Anthony Khatchaturian on the city’s Armenian Heritage interviewed by Avik Chanda
1. When speaking of heritage Calcutta buildings, people generally think of ‘bonedi’ mansions and buildings made by the British during the Raj. Yet a substantial portion of what is commonly known as old-Calcutta is actually the creation of Armenians who migrated to India over the centuries. Which are some of these prominent buildings?
As much as Bengali, Islamic, British and Marwari communities make up the architectural landscape of Calcutta, so does the Armenian. In fact some of the city’s most prominent and extravagant buildings are Armenian – Queens Mansions (previously Galstaun Mansions), Nizam Palace (Galstaun Palace), Freemasons Hall (Galstaun Hall), Park Mansions (built by Thaddeus Thaddeus), Stephen Court (Arathoon Stephen, but later sold to Sir Gregory Charles Paul – the longest serving Advocate General of Bengal, and still owed by his family trust), The Grand Hotel (Stephen), Stephen House (Dalhousie, Stephen), Harrington Mansions (Galstaun), and localities of Queens Park (Galstaun Park) and Karaya Road (Galstaun).
2. Through the course of the past millennium, people of all cultures have immigrated to India and made it their home. What would you say is unique to the psyche of Armenian settlers that enabled them to become such great builders? To what extent were their creations reflective of the architecture of their homeland?
This is a testament to their shrewd, business-only approach, bordering on ruthlessness, which made such a small number of men so disproportionately rich. They had one single objective, make money! People like Galstaun openly admitted to doping his horses for them to win races, they had no qualms about getting their hands dirty in the process.
Architecturally, the buildings made by Armenians in Calcutta bear hardly any reflection of their native architecture, exceptions being the Freemasons Hall and Nizam’s Palace, where the cupolas constitute a very subtle tip of the hat to orthodox Christianity.
3. The name of J.C. Galstaun is almost synonymous with the Armenian community in Calcutta. And this has great personal significance for you, being a descendant of his. Recount for us Galstaun’s rise to fame, his passion for life and work, and the legacy he single-handedly created.
The birth of Johannes Carapiet Galstaun, commonly known as JCG, is the stuff of legend, like much of his life. The story goes that he was born on the 14th of July 1859 to a princess of the Persian Empire who fell in love with a rich Armenian Christian from Julpha. Amidst a background of class and religious divide, such an alliance could not last – and the boy travelled with his father to India and reached Calcutta in October of 1869. Here, his uncle had him admitted into the Armenian College & Philanthropic Academy on Freeschool Street, then to St. Xavier’s, and finally St. James’, where he completed his education.
In 1886 his uncle died, and although JC made a trip to Singapore to meet his uncle’s business contacts, they came to no aid, and he burned through most of his savings, to the point where he was left with a sum of Rs. 1000. He approached his bank manager, Sir William Cruikshank and asked for a Rs. 5000 loan, providing the Rs. 1000 as security. Sir William said he had a “damned cheek” to ask for such an amount with no equivalent security. Knowing that Calcuttans had a penchant for the afternoon siesta, and gambling on the chance of a better reception, he approached Sir William just after lunch the next day. Sir William exclaimed: “Do you still want that loan of Rs. 5000?” “Desperately!” replied JCG. Sir William took scribbled a note for his cashier “Allow Mr. G to withdraw Rs. 5000”. He then took the Armenian to meet his deputy and said “Look after this young ruffian!”
That Rs. 5000 loan set him on a path led by his heart, horse racing. He ended up owning some of the finest horses in the world, buying them from faraway lands and racing them all over the world – England, Ireland, France, Monte Carlo and at every racecourse in India. In the country of his residence, he took on the very best – the Maharajas of Gwalior and Darbhanga raced their steeds against his, often losing. JCG unashamedly used steroids and amphetamines on his horses, his aggressive money making attitude setting aside any qualms about what was legal.
With this accumulated capital from racing, JC then plunged into a field he knew nothing about – real estate. What followed over the next 20 years was incredible. He bought the whole locality of Ballygunge when it was a swamp and turned it into one of the city’s most exclusive neighbourhoods. He built – or owned at some point – Galstaun Hall (now Freemasons Hall), Harrington Mansions, Chandni Market, The Saturday Club, The Globe Cinema, Galstaun Park (later Nizam Palace) and his most iconic structure, Galstaun Mansions (now Queens Mansions). In all, he had bought, leased or built around 350 buildings across the city. JCG was a compulsive and ace litigator. Armenians, Muslims, Jews, private or public sector, male or female, aristocrats and commoners, he spared nobody.
JC’s downfall began with the construction of Galstaun (Queens) Mansions. He had mortgaged a number of his properties to raise the money needed, but still fell short. In desperation, he turned to Arathoon Stephen, is brother in law, for help. Stephen loaned JC the money he needed, but JC was not able to turn the mansions into a profit quickly and had to sell it to the Prudential Life Assurance Company. Over the years, horse racing became increasingly regulated and competitive. His British contacts had turned their attentions either toward the war effort or toward containing the rising flames of the Swadeshi Movement, a colonial tussle JC chose to stay out of. The final years were mired in litigation, and this time, his luck ran out. Part sold, part seized and part surrendered, many of his properties changed hands without valid reason or at hugely discounted rates. After his death in 1947, what was left of the fabled Galstaun wealth quickly evaporated.
