Time Stops At Bow Street
Tucked away on the south of Bepin Behari Ganguly Street, Bow Street appears straight out of the pages of your High School history textbook. It's a different world in itself. Being an admirer of old buildings and architecture for a long time, I was swept off my feet by the colonial feel and look of the place, the moment I got out of the car. The brick-red coloured buildings on both the sides of the historic alley are truly objects of visual treat. The place breathes an aura of the colonial British Raj and personifies history, culture, ethnicity and warmth. I was immediately transported to a completely different time span.
Renowned historian P. Thankappan Nair, in his book The History of Calcutta's Streets states that "Bow Street (formally known as Bowbazar Lane) was originally called Meeru Jauney Gully. This is evident from the letter dated May 15, 1799, Wednesday, addressed by Thomas Hollingbery and Robert Kneln, proprietors, managers and printers of the Calcutta Courier to G.H. Barlow, Esq., Secretary to the Government. The Calcutta Courier was published from 3, Meeru Jauney Gully."
Today, Bow Street is synonymous with the Bow Street Flats — popularly known as Bow Barracks—which was built for the soldiers of the World War II. Later, it was handed over to the Calcutta Improvement Trust.
During my exploration, I learnt that the Barracks consists of seven blocks of one, two and three roomed flats. They were originally provided for Anglo-Indians by the Calcutta Improvement Trust and that the flats were a big success. In 1929-30 the 132 units generated a rental income of rupees 36,636 for the Trust.
The architecture of the Barracks is awe-inspiring. Brian Paul Bach in his book Calcutta's Edifice states, "The influence of Halsey Ricardo and others can be seen in these Calcutta Arts & Crafts blocks. Compactness, conciseness and simplicity are the guidelines. Elegant references in cornices, arches, and shutters all work together in repetitive units which nevertheless seem varied."
Don't be surprised if you continue to crane your neck while walking down the alley. Two bright red brick buildings on either sides of the street and right down the middle of these you have the blue sky greeting you with open arms. What an experience this is.
But the importance of Bow Street does not end with the physicality of the alley and the buildings. Unlike numerous other streets of the city, the true spirit of Bow Street lies with the residents of the Bow Barracks. The warmth, affection and friendliness of the people staying here will never cease to impress you. This place is perhaps the best example of people living in a closely-knit community where love and harmony blossoms all around. So, if you happen to be a discerning visitor on Bow Street, don't be surprised if you hear Engelbert Humperdinck, Nat King Cole, Jim Morrison or Elvis Presley and, of course, Bob Dylan singing out to you or hear a mamma asking her child to check the pork vindaloo on the stove.
Bow Street and its warm-hearted people still exude an old-world charm and we can guarantee that you will fall in love with the place and its people. You must come and hear the anecdotes that the good folks have to share. Witness the hockey matches, football matches or hear the little ones narrate their day at school or see them taking a walk with their grandpa. During our tour, we found out that there are some families who have been staying at the Barracks for the last six decades. We also learnt from the elderly ones how Calcutta has changed and developed over the years. You can re-learn history here, only this time it will be more interesting.
Bow Street has so much to offer and although you can come here at any time of the year, but this is THE place to visit during Christmas and New Year. No one celebrates Christmas the way it is celebrated at Bow Barracks. The celebration starts from December 23 and continues till January 1. The buildings are decorated with lights and streamers. A huge stage is erected in the middle of the road to provide a platform for the week long musical performances. Cakes and wine (grape and ginger) are made in huge quantities at each home. A dance competition is also organised where residents across age groups participate and enjoy themselves.
Many relatives of residents of Bow Barracks who are currently in Australia, England, Canada and the U.S. come down to join their family in the celebrations. And that's not all. The magic of Christmas, definitely, spreads far beyond the residents of the Barrack. The lesser privileged people (children and the elderly) from the close vicinity of the locality are invited to be part of the celebrations. And no guest visiting the Bow Barracks during this season goes back without having the cake and wine.
“Bow Barracks is the only cosmopolitan quarter of the city with a distinct architectural character which still survives. It is our collective responsibility to ensure its protection and embrace the festivals at Bow Barracks during Christmas. I do it every year with my family. My daughter loves to stand in a long queue with the children at Bow Barracks for a handshake with Santa. She learnt to sing Jingle Bell at Bow Barracks when she was just three,” states Manish Chakraborti, an architect, urban planner and conservator.
Bow Street is where tradition and heritage join hands with the human spirit to celebrate life.