts for shops and for public signages, cleaning up of streets, beautification of buildings, creation of art and poetry walls, redesign of shop fronts, designing more appealing vendor carts, alternate housing solutions for the homeless and proper garbage disposal solutions are some of the items on The Cha Project agenda that will help restore visual sanity in a once imposing city.
One of the main catalysts that The Cha Project will use to help revive the economy is the creation of tea shops and cafes. Tea brings people together and tea shops will help increase footfalls and energize the neighborhood. In Chinatown and College Street, street level spaces are not used to their full potential. Also, many businesses that fold up do not have the resources to open an alternate business in the same space. Bringing in investors to set up boutique stores and cafes in these dormant spaces will energize the economy, provide jobs and provide a source of income to the owners.
The Cha Project believes that every roadside vendor, hawker, squatter and small business has a place in the ecosystem of a street or neighborhood and the project will provide consultation to all businesses in the area – big or small – in branding their store/stall and rethinking the way they do business. College Street desperately needs to re-invent itself.
Through design intervention, The Cha Project hopes to create new value and markets and unlock the full potential of College Street. Attractive store designs, events like book launches, talks, literary fests, food festivals, literary-themed cafes, street food et al will help boost business, bring in investment, create jobs and turn College Street into a literary and education hub. This will also help promote Bengali language and literature and give Kolkata back her status as the cultural capital of India.
The project also hopes to revive some of the traditional trades and crafts that are fast disappearing. Kolkata was once famous for its handcrafted shoes on Bentinck Street. Here’s an interesting anecdote that goes to prove that we need to save this skill from disappearing altogether. This is a true incident that took place in a lift in an office building in Toronto.
One day in Toronto, an elderly Anglo-Indian man and a younger Chinese man, both from Kolkata but unknown to each other, find themselves in a lift. Suddenly, out of the blue, the Chinese man who has been staring at the other man’s shoes, asks: “Are you from Calcutta”. The Anglo-Indian man ia taken aback. “Yes, but how did you know?” he askes. The Chinese man smiles and answers: “You are wearing Uncle Henry’s shoes!” (This story appears in a thesis paper on the Chinese diaspora in Kolkata by Dr Jayani Bonnerjee).
Yet today, most of the famous shoemakers of Bentinck Street have migrated out of Kolkata. The city now has only about 30-odd Chinese shoe shops and 75% of their stock is mass-produced, factory productions not made by them. This is true not only of the shoemakers but all other Chinese trades. In Chinatown, so many of the trades that the Chinese were famous for are fast fading into oblivion. The Cha Project hopes to provide branding, design and retail consultation to help revive these crafts.
Branding is lacking in many existing skills. Indian Chinese food, for instance, is a unique and hugely popular cuisine. By providing know how on presentation, hygiene and stall/restaurant design, this cuisine can become globally recognized and can provide a big boost to the tourism industry. Tourism will also stand to gain tremendously from The Cha Project’s proposed street food lanes modeled on the robust street food culture in Singapore, Malaysia and most of South East Asia. SE Asia has not only preserved traditional cuisines and dishes but provides hygienic, diverse and fresh food choices for a whole range of pockets. In contrast, one will be hard put to lay hands on traditional Bengali fish and rice in affordable and hygienic environs. The project will bring a vibrant street food/ hawker centre culture to Kolkata where a student or a tourist or office-goers and locals can have a clean, hearty, low-cost, local cuisine from street stalls.
The existing street market in Tiretta Bazaar can be transformed into an attractive, bustling bazaar by simple design solutions. By providing the stall owners with better designed carts, a cleaner environment, knowhow on product display, better lighting and protection from the rain and the sun, the entire Blackburn Lane -Chhattawalla Gullee area can be transformed into a popular haunt for locals and tourists. Creating a Heritage Trail in the quiet area around Damzen Lane will also attract tourism and help boost business.
PRESERVATION OF HISTORY
As the Capital of the British empire, Calcutta was once the most important, most advanced and most sought-after city in Asia. It is steeped in history. Every road, every pavement, every crumbling wall has a story to tell. And it is this story that The Cha Project hopes to preserve and highlight.
Even tiny hole-in-the-wall shops have a rich history that begs to be told. Take ‘Favourite Cabin’ for instance. Many anti-British plots were hatched in this humble tea-and-toast shop . The founding brothers were active supporters of the freedom movement, and the eatery became the haunt of Swadeshis. There were three sections – the outer seating area, an inner chamber and the kitchen. Swadeshi meetings would be held in the inner chamber. The owners would signal to the freedom fighters to escape through the backdoor as soon they got wind of a police raid. The owners lament that people who come to ‘Favourite Cabin’ these days have no idea of its rich history. It is these stories that the project will highlight – through themed cafes, through plaques, through heritage trails etc.
Chinatown too has a rich and vibrant history that needs telling. Using meticulous research and oral history records, photographs, documents etc contributed by the community, The Cha Project proposes to create a Heritage Centre that preserve the history and culture of the Chinese diaspora. From a population of 100,000, the diaspora has dwindled to less than 5,000 – there is therefore an urgent need to preserve their heritage.
Besides the Heritage Centre, also on the cards is a Heritage Trail connecting six Chinese temples around Tiretta Bazaar and taking in the cultural and architectural diversity of the area with trail markers that will bring out the history of the place.
Working collaboratively with the community is an important aspect of this initiative. Through idea workshops The Cha Project hopes to solicit community involvement, empowering individuals to participate in the transformation of their neighborhoods. Participatory design can be a powerful tool in building a strong community.
- Concentration of activity in the public realm
- Increased perception of safety
- Shared sense of confidence in community
- Lower crime rate
- Decrease in anti-social behaviour
- Less potential conflict over space
- Better maintenance of public realm
- Increased emotional security and attachment
- Increased community involvement
- Rehabilitation of homeless and marginalised
- Increased hygiene and cleanliness
- 24-hour food street increases security and equity among residences
- Increased awareness of the importance of conservation
- Creation of valuable social capital within the community