4. Galstaun’s larger-than-life persona has perhaps eclipsed compatriots who, while less flamboyant, have nevertheless made valuable contribution to Calcutta’s cityscape. There are also instances of affluent Armenians, who through financial support, have sustained heritage buildings into the present day. Tell us something about these other benefactors.
It’s actually a pretty long and impressive list, but two names spring immediately to mind. The first is Arathoon Stephen, JCG’s brother-in-law. Like many other fellow-Armenians, he emigrated from Iran and at the age of 20, found himself in Calcutta, with the royal sum of Rs. 100 in his pocket. But by the end of his life, his achievements were not that far behind those of Galstaun. Nos 13, 16, 17 and 18 in posh Chowringhee were all properties that he bought, refurbished and leased out most profitably. A watershed event in his life was when he purchased Mrs. Monk’s guest house property on Chowringhee and then tore them down to build the Grand Hotel, at the time the only the 3rd 5 star hotel in the whole of Asia, apart from Raffle’s in Singapore and The Great Eastern in Cal. Stephen then continued to expand his portfolio steadily by purchasing land from another wealthy Armenian family, the Pauls, on the Park Street/ Middleton Row corner and there, he built Stephen Court. He constructed his own residence at 2, Camac Street. Finally, he built Stephen House in the very heart of the city, Dalhousie Square, diagonally opposite the heart of government in India – Writer’s Buildings.
The other is Sir Paul Chater. Born in Kolkata in September 1846, he studied as a foundationer at Claude Martin’s school and after qualifying as a surveyor, sailed to the shores of Hong Kong. Using depth gauge data of the surrounding waters, he added 57 acres of land to the island, adding, quite literally, to the foundations of Asia’s giant business hub. A recipient of the British knighthood and the French Legion d-honneur, his contributions with specific regard to Calcutta are far less known. He was of course a most generous donor for the poor Armenians of the city. But there was a time when, in serious financial straits, his alma mater, Claude Martin’s school, turned to him for help. His timely donation of Rs. 11 Lakhs, the equivalent of several tens of crores in today’s currency, saved the school from certain closure. The institute continues to operate to this day – as La Martiniere – one of the most famous schools of the city.
5. Across the world, religion and architectural creation have gone hand in hand. In the case of the Armenian Church in Calcutta, what has been its significance and influence on buildings and urban development? In the Digital Age where faith is largely on the wane and the number of practicing, church-going Armenians has dwindled, what in your view should be the church’s role with regard to the community’s cultural and ethnic heritage?
Neither the church nor the culture has had any impact on Armenian architecture in Calcutta. The Armenian Church has, over the past few decades, played an ever decreasing role in the native Calcutta-Armenian community. This phenomenon actually holds for India as a whole. For a number of reasons, the Church has distanced itself from the community in this country and instead turned its face toward the home country. Thus rendered ‘orphan’, many thousands of Indian Armenians have identified themselves as Anglo-Indian.
What few people even within the community know is that the Church is the beneficiary of over 30, very generous, trust funds. The Armenians in Calcutta have an exclusive co-ed school, a senior citizens home, a canteen for the poor (modelled on the Sikh ‘Langar’ system), a guest house and a number of churches in the greater Calcutta area. All of these were built by Calcutta-based Armenians who also left behind trusts for their upkeep. Sadly, the lucrative cash value of those trusts and associated politics have deprived the very same Indian Armenians, for whom the funds and resources were meant.
6. Finally, give us your views on the legacy of ‘old Calcutta’ buildings and the threat to their being pulled down to make place for car-parks and shopping malls. Calcuttans have traditionally taken pride in being aesthetes and intellectuals – what role could the citizens of Calcutta play, in ensuring that the heritage of the city continues into the future?
I think that we Calcuttans suffer from the same ailment as most of our fellow citizens elsewhere in the country – the syndrome of ‘Chalta Hai’. We are introspective, we look to our own, with scant regard for civic sense or the bigger picture. We tend to care little for human or civil rights, let alone higher ideals such as maintaining our built heritage. This lackadaisical attitude has unwittingly made us servants in the world’s largest democracy. By corollary, this has allowed our political leaders to have deeply vested interests, specifically in real estate. Against them, organizations such as INTACH, fashioned along lines of on the British ‘National Trust’, are powerless. There is a fundamental difference here: in the UK, the National Trust has legislative backing, but that’s non-existent in the case of similar organizations in India.
I also find that our governments, central as well as state, and across party lines, are surprisingly ignorant about the enormous revenue-generating potential of tourism in India as a whole. This in turn leads to a vast amount of potential revenue – therefore, there is no cascading down of funds to the level of individual buildings and their preservation. There are so many heritage buildings that could be financially self-sustaining if opened to the public for a ticket. The argument extends to the grand public buildings as well. It is deeply ironical that a citizen of India can visit the British Houses of Parliament (without any special permission or letters, just the entrance fee) but has no access to his/ her own Parliament.
If I could use one analogy to drive this point home, it would be this – more people visit the Eiffel Tower in an average year than India. One monument in Europe attracts more visitors than our entire nation. Someone needs to reflect on that.